As Manchester United look to consolidate their position among the top 4, manager Louis Van Gaal still has a lot of questions to answer.
The Premier League season is still in its infancy, the Champions League has just begun, while the start of the other 2 cup competitions is on the horizon. But despite all the activity over the last two seasons, Manchester United still seem far from being a complete team.
Few positions are overloaded with full internationals while others are crying out for replacements. Players are being played out of position and the feeling remains that Van Gaal is trying to put square pegs in round holes. Here, TheHardTackle looks at 3 prime areas for the Dutch tactician to ponder over.
Shaw injury will unsettle the defence
Many expected United to struggle defensively this season and the fact that they have not has been due to the rise of Chris Smalling and the return of Luke Shaw to his Southampton self. But the latter is out till atleast March with a double fracture in his right leg, sustained in the midweek Champions League tie against PSV Eindhoven.
To replace the Englishman, Van Gaal can shift Daley Blind to the left as the Holland international has experience playing on the left hand side. But the problem with this approach will be the need to find a partner for Smalling in defence and more importantly break a successful centre-back pairing.
The other option is to play either Marcos Rojo or Ashley Young in the full back position. While the former is comfortable in the position, there are doubts over his fitness for an extended run of games. The latter, meanwhile was used in a similar role last season and might be open to this opportunity to get more game time, but doubts remain as to whether he is good enough to play as a full back against the top teams.
Van Gaal might also shift to a back 3 of Smalling, Blind and Rojo supported by Young & Matteo Darmian as wing backs. He favours this approach as he showed last season but given the fact that the team has looked more solid with 4 at the back it would be a big surprise if United do indeed line up this way against Southampton on Sunday.
What role will Anthony Martial play
In an ideal scenario both Memphis Depay & Martial would like to play on the left and cut in and drive at the opposition’s defence. But that position is open for only one individual and it seems that Van Gaal is going to stick with his compatriot for that role. Well, where does that leave Martial?
He could be asked to play on the right but he does not have the inclination to play as a winger unlike Cristiano Ronaldo who started out in a similar role. He could be asked to play as a number. 10 but very few would agree that he currently has the tools to play as a link man between midfield and attack. This is a position which requires your very best players playing at their peak and Martial does not fit into that box for now.
The one possibility that remains is to continue playing Martial as a number 9 with Wayne Rooney supporting him. The Frenchman certainly has the pace to play off the shoulder of the last defender but it remains to be seen whether he has the strength to play as a target man and lead the line on his own.
Alternative to Rooney has to be found
The injury to Shaw has again highlighted how fickle this game is and how your best laid plans can go out of the window in a jiffy. Imagine for one second that Wayne Rooney were to suffer a long term injury. There is no other team among the top European clubs including Real Madrid & Barcelona who rely on one individual to this extent. He is the one genuine world class player in the United squad and none of the other options are fit to tie his laces let alone walk in his shoes.
So where does this leave Van Gaal? He has to play Rooney knowing fully well that an injury or loss of form to his captain & best player will effectively derail Uniteda s campaign. The only way out for now, is to keep him fit & firing till January and then splash the cash. But big money moves in January are fraught with danger as players are generally cup-tied and/or take some time in gelling with the new team.
There is then a lot to deliberate on for Van Gaal as United look to bounce back from the midweek defeat in the Champions League.