It hasn’t really gone to plan for Manchester United has it? Unwanted records are being broken and despite spending a vast sum in the summer transfer window and shipping out a number of players too, the squad still looks unbalanced.
In amongst the gloom though there have been some signs of encouragement. United’s sharp-shooting attackers appear to be firing and overall the team looks far more imaginative and creative.
Life was always going to be challenging after Fergie rode off into the sunset and thus far the new sheriff of Old Trafford, Louis van Gaal, has witnessed his fair share of the good, the bad and the ugly.
Okay, enough of the western puns.
The attack –
All of last season during David Moyes’ ill-fated reign, United especially against the bigger sides didn’t seem to have any ideas of how to break down opponents or were simply incapable of doing so. Their attacks were sterile, predictable and blunt. Under Moyes, United scored 64 goals in the league, 22 fewer than in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season in charge. Interestingly, United conceded the same number of goals in those two seasons, 43.
This season the signs up front look extremely promising. The additions of Radamel Falcao and Ángel di María have injected an element of fantasy football to United’s frontline. Since their arrivals United has scored four goals against QPR and three against Leicester respectively. Di María has been an instant hit at Old Trafford netting twice already and setting up numerous scoring opportunities too.
Whilst the result against Leicester was disappointing there were signs that the strike partnership of Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao could become very fruitful indeed. The Colombian slipped in van Persie whose shot was smartly saved by Kasper Schmeichel before sending over a peach of a cross for the Dutchman to head home.
This season Wayne Rooney has scored twice though is still flattering to deceive whilst Ander Herrera is chipping in with goals as well. With Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj in reserve United boast a wealth of attacking talent
So far this collection of players haven’t played together long. It’s frightening to think how they’ll perform once they’re settled in, gelled as a unit and fully adapted to the pace of English football.
Ángel di María –
It’s an obvious choice but his impact at United has been immediate. Before di María’s arrival the attack looked ponderous and slow. With him in the side United has a world class player who is capable of breaking at pace, creating chances as well as taking them. He’s an expensive purchase but how United have been crying out for a man of his talents.
Tyler Blackett –
Blackett will experience more lows like his red against Leicester but in a season where United has at best looked shaky at the back the young Mancunian has been an impressive performer.
His appetite for the game and his willingness to learn stands him in good stead. Apparently, Gary Neville when making a visit to Carrington saw Blackett analyzing his performance against Swansea on a laptop.
Lee Clark who managed Blackett at Birmingham noted:
“He is brilliant on the training pitch, he is always asking myself and the coaches to stay behind and do some individual work on his defending and different types of stuff”.
Out of the current crop of defenders Blackett has emerged with the most credit winning the approval of van Gaal and the Old Trafford faithful. Should his development continue he will develop into a fine centre back for the Red Devils.
The defense –
United has only had one win all season against a poor QPR. Even in that game Rangers had a couple of good opportunities to score. The key criticism of United’s defense is that it hasn’t been strengthened, is far too injury-prone and inexperienced.
There has been a modicum of continuity at the back though injuries haven’t helped matters in allowing United to form a settled defense:
Swansea (defense including wingbacks)
Lingard (Januzaj 24’) – Jones – Smalling – Blackett – Young
Sunderland (defense including wingbacks)
Valencia – Jones – Smalling (Keane 44’) – Blackett – Young
Burnley (defense including wingbacks)
Valencia – Evans – Jones – Blackett – Young
Rafael – Evans – Blackett – Rojo
Rafael – Evans (Smalling 30’) – Blackett – Rojo
Apart from Blackett none of the other key defenders have had a real run of games in the side and on three occasions United needed to make first half substitutions because of injuries in the backline.
Chris Smalling is an injury concern for United’s game against West Ham and Louis van Gaal may have to field the following back four:
Rafael – Carrick – Rojo – Shaw
Even if everyone was fit for a prolonged period of time there isn’t really an outstanding leader. Phil Jones is capable of assuming that role but really needs a run of games in a set position to really cement his place. Jonny Evans is the most experienced central defender at Old Trafford but has yet to really stamp his authority and become the club’s ‘senior’ defender. Evans is more comfortable on the ball compared to Smalling and Jones and can distribute it well but his worrying lapses of concentration do not help the confidence of a fragile backline.
The talk is of van Gaal making a move in the January window for Ron Vlaar but for the time being he needs to work with what he has and build a unit that is capable of defending solidly.
Mental fragility –
Let’s get this out of the way. Rafael can feel aggrieved after being at the end of two very poor refereeing decisions. In the space of a few seconds the Brazilian fullback was fouled by James Vardy and then was adjudged to have brought down the Leicester forward in the penalty area. It was a ‘soft’ penalty to say the very least. It can be argued that Ritchie De Laet was lucky to stay on the pitch and if one is being extremely picky a case could be made of Blackett being the victim of a ’cute’ foul in the lead-up to the concession of the second penalty.
Critics will point out that United have had more than their fair share of refereeing decisions going their way for a long, long time so it’s a bit rich to complain and feel hard done by.
Even with decisions not going their favour United should not have capitulated in such a spectacular fashion. The United of old would have snarled at the perceived injustice, galvanized themselves, tightened up and put the so-called ‘inferior’ to the sword. This current generation looked cowed and let Leicester bully them. They let their sense of injustice get the better of them and ultimately lost the game.
Gary Neville pointed out, United appear to have a soft centre which is not ideal given the physical nature of the Premier League but there is sense of fragility which opponents are aware of and willing to exploit.
United were nervous against Swansea, lucky to leave the Stadium of Light with a point, didn’t really impress at Turf Moor before being ruthlessly exposed by Leicester against the King Power.
At the moment the only point of solace is that United’s rivals for third and fourth spot are dropping points too but van Gaal will need his side to toughen up and soon if they are to mount a serious challenge for a Champions League spot.
Wayne Rooney –
Rooney is a polarizing figure. His fans will point to stats showing that he is one of club’s most consistent goal scorers and is tipped to overtake Sir Bobby Charlton’s tally to become Manchester United’s all time leading goal scorer. They also claim that he’s one of the better players at the club and on his day can be world class.
His detractors argue that Rooney is deteriorating as a footballer. His pace has gone, his first touch isn’t great, he’s wayward in possession with his short passing being especially suspect. He slows the game down, his ‘world class’ performances are becoming fewer and more far between and he’s now more of a hindrance than an asset. Simply put Rooney is not worth accommodating on the pitch. That’s not to mention Rooney and his agent holding the club to ‘ransom’ and being ‘rewarded’ for it on two occasions with new lucrative contracts.
Gabriele Marcotti, wrote an engaging piece arguing that Rooney is worth his place in the side and highlighting why he is an asset in the starting XI. He went on to describe what the options were if Rooney was dropped and how dropping the United captain may not be the cure-all that has been suggested in some quarters.
Van Gaal seemingly is in the Rooney camp appointing the Liverpudlian as club captain and declaring that there are ‘privileges’ that come with the position. Van Gaal made the remark when asked about how he plans to integrate all of United’s attacking talent into the starting eleven. The United boss also said that he wasn’t satisfied with Rooney playing up to stating:
“Rooney can play in more positions, he’s a multifunctional player and I have tried him in a striker’s position. He’s played well but not spectacular and Falcao is a striker and I think he can do it better.”
To a degree being shifted around to accommodate a ‘better’ player has been the story of Rooney’s career. An expensive attacking utility player if one was to be especially cruel.
At the moment the captaincy doesn’t seem to be sitting right with Rooney. Again in terms of appearances and time spent at the club appointing him as captain makes sense. However does he possess the ability to lead a team? It’s early on into his captaincy but he isn’t displaying signs of becoming the next Roy Keane, Steve Bruce or Bryan Robson.
The moment United conceded goal number three to Leicester, Rooney lost it and was seen screaming at his teammates. The display of temper was graphic but when dishing out the ‘home truths’ did Rooney stop to consider his part in the concession of the third goal? It was his poor clearance that gave Leicester the opportunity to keep the pressure on United’s goal which led to Esteban Cambiasso’s equalizing strike.
Rooney’s rollicking didn’t work at the King Power Stadium as United went on to lose the game. In fact Rooney, as he has been much of this season, was one of United’s poorer performers.
Shaka Hislop on ESPN FC cautioned that this current generation of United players may not respond well to that form of leadership.
A few weeks ago former United fullback Paul Parker more than questioned Rooney’s suitability for the role blasting:
“There he was at Burnley this weekend (August 30th), supposedly captaining the team – but I saw a player interested only in himself, doing nothing to try and lift his game or inspire his team-mates”.
Whilst scathing there’s an element of truth in Parker’s comments as Rooney has failed to lift United as a captain in each of his appearances since taking the armband.
The fact that he’s wearing the armband could be saving Rooney from the axe though one has to ponder for how much longer.
Louis van Gaal is a man who’s not afraid of making a big decision.