What a difference 12 months can make. An underwhelming start for a manager beset by trepidation and uncertainty has been replaced by the optimism and direction of another unequivocally at home in his surroundings and supremely confident in his vision.
With Holland impressing at the World Cup and Louis van Gaal opening his Manchester United account with two victories, belief in the new manager is rapidly snowballing; but with success comes expectation.
The Dutchman has been quick to insist that no-one imparts more pressure than himself and his assertive confidence and winning mentality forms a welcome departure from the futile hope which had so tragically displaced belief under David Moyes. The unrelenting indecisiveness of ‘dithering Dave’ which manifested itself in such a lamentable lack of strategy has been cast aside for staunch and insistent philosophy from the outset.
The confidence undoubtedly derives from experience and previous success, but Van Gaal possesses an unwavering belief in his methods, and therein lays the most crucial difference of all. The decisive move to a 3-4-1-2 formation offers direction, and crucially, one based upon the talents of the current playing staff. It forms a stark contrast to the lack of a coherent vision and resultant melee of Moyes’ muddled and ill-fated tenure.
Louis van Gaal has a self-confessed “strong philosophy”, and with that the players, the staff and the fans have something to buy into. Following 12 months of anonymity, Manchester United Football Club once more possesses an identity and everyone is pulling in one direction.
The shift to a system predominantly predicated on three at the back signals a significant departure from the norm at Old Trafford and, in that sense, only further emphasises Van Gaal’s confidence in his vision. However, with United’s obvious lack of quality in the wide areas it is arguably a necessitated if not wholly predictable transition.
Indeed, the current playing staff unquestionably boasts a number of top-class forwards and No.10s, and so accommodating two strikers with a supplementary advanced midfielder in support was a relatively logical conclusion. As the Dutchman himself has pointed out, the squad at present is “imbalanced”, and pending any potential further additions the new system certainly appears the best (if not the only) way to extract the virtues of those already present at the club.
Despite an obvious lack of talent in the wide areas, for 10 months David Moyes remained insistent on playing with width and crossing the ball, often sacrificing players such as Juan Mata, ill-suited to playing in wide areas with the obvious consequence of a team lacking cohesion and fluidity. For large parts of last season Manchester United were woefully predictable and rigid, playing in straight lines. The Scot’s persistent implorations for his often in-adept squad to adapt to invariably incompatible systems ultimately cost him his job.
The system deployed should always reflect the players at the manager’s disposal, it should never be the other way around. In this sense, it is refreshing that Van Gaal appears to have promptly indentified the squad’s strengths and weaknesses and has implemented a system reflective of these. Despite a self-confessed preference for a 4-3-3, the former Ajax man’s decision to employ variations of a 3-5-2, along with his admission that he wishes to play with 2 strikers form a tacit expression that he is willing to adapt to achieve the maximum from those currently at his disposal.
The Dutchman has intimated that along with the preferred 3-4-1-2, United are also capable of playing the perennially favoured 4-3-3, but there is no doubt that there is a recognition that the latter would require further additions and current players to adapt. As such, it has come as little surprise that in Manchester United’s opening games under Louis van Gaal, the Red Devils have employed variations of a 3-5-2 and have largely sacrificed the underachieving wingers of the previous campaign either to the bench or to unfamiliar positions. But how have United looked?
Two fixtures are inadequate time to truly see the new manager’s vision manifesting itself on the pitch, but indications as to United’s style of play under the Dutchman have certainly been forthcoming. Circulation of possession has been noticeably quicker, the team has played further up the pitch with a high defensive line and have pressed the ball as a unit. There has been greater depth and dynamism to United’s play, particularly in midfield, where linear rigidity is slowly making way for fluid one and two-touch play.
The system is predicated on the wing-backs providing the width and playing high up the pitch. However, under periods of pressure the system quite easily reverts to more of a 5-3-2. There is an emphasis on the centre backs being comfortable in possession, able to step into midfield and pass the ball accurately and it has been widely reported that Jonny Evans in particular has impressed the new manager in this regard.
Having put 7 past LA Galaxy it certainly appears that the players have bought into the manager’s philosophy and the new system is well suited. However, despite the victory, against stronger opposition in Roma there were undoubtedly signs that it will take time and patience while the players continue to adapt and become more comfortable. Nevertheless, with 10 goals scored and just an unfortunate penalty and a 60-yard wonder strike conceded, there is much cause for optimism for all associated with the club.
Perhaps most concerning at present is an obvious lack of the depth in the squad, which was largely exposed in the second half against Roma. Returns from injury and World Cup rests respectively will certainly help in this regard, but most would admit that further additions are still needed. Moreover, it is expected that a number of departures will materialise in the coming weeks.
Of those on display so far, many have impressed whilst others appear either ill-suited to the new system or simply lacking the requisite quality. Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Juan Mata have all flourished in the forward positions, whilst although quiet against Roma, Ander Herrera was very impressive against LA Galaxy, playing both deeper and advanced midfield roles. Antonio Valencia, arguably not quite good enough to be a winger or a full-back appears well-suited to a wing-back role with his pace and strength, whilst United’s young crop of centre-backs, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans have all done themselves no harm, with Smalling particularly impressive having assumed the captaincy in the second half against Roma.
Van Gaal demonstrated his man-management skills by giving Tom Cleverley a much needed confidence boost when he was handed the captaincy, and the tenacious midfielder put in a reasonable performance against the Italians. Shinji Kagawa has looked poetic as ever in possession, but surely lacks the pace and physicality to perform at the heart of midfield as he has been deployed thus far. The much-maligned Ashley Young scored two good goals against LA Galaxy and his ability to provide cover at right wing-back may just save his United career for a little longer, although he may find his opportunities limited come the start of the season.
Of the young academy stars given opportunities Reece James has been the standout, looking assured at left wing-back and collecting a brace with two confident and assured finishes against LA Galaxy. Young defenders Michael Keane and Tyler Blackett have looked slightly less comfortable in the new system although the latter’s incisive and accurate passing out of defence against Roma certainly warrants a mention.
United’s other new signing, Luke Shaw, has looked uncharacteristically timid whilst in possession and is certainly showing signs that he may need time to bed in to what is a huge club and a huge transition for him. Nevertheless, there is no doubting the former Southampton man’s potential and he has remained solid defensively and is expected to flourish once settled.
One of last year’s bright sparks of pre-season, Jesse Lingard, has fallen an unfortunate victim to the new system and has been played largely out of position whilst Wilfried Zaha is yet to be afforded any minutes on the pitch.
Louis van Gaal has a proven record of developing young talent and it will be hoped that some academy talent can supplement the squad this season, but United will surely look to strengthen further in both midfield and defence.
A glance at the squad and with Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Robin van Persie and Chicharito all still with the club, the Old Trafford outfit appear well set in this area of the field. Add to that the likes of Angelo Henriquez, Will Keane and James Wilson and it would not be a surprise to see Javier Hernandez depart, with James Wilson anticipated to be the club’s fourth choice striker for the upcoming campaign.
Further still, the Red Devils are inundated with quality and options for the advanced midfield role behind the strikers, with Juan Mata, Adnan Januzaj, Shinji Kagawa and Wayne Rooney all capable in that area. Further still, Ander Herrera demonstrated that he can be pivotal in the role during the second half against LA Galaxy.
For fans questioning Adnan Januzaj’s suitability to Van Gaal’s new system, he is widely expected to get game time in his preferred No.10 role. Moreover, the Belgian is equally capable of playing in one of the two forward positions in what is a fluid system and may even be deployed at left-wing back in games where United are expecting to experience large amounts of possession.
With Rafael and Antonio Valencia, the Reds look well set at right wing-back, particularly with Chris Smalling, Ashley Young and Phil Jones all able to provide cover along with academy products Saidy Janko and Guillermo Varela impressing at youth level. With that said, links to Juan Cuadrado could prove substantive with the Columbian’s versatility and pace rendering him an exciting prospect for Van Gaal’s system.
Looking to other areas, the club will certainly look to strengthen. Despite the presence of Reece James, Luke Shaw will need cover at left-back, which perhaps explains the reported pursuit of Thomas Vermaelen. With Carrick injured, another midfield addition is expected, with the likes of Vidal and Strootman highly touted and it is the dynamic and strong attributes which characterise these two players that Van Gaal will be looking for to facilitate his system.
With Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic all departing, an experienced operator in the centre of defence will also be required. Mats Hummels is widely reported to be a target but any move is unlikely at this stage. It may well prove that Shinji Kagawa is expendable and used in any deal with Dortmund but even so the German club will be reluctant to sell.
In a welcome change to 12 months ago, United are certainly keeping their transfer cards very close to their chest but, for now, Van Gaal is happy to work with his current squad. The Dutchman has implemented double training sessions and his dedication and demand for industry is readily apparent.
The former Barcelona manager’s tenure remains firmly in its infancy, but he is confident in his direction and has got the whole club working towards it. It’s early days and expectations should remain tempered, but fans will certainly be pleased with the progression thus far.