After a trophy-less debut season, the heat has been turned up on Louis van Gaal. With his first season proving a baptism by fire (and injury) the Dutchman has re-enforced his side to challenge on all fronts, with the necessary depth to cover for any eventualities
‘We aim for second’ was Van Gaal’s rallying cry at United’s Players’ Awards at the close of last season. Though inebriated, the Dutchman had a point, as he felt United needed to raise their own level of expectation in order to inspire its fans to do the same. A familiar sense of wanting coloured the faces of the Old Trafford faithful, as many situations of ‘what could’ve been’ plagued their conscience. A spat of sudden injuries at the close of last season relegated them to fourth and not the prospective second, a defensive lapse cost them a first home loss against Arsenal in 11 years, and Di Maria and Falcao flattered to deceive.
With another summer of spending, Van Gaal seems to have brought players according to his philosophy, instead of flash in the pan superstars. Proven warriors like Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger were bought along with the under-the-radar talents of Matteo Darmian. Strung together by prodigious Dutch winger Memphis Depay, United are slowly being built in van Gaal’s image, and expectations lie nowhere but the very top.
1. A More Stable Defence
A ludicrous statement to make in light of United’s failure to sign a centre-back. However, what is important to understand is the context of United’s defensive failings last season: United had the 4th best defence in the league last season. In a campaign with 26 different back fours and 9 different centre-back pairings, that’s quite remarkable.
A majority of United’s defensive failings however, came due to United’s makeshift, chop and change full-backs and midfield. Not a natural right-back, Valencia filled in for the injury plagued right back to an admirable extent, yet, he was found out of position more times than he would’ve liked due to his natural propensity to bomb up forward, and not in reverse.
On the left, United’s 27 million pound signing, Luke Shaw, struggled for both form and fitness, being replaced by the less agile Daley Blind, as well as pulling Marcos Rojo out of his preferred centre back spot. What these changes did in effect, is that they pull the centre-backs out wide, leaving space in the centre in front of goal largely unpicked, perfect for a well timed cross.
If the pre-season performances of Matteo Darmian and Shaw are anything to go by, United will have fewer problems and greater depth in the full back spots, adding some much needed stability.
United’s problems in the midfield exposed a similar weakness, as the lack of a true anchorman led to a disorganised defence. Players like Herrera, Fellaini and Di Maria have a natural disposition to be in places of attacking midfield, leaving the space behind them perfect for a quick counter attack. This meant that a large amount of pressure was put on Daley Blind to distribute and defend, both quickly and effectively.
The entry of Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger will no doubt shore-up the defence, and organise it so that there are fewer players playing out of position. The entry of Schneiderlin as a box-to-box midfielder will enable the centre-backs to have one less thing to worry about.
The renaissance of Chris Smalling is also an immensely positive sign for United. Despite the presence of Carrick and Schweinsteiger, Smalling is United’s second captain, displaying the immense amount of faith the manager has in the former Fulham man. Smalling was the only defender to come out with his reputation intact, and with an increased role as a leader, he looks set to have a career defining campaign at United.
2. Depth in Midfield
A little over a year ago, United’s main midfielders were Anderson, Darren Fletcher, Tom Cleverley, Maroune Fellaini and Michael Carrick. Now, United have Daley Blind, Ander Herrera, Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger along with the last two mentioned before. While the pre-season is largely used for experimentation, Van Gaal seems to be moving towards a double pivot system, with an attacking midfielder.
Morgan Schneiderlin worked well with both Carrick and Schweinsteiger. The latter two however, would not be a good combination at the heart of United’s midfield due to their similarities in playing style. Bayern experienced the same problem with Schweinsteiger and Xabi Alonso.
While doubts are raised regarding Ander Herrera, he is the ideal player to lead a midfield three. Be it as a right central midfielder or a number 10, Ander Herrera has done surprisingly well for United. With a year of Premier League action under his belt, Herrera should be better able to judge the game, as well as staying fit for longer spells of time.
On paper, the ideal midfield three would consist of Schneiderlin, Carrick or Schweinsteiger, and Ander Herrera. With Daley Blind and Fellaini, the equation gets a little more complicated. Blind’s shift to centre-back in the pre-season seems like van Gaal has a more defensive role for him in mind. In a pinch however, he functions as a decent defensive midfielder, one that would pair well with Morgan Schneiderlin.
Maroune Fellaini had become an unlikely source of salvation for Louis van Gaal’s campaign, proving a match winning presence in a crucial period for United. His capabilities in bringing the ball from defence to attack, as well as proving a nuisance for centre-backs, makes him more than a solid back-up option, and one that van Gaal will use effectively against more dogged defences.
3. More from Rooney
It comes as little surprise that Wayne Rooney’s two most productive seasons in front of goal were those when he was played as a striker throughout. The sight of Rooney dropping to the deeper midfield positions, with alarming regularity, stunted both United’s attack as well as Rooney’s own abilities.
While this Rooney might not be the bald, devil-may-care striker that he once was, he still possesses the quality and ability. Despite playing in the midfield role for a good 40% of the season, Rooney was still United’s top scorer, albeit with a paltry return of 13 goals.
His performances against the likes of Liverpool, Tottenham and City were pivotal to United’s late season resurgence, exhibiting exactly what he can do when tasked with leading the attacking line. With a stronger more productive midfield behind him, as well as fast paced wingers like Depay (and prospectively Pedro) to assist him, Rooney will have to concentrate less on creating play and more on what he’s naturally suited to – finishing.
The pre-season might not have proved as a perfect exemplification of this fact, but Rooney is still learning to adapt with new players, in a new system, with a whole new set of demands.
The burden of captaincy might also be eased this season, with the presence of figures like Bastian Schweinsteiger, who has served as a midfield general for both Bayern and Germany. The German captain can also be a big influence on Rooney as his expertise can only aid Rooney to become a better player and captain.
While some quarters might still fancy Rooney as a midfielder to prolong his career, the former Everton man is far from ‘past-it’ and with newer, more productive additions, the expectations on Rooney’s shoulders will be much higher than they previously were.
4. The Youth
United’s pre-season did exactly what it was supposed to do – expose the youth players to the first team. The manner in which they did however, pleased van Gaal greatly. Speaking after United’s 3-1 triumph over Barcelona, van Gaal noted:
a Yes I was very happy with the reaction of the youngsters because they were more aggressive and that I always want. They were defending more, going forwards and, okay, sometimes you make the wrong choices and you are always the loser, but that is also useful. But it was a team with the spirit. We created chances and we scored two goals with the youngsters so I am very happy.a
Coming off a successful U-20 World Cup, Andreas Pereira reminded everyone of the quality he possesses, linking United’s attacking from the wing, and scoring a brilliantly timed header in the process. Sam Johnstone also impressed in goal, playing three halves throughout the pre-season. Whilst a loan move is most likely for him, the signs are good for United, who should monitor his development closely.
Squad members such as Januzaj, McNair and Wilson all showed the hunger and willingness to perform, definitely a positive sign for the manager heading into the busy new season.
With a tenuous first season over, van Gaal now has the resources to carry out his philosophy more effectively. One key area of that philosophy is youth development. Having unearthed the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Muller from the academies of Barcelona and Bayern Munich respectively, van Gaal will now be more able to blood the youth in and bring the best out of the prodigious talents that United possess.
5. The Unexpected
If Louis van Gaal’s first season is anything to go by, his trigger happy tendency to change is not likely to diminish. Though injuries as well as loss in form hampered his first campaign, van Gaal now has the ability to chop and change based of his wide array of differently talented players, each with their own niche and situational adaptability.
Balance and stability will however be necessary to achieve, and consistency throughout the season will enable United to have a solid base on which to grow. Van Gaal spoke to ManchesterUnited.com, regarding the importance of squad balance:
a The balance of the team is the most important thing. Last year we won against the Champions League winner, it was Real [Madrid] at that time. Now we win against Barcelona so it is possible, but we also had a bit of luck. Three balls hit the post but I was pleased with our performance. Also in the second half, when the youngsters came in, you saw a spirit. We had the same amount of chances as Barcelona and that I like the most today.a
No player is guaranteed their spot in the starting eleven, barring David De Gea and Wayne Rooney, as reputation and price-tag carry little weight. Van Gaal regularly substituted Angel Di Maria for Adnan Januzaj, displaying perfectly that form is the only thing that’ll keep you in van Gaal’s plans, regardless of any external circumstance.
Pragmatism and perseverance will be key to Manchester United’s endeavors this season around. Van Gaal has everything he needs now to fully implement his style of play, and leave his own indelible mark on the fabled history of Manchester United. While inevitable fitness issues will arise, van Gaal will be able to adapt to them better, given that he now has a greater understanding of the English game.
Time will tell how effective United’s summer overhaul will be, but one thing is for certain – anything can happen under Louis van Gaal.