True, victory at Villa Park might have moved the Red Devils back to within five points of top spot — that, of course, before leaders Chelsea face Stoke City tonight.
Yet do not be fooled.
This side look anything but champions-elect and this somewhat fortuitous draw against Aston Villa’s 10 men merely proved what many have suspected during a previous six-game winning sequence which, while propelling them to the cusp of contention, had largely flattered to deceive.
And until Van Gaal finds an equilibrium in the way his team line up, third is the best they can hope for.
United adopted Van Gaal’s favoured back three yet even when the Dutchman tinkered at half-time, reverting to a flat back four, tactically Villa were superior and were always a threat with the counter-attacking game which has become their trademark under Paul Lambert.
Van Gaal boasts an attack dripping with world-class talent, yet his attempts to crowbar into the side Falcao, Robin van Persie, Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney — who found himself in a deep-lying midfield role — came unstuck.
United right now are less than the sum of their parts — and unless Van Gaal swiftly finds a formula — either through more recruitment, as is likely next month, or by finally stumbling upon a formation that works — then do not expect the Red Devils to be looking back ruing those two points missed out on here come the campaign.
Falcao’s second-half header — his first goal since October 5 — cancelled out Christian Benteke’s fine opener, yet the contest was later overshadowed by referee Lee Mason’s controversial dismissal of Gabriel Agbonlahor for a relatively innocuous challenge on former Villa team-mate Ashley Young.
Defender Jonny Evans said: “We had possession but never really created chances, apart from the goal. When they went down to 10, we thought we’d create more but it wasn’t to be.
“We should have gone on to win, after they’d gone down to 10 and we had the goal early in the second half, but it is a busy period and we have to keep that run of not losing going.
“Can we cope with the busy festive period? We have the experience from the Champions League and Christmases before. It tests the squad, but everyone gets playing time and it’s great to be involved.”
Little had appeared on as Fabian Delph’s free-kick found Benteke at the back post, yet he controlled superbly, twisted Jonny Evans inside out and bent a shot superbly inside the left post.
It was a real moment of magic from Benteke, who looked back to his brilliant best after a recent suspension delayed his comeback from a long-term injury.
But Villa’s resistance was finally broken in the 53rd minute when Falcao emphatically buried Young’s left-wing delivery with a bullet header.
Evans added of the Colombian: “He did very well, got his goal, and that suits him perfectly — crosses in the box. It was a good header. He has that predator instinct, if you look at his record it’s headers and one touch finishes. He has great movement.”
Then came the controversy. Young and Agbonlahor hurtled towards one another as they vied for a 50/50 challenge, it was Young who was left crumpled in a heap and Mason reacted by reaching for his red card — leaving Agbonlahor and the Villa Park crowd stunned.
Villa plan to appeal the decision — and perhaps stand a good chance of being successful — and boss Paul Lambert plans to contact referees’ chief Mike Riley after his team had a third player dismissed in a matter of weeks.
The boss also revealed Young had informed goalkeeper Brad Guzan that he had fouled Agbonlahor.
The goalkeeper said: “I definitely didn’t expect a red card. Obviously the ref has seen it differently and those are the breaks in football. I know Youngy from when he was here at Villa, obviously, and we got on really well. I had a bit of a chat with him as we were coming into the tunnel and it is what it is. You’ve got to get on with it.
“More important than the actual call was our response after the red card and the fact we were down a man against a top Manchester United team, to come away with a point is a decent result.”
ASTON VILLA (3-5-2): Guzan 7; Okore 8, Vlaar 7, Clark 7; Lowton 7, Sanchez 7, Delph 7, Weimann 7 (N’Zogbia 79), Cissokho 7 (Bacuna, 79); Benteke 8, Agbonlahor 7.
MAN UNITED (3-4-1-2): De Gea 7; Jones 6, Carrick 6, Evans 6; Valencia 5 (Wilson 73), Fletcher 6 (Blackett 46, 6), Rooney 5, Young 7; Mata 5; Falcao 6, Van Persie 4 (Di Maria 60, 6).
Referee: Lee Mason.