One year ago Manchester United fans were urged to stand by their manager as Sir Alex Ferguson exited the stage. One year ago Manchester United were struggling to find a rhythm, some form, a system, or even a win on a pre-season tour of Asia. Perhaps the Chinese five-spice powder and defensive posture of a Moyes system just did not sit well in the stomachs of the player’s as they began a tumultuous Premier League season. Anything short of a lobotomy would not have been enough to salvage the first team and Van Gaal has gutted the process and mindsets and installed a system that is working. An average of 3.2 goals per game against opponents that finished no lower than 5th in their respective Italian, Spanish, and English leagues is no small task and evidence that LVG demands excellence even in lower key pre-season fledglings.
The system and mentality of playing three defenders, four if you include DeGea’s number of touches in the win over Liverpool, still needs some work but is proving effective against teams that expect a typical 4-4-2 system with balls coming up the flanks. You could see the tactic of drawing the Liverpool forwards into the United back three and then a controlled counter either from the wings and down the side or through the middle work to spread out the field of play and disorient the midfield. It is comforting to know that United is using the central defenders as a tactic and not because the midfield is under duress and has no other options to move the ball forward.
There is still some area of concern in how the United players are breaking down opponents in the middle of the pitch 18-25 yards out. The team looks uncomfortable with the ball at their feet in close proximity while trying to get through balls past defences to hit the centre forwards on clever runs. The Moyes year saw unflattering numbers of crosses from the wings game after game with absolutely no intention of breaking down defences inside the 18 yard box. Louis Van Gaal will no doubt change this with Mata in a proper # 10 role and the re-introduction of Fletcher and promise of Herrera. This mentality and training is going to take some work and will be absolutely necessary against the top four teams in the Premier League that are well adjusted to defending crosses as a common style of play in the English game. Questioning the innovation of the current midfield staff is going to be one of Van Gaal’s bigger decisions in the next weeks to come. The decision to bring in additional players or eliminate non-performers from the midfield will be based on this analysis.
Graduation day for the Manchester United youngsters will culminate sooner rather than later. The performances of the young Manchester United players has been impressive and adds a layer of depth to the squad when needed especially against lesser impact games against lower tier teams throughout the year. The likes of Powell, Keane, Blackett, and Lingard are encouraging signs that the academy and reserve structure is working and under Van Gaal will no doubt continue to flourish. Whether or not they have enough quality for Van Gaal not to buy new players is yet to be seen. Can someone like Fletcher or Evans mentor this group enough to have them ready for first team starts in the event they are needed?
We learned over the course of the last 45 days that Van Gaal and the players are taking the reputation of Manchester United seriously again. The hiatus is over, the World Cup is long gone, and EVERY game is imperative. To win is to earn confidence and gain momentum. That momentum turns to glory but it will come at a price for those seeking asylum from the gruelling regimen that will be Van Gaal’s litmus test for first team survival. There is now a level of dedication from the players that has rejuvenated the team and put the focus back on winning and not on what tactic are we playing today. Perhaps the days of thumping lesser opponents with a Rooney or RVP hat trick or a nail-biting second half comeback led by steadfast perseverance are back. The pre-season tour certainly offers Manchester United hope that each and every game will be filled with innovative strategies, goals, and play-makers you might not expect.