Expectations have been raised at Manchester United with Louis van Gaal at the helm
Author: Karate Jesus
At the beginning of the summer, pre-World Cup, most United fans would have been of the opinion that success in the following season would be a top 4 finish and that this would be dependent on a raft of new signings for the newly appointed Louis van Gaal to work with. Expectations then began to become distorted, as Van Gaal’s unfancied Dutch team first spanked the world champions, Spain, 5-1, and then proceeded to the semi-finals of the competition before losing on penalties to Argentina without actually having lost a game. On this evidence, supporters began to think, Van Gaal can clearly work wonders with a squad of limited players that, Robben apart, is inferior to the United squad, even without new signings.
Confidence, excitement and expectation were then further increased during the pre-season tour of America. Whilst fully aware that this was a pre-season tournament, it was hard not to be impressed by United’s performances; given the tripe served up last season, the interplay between players and the goals scored were akin to fresh water after a desert marathon. With the expected addition of players once the team returned from the tour, there was a case for genuine optimism going into the new season. It is less than fourteen days since the squad returned from America and the bubble of optimism has been well and truly burst. It will be dawning on all connected with United that performances in pre-season don’t count for anything and that the problems that existed at the end of last season, Moyes aside, are still there.
There’s obviously been a number of major errors that have been made in the last eighteen month. Everyone is familiar with these errors (letting Gill and Ferguson go together, getting Moyes, letting Moyes tear up the coaching structure, failure in last summer’s transfer window etc) and there is unfortunately nothing that can be done about them. What United need to do now, however, is address the problems that they do currently have and the big problem Van Gaal faces is that United’s squad is imbalanced, bloated with deadwood and short of top quality in all positions bar their goalkeeper and forward line.
A case of no defence
So, as everyone is aware, it is essential that players are brought in. With only two week left before the transfer window closes, the club simply have to bring in significant additions if they are to give themselves a fighting chance of qualifying for the Champions League next season. It has to be stated that this isn’t just a situation where supporters want signings for the sake of it; you only have to look at the fact that United currently only have five recognised, senior defenders (Rafael, Jones, Smalling, Evans and Shaw). This would be negligible for any Premier League club, let alone Manchester United, especially when you consider the ages, and fitness record, of those five players.
Considering the defence, regardless of whether United end up playing with three centre backs or two on a regular basis, it is clear that at least one top class player is needed. It appears highly likely that the Sporting Lisbon defender, Rojo, will arrive, and I imagine he was the plan B to Vermaelen’s plan A, in which case United have dodged a bullet. Regardless of the Rojo situation, it would appear at least one further central defender is being targeted as well and, reading between the lines, Benatia may be the plan B to Hummels’ plan A. Given the rumours today about Bayern Munich being close to signing Benatia, you have to hope there have a good plan C.
‘If I made you an offer so ridiculous, you’d be forced to consider it?’
The need for a plan C, for any position, is ridiculous, however. United, through Ed Wooward, are keen to brief that they can sign any player and that the money is there. If this is correct, then why haven’t United gone and bought the top targets that Van Gaal has identified? This question is the one that lots of fans are already asking and the lack of incoming players is seeing a growing number of people come to the conclusion that either Woodward is incompetent or that United don’t want to spend money, or both. A fair conclusion at the current moment in time is that United are either naïve and ignorant or, worse still, liars. United’s approach to transfers appears to be handcuffed by the concept that they have to get players at the value they feel is correct. I would therefore recommend somebody play, on a loop, to Ed Woodward, the following scene from Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’-
Calvin Candie: [to Django] So, bright boy, Moguy tells me you looked over my African flesh and you was none too impressed, huh?
Django: Not for top dollar.
Calvin Candie: Well, then, we got nothing more to talk about. You see, you want to buy a beat ass n****r from me, those are the beat ass n*****s I want to sell, so…
Django: He don’t wanna buy the n*****s you wanna sell. He wants the n****r you don’t wanna sell.
Calvin Candie: Well, I don’t sell the n****r I don’t wanna sell.
Dr. King Schultz: Well, you won’t sell your best. You won’t even sell your second best, but your third best? You don’t wanna sell either, but if I made you an offer so ridiculous, you’d be forced to consider it? [laughs]
Dr. King Schultz: Who knows what could happen?
Calvin Candie: And what do you consider “ridiculous?”
Dr. King Schultz: For a truly talented specimen, the right n****r? How much would you say, Django?
Django: …12,000 dollars.
Calvin Candie: Gentleman, you had my curiosity, now you have my attention.
If, for example, Mats Hummels was Van Gaal’s top target this summer, why hasn’t an offer been made to Borussia Dortmund that they cannot refuse. It might mean paying £10-20 million more than the player is worth but that’s what happens when you want to buy the best players. A similar situation happened with Fabregas last summer. He was Moyes’ top target and United bid £25 million and then £30 million and then stopped. Why not bid £45 million, if he is the one you want? Instead, United ended up spending £65 million combined on Fellaini and Mata*, when Fabregas was a far better fit for United’s requirements.
*that is not intended as a comment on Mata’s ability, I think he is a great player but did we need him more than a player like Fabregas? No.
So, yes, how United approach bringing in players has to change and supporters have to hope that this change happens immediately as it will be harder to attract the calibre of players that the club needs if United suffer another season of disappointment.
Muddle of a middle
In addition to at least two defenders, the need for another central midfielder is also obvious. United need a minimum of four central midfielders and whilst they currently have five, the quality of these players is not sufficient. Herrera and Carrick are good enough to be considered second and third choice options, however, Fletcher, Cleverley and Fellaini are not. Having one or two of them in the squad as back up is fine but having them as key components? It’s not good enough. There’s been a lot of smoke regarding Arturo Vidal this summer and my gut feeling is United will get him although there’s nothing concrete for believing that, it’s just my hunch. The impression I get is that Daley Blind is the back-up option to Vidal as, if he was a prime target, why hasn’t that transfer already been completed? It would make no sense, although admittedly, little about United in the transfer market appears to. With regard to Kevin Strootman, I’d expect him to be at United within the next twelve months but I think that would be in addition to, and not instead of, Vidal or Blind.
Not flying without wings
The other name that has been linked heavily with a move to Old Trafford this summer is Angel Di Maria, and the flames were fanned when Van Gaal recently name-checked him when discussing quality wide attackers. I’ve seen a lot of people question where Di Maria would fit in at United, given the current 3-5-2 formation that Van Gaal has used so far. Personally speaking, the signing of Di Maria would provide resolution to the biggest decision that Van Gaal will need to make as to how he is going to set his team up; namely, the decision that there is not room for both Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie in the same United team. On the surface it seems perverse to suggest playing our best two players together is a problem. However, it’s the suggestion I’m going to run with.
If United only had Rooney or only had Van Persie, there is no doubt in my mind that Van Gaal would have set United up in a 4-3-3 formation. The 3-5-2 has been implemented with the belief that, given our paucity of top class, you simply have to find a place for both Rooney and Van Persie and that, once the latter has found fitness, the team need to be adept at playing in this formation. I am of the opinion that Van Gaal will quickly realise, when Van Persie returns, that playing him up front with Rooney isn’t going to work. The reason for this? The same as why they didn’t work together last season; neither have genuine pace and playing both, especially when Mata is the number 10, means United are too easy to defend against as there is no pace in United’s forward line.
The suggestion that United will be playing with a 4-3-3 formation sooner rather than later is reinforced by the belief that Van Gaal will quickly realise he cannot leave both Januzaj and Welbeck out of the side as they provide a threat and unpredictability that isn’t there when neither play. It’s no coincidence, for example, that United looked significantly stronger in pre-season before Danny Welbeck got injured. The problem that Van Gaal currently faces, if he does implement a 4-3-3, is that Januzaj and Welbeck are probably the only two players in the current squad who are ideally suited as the flank support for a forward three. A couple of years ago, Nani would have been a good option there as well but he is nearing the point of full regression after two injury hit years.
The addition of Di Maria would therefore enhance the options available to Van Gaal for a 4-3-3 formation. Ideally, you would have four players for this position but, for now, United would have to use youngsters or an out of position striker (i.e. Rooney) as back up to Di Maria, Januzaj and Welbeck. If Di Maria doesn’t prove attainable, and it’s no give that he would want to come even if United did stump up the cash, then it will be interesting to see if United had any plan B or plan C for this position. Memphis Depay of PSV Eindhoven may be the logical one.
The concern I have at the moment is that Van Gaal will only reach the conclusion that it needs to be either/or Rooney and Van Persie once the transfer window closes. On the plus side, unlike his predecessor, I don’t think Van Gaal will be afraid of making a big decision once this conclusion is reached. Rooney may have been made captain and Van Persie may be a favourite son but if playing both together is counter-productive for the team as a whole, expect one to be sidelined. Do not, therefore, be surprised if one of Rooney or Van Persie is not at United in twelve months time.
What will happen in the next few weeks?
How United line up against QPR in the first home game after the transfer window closes may be an indication of how the season will pan out. If it’s a 3-5-2 formation with Rooney and Van Persie in front of Mata, and Rojo and Blind as the only new faces, there will be cause for major concern. In contrast there will be genuine cause for optimism if it’s a 4-3-3 formation with a midfield of Vidal and Herrera behind Mata supporting a forward line of Di Maria, Januzaj and Rooney/van Persie. The reality is that it will be somewhere in between although it speaks volumes of the perception of the club at this time that almost everybody will laugh at the possibility of the second suggested line up. It’s up to those in charge, specifically Ed Woodward, to address this. If they don’t, the crowd at Old Trafford is unlikely to show the patience and understanding that they did last season. To have a bad season, having lost Ferguson, is acceptable. To have another one, because of a failure to strengthen the squad, will not be.