Manchester United: Is the criticism justified?
Manchester United’s elimination from the Champions League group stage clearly marks the lowest point in Louis van Gaal’s reign – but United are, broadly speaking, still going in the right direction.
For all the fuss about their negativity and lack of penetration going forward, Manchester United remain just three points off the top of the Premier League table. It’s not inconceivable they could be top at Christmas, with half a chance of pipping inconsistent Manchester City and Arsenal sides to the title.
Van Gaal always stresses the importance of the collective over the individual, and therefore it shouldn’t come as a great surprise to see United so well-drilled without the ball. Their defensive record this season is exemplary, with further statistics involving the number of chances allowed to opposition sides indicating their ‘goals against’ figure isn’t a mere fluke. They’ve already kept nine clean sheets in 15 league games, a statistic which hasn’t received anything like the praise it deserves. United only kept 11 in the whole of last season.
It’s not necessarily about the defenders themselves – aside from Chris Smalling, who has been superb – but about the overall shape of the side. United pressure opponents collectively, they cover for one another expertly, they remain compact at all times. The level of organisation is considerably better than in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final couple of seasons, when United left the midfield far too empty, and obviously better than under David Moyes too.
The problem, clearly, is going forward. For all the complaints about lack of movement, dribbling or interplay – and these complaints are entirely justified – part of the problem is simply that United aren’t good enough individually.
Juan Mata is United’s only top-class attacking player, with Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial youngsters still adapting to Premier League life (both probably won’t be dependable enough for a title charge for roughly another year) and Wayne Rooney badly off-form, probably through no fault of Van Gaal’s.
In terms of quality of individuals, United’s front four is considerably weaker than the equivalents from Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool. Their approach in the transfer market has been extremely odd, shedding a succession of dangerous attackers who could have been perfectly useful this season. It’s not entirely clear who’s to blame in this respect: Van Gaal appears to have an impact upon transfer decisions, but it’s doubtful whether he’s entirely responsible.
We repeatedly read stories that United are desperate to land the world’s best players – Gareth Bale, Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo, today’s report suggested – but United don’t actually have a culture of landing genuine, fully-formed superstars. Angel Di Maria is probably the closet thing, which might have convinced the club’s hierarchy that signing younger, cheaper players is a better approach. There are also doubts about Ed Woodward, and whether he has the necessary nous to manipulate agents and seal deals for top-class players.
United need a couple of outstanding players to push on and return to the level their fans expect. The decision United’s board must take, when considering Van Gaal’s long-term future, is whether he’s the right coach to accommodate a couple of superstars in his starting XI. Is he capable of embracing their individuality and allowing them the freedom to express themselves in the final third, or will his insistence upon a solid, structured team shape blunt their creativity, as largely happened with Di Maria?
Either way, United aren’t in a disastrous situation. In the modern era, most managers concentrate on remaining solid without the ball before moving onto look more at attacking play – Mauricio Pochettino is doing the same at Tottenham Hotspur – and that often comes from individual brilliance. Rooney, who has often been absolutely woeful this season, deserves more blame than Van Gaal – if he was even close to this best, United would be top of the league. Van Gaal isn’t the reason why Rooney’s touch is so bad, his mobility looks so poor. United’s captain needs to step up.
Performances are underwhelming – but United are in good shape. A decent challenge this season, before a serious assault on the title in 2016/17 thanks to another couple of signings, and Van Gaal will have done his job.
December 11th, 2015 by Michael Cox
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