The season, so far
If one were to ask Louis van Gaal about it, all is well at Manchester United. In spite of an embarrassing exit to Championship team Middlesborough in the Capital One Cup, United are two points from the top of the Premier League and top of their Champions League group. However, the occasional booing at Old Trafford and the ever-increasing chants of “attack, attack, attack,” or “We’re Man United, we want to attack,” are indicative. All is not well in the minds of United fans.
From a stylistic perspective, impatient fans demand flair and panache in addition to the results that Van Gaal is providing; however, United is currently bottom in the league on the list of chances created. Given the array of attacking talent in the squad, that statistic is a quantitative confirmation of the qualitative observations of many, that United are boring to watch.
The road ahead
Luckily for United, the schedule through Christmas is quite complementary. United play nine games between now and the end of the year. In the league, United plays struggling Watford, possibly a Jamie Vardy-less Leicester City, in-form West Ham, injury-ravaged Bournemouth, plucky Norwich City, unpredictable Stoke City and finally sub-par Chelsea. These are all games that Van Gaal’s side should be expected to win. Moreover, if United beats PSV Eindhoven in their final Champions League group stage home game on Nov. 25, it should be enough to send United through to the competition’s knockout stages.
Given that City and Arsenal are yet to play each other, and given United’s favorable fixture list, a scenario where United are top of the league on Jan. 1 is feasible. However, this United supporter does not think United will be able to capitalize on the fixture list as anticipated. There are a few key reasons for this.
Firstly, we have injury issues at the fullback position. Luke Shaw’s unfortunate injury was further compounded by Antonio Valencia’s recent foot operation. This leaves us without our first choice fullbacks. Out-of-form Matteo Darmian and erratic Marcus Rojo will have to share the load of multiple games with auxiliary fullbacks Ashley Young and Phil Jones. While Daley Blind is a left back by trade, he has been preferred at center back and central midfield under Van Gaal. Youngsters Alex Tuanzabe and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson may also be brought in to handle the load.
Secondly, the Wayne Rooney conundrum continues. The English goalscoring record-holder is being picked on reputation and leadership qualities rather than product on the field. At some point, Van Gaal will have to drop Rooney to bring Memphis Depay or Andreas Pereira back into the team. Perhaps the quick succession of games will allow Van Gaal to have an excuse for “resting” Rooney and facilitate a change in a forward line that currently hinges on Anthony Martial’s young shoulders.
Lastly, as the Swansea City and PSV Eindhoven games have shown, opposition teams have a clear blueprint on how to beat United. While United regularly has enough possession to embarrass The Omen movie franchise, this control often involves passing across the opposition’s midfield, rather than through it. Opposition teams are aware that as long as they remain organized, United’s players are wary of playing high-risk, high-reward passes for fear of admonishment from their manager. Therefore, opposition teams simply bide their time and use a pacy winger or a forward to target Marcus Rojo or Daley Blind in a foot race. Moreover, flat crosses pulled back from the wings to the top of United’s box find an unmarked man, often due to midfield runners getting past the aging Bastian Schweinsteiger. Van Gaal needs to find ways to neutralize these attacking threats; unfortunately, it seems his answer is simply more possession.
United will be looking to bolster their attacking line-up with pacy, direct players. Southampton forward Sadio Mane was linked with Manchester United in the summer, and you can expect those links to reemerge. Mane has the pace, team ethic and work-rate that Van Gaal seems to want in his wingers. Moreover, playing Mane from the left would allow Martial to move centrally, a move many would like to see.
An emerging link would be a move for once-wonderkid Alexandre “The Duck” Pato. While he may have been forgotten in Europe, Pato seems to have put his injury-woes behind him at Sao Paulo and is scoring goals. And given the duo’s current form, United will also be linked with Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez.
Due to Luke Shaw’s long-term future at Manchester United, the left back position will need a short-term fix. I know this might irk some United supporters, but instead of spending millions on a new left back, perhaps the best bet would be to sign a free agent: Ashley Cole. Cole’s move to Roma did not go as planned, but one cannot underestimate the impact the ex-Arsenal and Chelsea man would have on a young United defense. Cole is arguably the greatest left back in Premier League history, and having him add depth to a depleted United squad would be a wise option.
Whatever Van Gaal does in January, the goal from United’s hierarchy is the same: top four. But, from the perspective of United supporters, the club should be challenging for the title come May as well as playing a United-esque brand of soccer. Will the Dutchman change his yawn-inducing ways and risk dropping points? Or will his trite style suddenly explode into excitement, as it did towards the end of last season?
Van Gaal would certainly respond with “it’s a process.”