When Manchester United hired Louis Van Gaal, it seemed like just the right man at just the right time was being brought in to right the rudderless ship that was Manchester United last season. Now more than six months into his Old Trafford stewardship, it seems the rudder is still in cold storage. United are in many respects no better off than they were this time last season, as David Moyes drove United into the abyss.
When Van Gaal was leading the Netherlands through their World Cup odyssey, so much was hoisted upon his 3-5-2 formation that won admirers across the globe. In his attempt to bring that to Manchester United, he has shoehorned players that simply don’t fit into the system and has cost Manchester United dearly. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia are simply not wingbacks, even if they have had the odd game or two where they have impressed. Marcos Rojo, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have all looked uncomfortable in the back three in front of David De Gea, and when they were injured Van Gaal had to turn to youth products who upstaged them for a time. The only reason United’s defensive record looks better than it actually has performed is no doubt due to De Gea’s heroics.
Going forward, Untied have a host of dynamic attacking players whose abilities are either squandered or are left to waste in the dugout. Juan Mata may lack the will to track back, but he is still one of the Premier League’s best attacking midfielders and United have lacked that cutting edge that he has shown he can provide. Ander Herrera is new to English soccer, but his talents have been left to the side so he can play a position he is not comfortable in – deeper in midfield than he should be. Angel Di Maria can be one of the world’s most dynamic wide players, but too often he’s stranded between the lines and cannot generate anything with the amount of traffic in front of him.
And Wayne Rooney, who Van Gaal has described as the best forward on the team, is therefore often left as a sole creator in a side that has room for more of them. This is mainly down to playing Marouane Fellaini just behind whatever striker is left to rot up top, with United’s main tactical strategy going forward often devolves into lumping long balls at him. Where is the dynamism, the fluidity, the verve that Van Gaal sides of old would play with, or even a touch of ingenuity?
His summer spending spree has also backfired. How many of these signings were truly his is still an open question, but he has failed to get the best out of players like Ander Herrera, Radamel Falcao, Angel Di Maria and others, whether from tactical mis-use, injury or being overshadowed by younger players (James Wilson, for example). While this is going on, the squad still has massive and obvious holes that were not filled which get exploited almost every week.
United currently sit in fourth, one point behind Arsenal and with Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur right on their tail. With a trophy now out the window after lost 2-1 at home to Arsenal in the FA Cup, all United can do is attempt to finish fourth, which seems easier said than done with the form Liverpool are in and their upcoming fixture run in, which includes a trip to Anfield and visits from City, Spurs and Arsenal.
So many have chalked up United’s results this season to luck, and when that runs out, what are they to trot out against the Premier League’s best? A side without an identity, spinning its wheels in the hopes that luck and pure quality puts them over the top. United were almost exactly like that last season, with a markedly worse squad.
A berth in the Europa League would be a fitting condemnation of Manchester United’s season.
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