New Manchester United signing Angel Di Maria; from ‘La Decima’ to the decimated
Author: Karate Jesus
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Where are we now?
Three weeks ago, after United slumped to an opening day home defeat to Swansea City (a performance that ‘smashed’ the optimism built up during pre-season, to quote Louis van Gaal), I wrote a piece entitled ‘Where do we go from here?‘; an attempt to highlight what action United needed to take prior to their next home league game, in order for fortune to be turned.
In the subsequent three weeks, United drew their next two league games, lost 0-4 away to Milton Keynes in the League Cup and sold Danny Welbeck to Arsenal. So far, so bad. However, I’m sure if United fans were asked today whether they felt optimistic with respect to the rest of the season, there would be an almost unanimous majority who would answer in the affirmative.
So why so glad? Well, in many respects, football fans during the transfer window are like children at Christmas; the shinier the new toy, the happier they are. The genuinely major shock purchase of Radamel Falcao on deadline day, to continue this analogy, was the equivalent of being given an iPad after believing all the presents had been received. Was it absolutely necessarily? Possibly not. Was it exciting and did it make it the best Christmas ever? Undoubtedly.
Just like an Angel
To begin to ascertain why United are now in a stronger position than they were three weeks ago, we need to rewind from the deadline day capture of Falcao and go back to the arrival of the other big superstar at Old Trafford this summer; Angel Di Maria. In my previous blog, I had stated that United needed to pay heed to the principle applied by Dr Schultz when purchasing Mandingo fighters in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’; namely, if you want to get top quality from reluctant sellers, you have to make a ‘ridiculous’ offer. With the transfer of Di Maria, United applied this logic.
The majority of commenters, at least those unconnected to the club, have been eager to point out that United overpaid considerably for Di Maria, despite his obvious top class ability. Supporters of the club, however, are far more likely to lean towards the view that it was long overdue that United paid the necessary fee to obtain world class talent and that paying £10-15m above a player’s true market value is far preferable to watching another star player go elsewhere due to perceived penny pinching on United’s part.
So what do United get for their £60 million? A player who was man of the match in Real Madrid’s recent ‘La Decima’ Champions League final and who is able to offer top quality on either flank or, as shown last season, as a central midfielder. It is the latter of these positions that Di Maria is likely to take up now that he has joined United, especially following the decision that Arturo Vidal was just too great a risk to bring in, given his price and the uncertainty surrounding his fitness.
Di Maria’s debut at Burnley, despite the disappointing final score, was a good indication that his purchase will significantly improve the side; United have bought a player who is prepared to receive the ball in central areas and carry it forward with speed, who has the ability to beat players and not just look for the easiest pass.
Maria in the middle
I commented previously that the United line up against QPR would provide a good insight into how the season would unfold. I speculated that there would be major cause for concern should Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo be the only signings and were United to persist with a rigid 3-5-2 formation.
Given the signings made since the defeat to Swansea, I believe it is likely that United will adopt, on the face of things, a 4-3-3 formation that will allow Van Gaal to maximise the potential from the new signings that have been brought in. In particular, the ability to compete in and create from central areas should be dramatically enhanced once Di Maria and Ander Herrera link up. Both appear brave and quick of mind as well as foot and, with Blind (or Michael Carrick once fit) sitting behind them in front of two central defenders, they will have the freedom to join attacks that both appear to thrive on.
When assessing what United’s strongest XI now is, it is the identity of the three central midfield players that are the easiest to determine, although Kevin Strootman’s inevitable arrival either in January or next summer, will provide increased competition. As things stand, the only possible deviation from the above, is if Di Maria plays on the flank of a front three.
Blind’s arrival, together with Carrick’s eventual return, should mean that United are well covered in defensive areas as the pressure on fielding three centre-backs is removed. Luke Shaw, once fit, is likely to take the left back position although it’s not unreasonable to believe that Van Gaal may elect to play Rojo there, should he wish to partner Jonny Evans with Phil Jones in the centre-back positions. If Shaw does cement his place then it is likely that Evans and Rojo will fight it out for the left centre-back position with Jones, United’s best performer this season so far, taking the right centre-back spot. With Chris Smalling and Tyler Blackett also in contention, United do have the necessary depth required when playing with two centre backs.
Any concern over this position therefore has to be with regard to quality and, having had three seasons in the shadow of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, it is arguably a make-or-break year for Evans, Jones and Smalling. The latter, in particular, will need to make a good impression if he wishes to retain his position in the squad. The one area in defence where United look short is at right back; my personal hope is that Rafael returns to the first team sooner rather than later and finds the form of eighteen months ago. Antonio Valencia will provide competition for this position, however, if Rafael can’t beat that competition then his days at United will be numbered.
The three places in the team that will lead to the greatest speculation and competition are the three forward places. The first thing to consider is that United could set up their forward three in two different ways; either with two forwards in a wider starting position to the left and right of a central striker, or similarly to as they have been functioning in a 3-5-2, with one player in the number 10 position and two central strikers beyond him. Given my belief that Di Maria will be played in a central midfield position, I believe that the latter of these options is more likely.
The apparent consensus is that Juan Mata will be the fall guy following the arrival of Falcao and that Wayne Rooney will take the number 10 position behind Robin van Persie and Falcao. It is highly likely that this will happen, although I’m surely not alone in hoping that Mata retains his position behind the strikers given this is his best position. Rooney, in comparison, is now far more effective as a goal-scoring centre forward rather than playing a deeper role; on the evidence that Van Gaal has seen so far, you would like to think that he will share this opinion and not buy into the ill-conceived notion that Rooney should play in central midfield (David Moyes, Paul Scholes et al, I’m looking at you).
Opportunities (cost lots of money)
What the arrival of Falcao does, is create uncertainty for all of the forwards currently at the club. The argument that he is an unneeded luxury doesn’t hold true when you consider the performances United have given when using Mata, Van Persie and Rooney as a front three, both under Moyes and in the few games we have seen them under Van Gaal. As a three, they are too one-paced and, in particular in the case of Van Persie and Roooney, there appears to be little to suggest that a strong partnership will ever come to fruition.
Whichever way you look at it, whether Rooney plays behind Van Persie and Falcao or Mata is behind Falcao and one of Rooney or Van Persie, United’s attack, on paper, looks better balanced as a result of the Colombian’s arrival. Given that the deal to bring Falcao is a one-year loan, United can assess the respective performances of their strikers over the next eight months and make a decision as to who, if any, of the above quartet, are surplus to requirements at the end of the season.
In addition to providing real competition for places, Falcao’s arrival has a second positive effect on the club; it brings excitement and impetus to all areas of the club, from supporters to the squad itself. By adding Di Maria and Falcao, United have sprinkled some much needed stardust through the side and, given the absolute crisis of confidence that has enveloped the team during the last twelve months, particularly at Old Trafford, this psychological boost should not be underestimated. These two players, in particular, will play without the suffocating cloud of fear hanging over them. The desperate situation that has arisen whereby sides look forward to visiting Old Trafford, filled with belief that the home side are there for the taking, should soon be eradicated.
Adnan, for doomed youth?
Two players that I have yet to mention, are Adnan Januzaj and James Wilson. In respect of the latter, Welbeck’s unfortunate departure (one I believe driven by the player not the club), and the necessary exit of Javier Hernandez, has seen Wilson rewarded for his rapid progression. This season should primarily be about acclimatising him to the first team squad and any appearances will be a bonus. There is therefore no reason at all for any concern with regard to his development.
In contrast, I am sure there are some United fans who are currently wondering where Januzaj fits in, given the arrivals of Mata, Di Maria and Falcao since the start of the year. Personally, I am not too concerned as I believe he will still get plenty of opportunities given his ability. There will still be occasions that United deploy a forward three with one central striker and two attackers flanking him and, on such occasions, Di Maria and Januzaj are the most likely to fill the flank positions (although Mata and Rooney could also play these roles). In addition, there is also the possibility that he will be used in the number 10 position or as a central striker, depending on how the season progresses and the form he and others show.
Ultimately, breaking into the United team as a regular should be a difficult task and it is a sign that United have grown stronger over the summer that Januzaj is no longer guaranteed a place in the starting XI. In the long run, the battle for selection should make him a better player. On this note, much has been made in the past week of United defiling their identity by moving on Welbeck and Tom Cleverley but the declining standard of quality at Old Trafford in recent years ultimately helped neither.
Everybody else is doing it, so why can’t we?
Taking all of the above into consideration, it is likely that United’s first choice line up will now resemble something similar to the below set up –
In essence, there is little difference between the 3-5-2 seen so far this season and the new formation; the centre backs may be a little closer together with the central player in front of them rather than behind. On reflection, given the above, the formation of the back five players is not the key to success this season. In contrast to popular opinion, United’s early season woes have not been due to a poor defence but, rather, an impotent attack.
The arrival of Di Maria and Falcao should provide a greater level of fluidity to United’s play, in contrast to the stagnant attacking football that was on show in the opening league games. Will this be enough to get them back into the top four? Given the money spent and the significant overhaul at the club over the last six months, United will certainly hope so, although the competition to secure a top four place is stronger this season than it has been for some time and nothing can be guaranteed.
What United have done, however, is put themselves in a much stronger position than they were at the beginning of the summer. They have moved on players whose careers at the club had either stalled (Nani, Hernandez, Cleverley) or never truly began (Shinji Kagawa, Wilfried Zaha) and brought in six players who will hope to become first team regulars.
Of course, not all the deadwood could be shipped out in one summer (Anderson and Marouane Fellaini are unwanted survivors), but the major squad surgery that was required has at least begun in significant earnest. With four new signings since that opening day defeat, together with a shortening injury list, United fans will hope to witness a side that is fitter, happier and more productive when they take on QPR this weekend.
What do you think? Which players will lead the attack in the new look United team and are the signings this summer enough to return Champions League football to Old Trafford next season?