For all the anticipation of Manchester United’s return to action on Saturday at Old Trafford; the Spurs game was ultimately something of an anti-climax. Despite securing a narrow win against the London club, fans of United were left with just as many questions as answers by the time the final whistle went. It is a concerning narrative for all connected to the club and one that could easily be applied to United’s transfer market activity should significant action not be taken before the window closes. Despite the frantic early promise in the arrivals of Messrs Depay, Darmian, Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger; so weak is this United team in other key areas that Mr Van Gaal faces the real danger of embarking upon his second campaign without the necessary tools to improve upon last year’s performance. It’s been a confusing few weeks at Old Trafford.
Heading into the summer it seemed like a straightforward fix; fill the positions of centre-half, right back, centre-midfield, centre-forward and for the love of all that is good hang onto that goalkeeper. Allow Van Gaal to continue building his Kingdom. Things are rarely so simple. With a little over three weeks remaining in the transfer window and with the season already started; there are massive concerns in a number of key areas. The team still lacks a commanding centre-half to partner the increasingly impressive Chris Smalling, the future of the clubs first choice goalkeeper and best player remains unresolved and they don’t make instruments big enough to measure just how far up the creek without a paddle United will be if the half fit, half able Wayne Rooney gets injured. Add to this the early departure of the club’s record signing and there is substantial cause for concern. A convincing win over Tottenham would have calmed nerves significantly. What took place merely added to the confusion.
The Red’s most successful outings last season accompanied the use of a single pivot four-three-three formation and the prospect of the new additions slotting into this system was mouth-watering. There would be choice of Carrick or Schweinsteiger in sitting deep and ahead of them Morgan Schneiderlin was the perfect partner for Ander Herrera to continue the Lord’s work and build on an impressive debut campaign. Out on the left wing Memphis Depay would be a significant upgrade on the industrious yet limited Ashley Young. Then the season came along and Reds were reminded that you can’t always get what you want. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the manager had decided that a four-two-three-one formation would be the best fit for the personnel available. This meant a central role for one of the best young wide forwards in European football and the bench for last year’s best outfield performer. Instead of a repeat of the exuberant attacking football of last spring, we were once again in the mire of last winter’s lumbering, blunt, death-by-possession waiting game.
The tendency is to put this down to the unexplained eccentricity of Louis Van Gaal. Whilst it’s true that the manager’s mind works in a manner few others do, the truth of the situation may be somewhat simpler. Last season the manager chose to use a three-five-two formation to make up for a lack of protection from a midfield stopper. This season, with an embarrassment of riches in midfield, he’s opted to play two shielding midfielders ahead of a defence he no longer trusts.
Against Tottenham Michael Carrick played in his familiar deep lying position next to the more robust presence of Morgan Schneiderlin in a box-to-box role. Whether the Frenchman was instructed to play as a secondary protector is uncertain but such is the nature of his game that he found himself just as deep as his midfield counterpart on a number of occasions. Both players are very capable with the ball at their feet but in this instance their partnership lacked vertical thrust and became an exhibition in lateral passing. It appears that for now, Van Gaal is happy to sacrifice the dynamic and incisive presence of Ander Herrera for the sake of more frugal engine room. As a result United again found themselves struggling to create the chances required to win games.
Beyond the midfield, the front four of Young, Depay, Mata and Rooney struggled to make an impact in a counter-intuitive setup which saw the quickest attacker on the books placed in a pivoting position where his pace isn’t required. Flanked either side by a runner that can’t really pass and a passer that can’t really run; it made the task of providing for an off-the-pace Wayne Rooney nigh on impossible. If the Captain is to score anywhere near the amount of goals required of him then the players around and behind him need to be on form. It helps when they’re played in the right position.
It all comes back to the defence. Van Gaal has already alluded to playing a similar four-three-three formation to the one that brought the team success last year. It may be tweaked to involve a number ten as we saw from the Dutchman’s time at Ajax, but the task remains the same. We’ll put to one side the fact that the manager has signed far too many players if he’s planning a midfield two. In order to create sufficient chances for a less than prolific striker, the shackles must be loosened somewhat and a more dynamic presence – Herrera or another – placed back in the centre of midfield. In order to loosen the shackles the manager must trust his defence. In order to trust his defence the manager must bring in a commanding and decisive presence to partner Chris Smalling. Aside from issues of quality, he must also be able to trust they can stay fit. Sort out the defence, which sorts out the midfield, which can then support the attack.
If this issue is not addressed; Louis Van Gaal is ensuring yet another campaign is spent competing for a top four place rather than having any designs on a title challenge. It’s simply unfathomable that Manchester United can spend a year treading water after such serious spending. To begin last season with such a dearth of defensive quality can be put down to a lack of familiarity on the manager’s part with his playing staff. After a season which saw an average of just twenty-seven appearances in all competitions from his four senior defenders; to do so again would be staggeringly negligent. It’s time to continue this summer’s good work and sign the necessary players for this squad. Pedro Rodriguez looks certain to join from Barcelona and supplement the attack from wide, but that alone won’t be enough. With just three weeks remaining in the transfer window; Mr Van Gaal now enters the most critical period of his Manchester United career. He must make it count.