Since the last progress report, Manchester United have played six games, winning three, drawing two and losing against Manchester City. Compared to the abysmal results at the start to the season, this would be considered progress. Certainly, the team is two points off a Champions league spot – an end of season position most United fans would be satisfied with. Yet, some of the issues raised in the last report still persist. In particular, the number of injured players at the club continues to remain consistently high. Whether this is an unfortunate coincidence or a result of abrasive training methods is something that warrants examination. Currently, Radamel Falcao, Phil Jones, Marco Rojo, Ashely Young and Jonny Evans are out with Rafael, Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera expected to return shortly.
Louis van Gaal’s insistence of sitting in his managerial seat regardless of on-pitch events also continues to be surprising. In a recent interview he argued that he lets the players get on with the job. If the job entails kicking out at opponents, shoddy defending, and ponderous possession, then van Gaal’s men are following his instructions perfectly. But surely, when unexpected events occur, van Gaal should be barking instructions or encouraging his charges? There is no reasonable explanation for van Gaal’s abstinence from the manager’s dugout. It is worth noting that no other manager at any other top club spends as little time on the touchline as the Dutchman does.
Another curious change is the current playing style at Manchester United. Based on the Netherland’s exploits, most pundits predicted that the side would switch back to a counter-attacking style. This prediction rallied Manchester United fans who had been disgusted by David Moyes’ dour possession style of last season. If we set aside the exciting transfer acquisitions, the truth is that United are far more of a possession team this season than they were under the maligned Scotsman. Rolling through tapes of this season, one thing is certain – van Gaal has asked his players not to play on the break. The play of Adnan Janujaz is a microcosm of the same. Last season, the Belgian prodigy was asked to take on the opposing full backs. This season, he has clearly been asked to receive the ball, turn towards his own goalkeeper and look to pass to the central midfielders such as Marouane Fellaini and Daley Blind.
Similar to his predecessor, van Gaal has asked his full backs to focus on defending more than attacking. Yes, that is their job. But, the modern full back needs to provide assists and be involved in building up attacks – not at United apparently. There are scarce moments in games when Rafael, Antonio Valencia or Luke Shaw overlap their midfielders to create 2 v 1 situations. When there is a rare foray forward by the full back, the midfielders play as auxiliary defenders, even when there is no pressure in that area of the pitch, which was the case for virtually the entire game against Crystal Palace. At the end of the day, United are not creating enough chances. Most of the goals in recent games have come from flashes of brilliance deflections or luck rather than exceptional build up play. The few chances that have been created have fallen to out-of-form strikers. Considering United has Falcao, Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney on its books, it’s incredible that the three have scored very few goals between them. Admittedly, injuries have played a part, but van Gaal’s tactics have starved van Persie, in particular, of the service he thrives on.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Van Gaal is clearly building something here. There is a vision to switch United’s play centrally, and it is starting to work. It might seem ponderous at times, but clearly the team believes in van Gaal’s vision. Which was not the case last season. Late equalizers against West Brom and Chelsea are emblematic of this same belief. And, that belief creates a solidarity and trust between players and the coaching staff. The return of the Manchester United fighting spirit bodes well for the next few months.
Most Improved Player:
Another positive has been the improved play of Fellaini and Shaw. The two maligned signings have been given ill treatment by the media due to price tag and form. However, both players have been influential in the last few games. Fellaini has been asked to play a box-to-box midfielder and is relishing the role van Gaal has given him. While the system neutralizes his countryman Janujaz, the narrow, central play is perfect for Fellaini. He has been terrific on defensive set pieces, a reliable target man for balls out of defense, and was instrumental in man-marking Cesc Fabregas out of the game against Chelsea. Moreover, his accuracy in passing is a throwback to his Everton days. Shaw has found himself in the strange situation of being the experienced defender in United’s team. And, as such, has been exceptional in the two big games he has played – Chelsea and Manchester City. Strong, determined, fleet-footed and a good crosser, Shaw is a frighteningly good full back considering his age. If he improves his positional awareness and concentration, he has the ability to be as good as Ashley Cole was in his prime.
In spite of their improved play, no United player comes close to the consistency of David De Gea. The Spaniard routinely puts in Man of the Match performances, as he makes exceptional saves to cover for the ever-changing defense in front of him. It is remarkable that the ex-Atletico Madrid man has made only one error in the last 18 months – in the semi-final against Sunderland last season. Rumors of a move to Real Madrid have started surfacing and are indicative of how highly-rated the goalkeeper is back home in Spain. An incredible feat when one considers that both Anders Lindegaard and Ben Amos were selected ahead of him at times during his debut season. Whether it’s his improved English, his work in the gym or his reading of crosses, United goalkeeping coach Frank Hoek has turned the raw Spaniard into one of the best in the game. Anecdotally, while watching de Gea train after the pre-season game between United and Madrid, it became clear that Hoek was accepting of de Gea’s nontraditional technique – viz a viz – his desire to clear with feet even when the ball is within grasp. Perhaps it is that vote of confidence that has allowed de Gea to flourish.
Transfer Window News
In the January transfer window, there are undoubtedly areas that need strengthening. A ball-winning midfielder and a central defender are crucial. It is important to note the impressive play of young Paddy McNair, a player that can play both those positions. However, it is unlikely that he would be able to keep consistent levels throughout the season, especially since he is still learning how to play in central defense. One player that should not be coming to United is ex-captain Nemanja Vidic. It would be better to develop McNair and Tyler Blackett than bring the Serbian back as a stop-gap, especially given how poor he has been at Inter Milan.
Best starting XI (out of players available):
Formation – 4-3-2-1
De Gea; Rafael, McNair, Smalling, Shaw; Blind, Carrick, Fellaini; Di Maria, Mata; Rooney.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
United are slowly but surely finding their way under van Gaal and while there remain some significant defensive issues, the midfield is beginning to function and the star-studded attack on paper should find it’s groove sooner rather than later. Top 4 is not out of the question and the busy festive period will be a real test of character to see if United are capable of achieving this feat.