The challenge for Louis van Gaal is to fix the mess left by David Moyes and transform seventh place into a top-four spot
Guardian writers’ predicted position: 4th (NB: this is not necessarily Jamie Jackson’s prediction, but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 7th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 5-1
King Louis, The Iron Tulip, Manchester United’s saviour. A more appropriate moniker for Louis van Gaal would be ‘the man with broad shoulders’. The Dutchman certainly has a pair and is not bashful of telling everyone about them and that there is also chutzpah, brains and a healthy ego on offer, too.
All of these qualities are required as Van Gaal surveys a squad that still has worrying holes in it ahead of a season in which the team could struggle again. The challenge before Van Gaal is to fix the mess left by David Moyes’s doomed tenure and somehow transform last term’s seventh-place failures to Champions League qualifiers.
This would represent success and the 63-year-old is aware even this will be difficult. United’s players are lining up to claim a 21st title can be won but their manager is markedly not. Van Gaal would never say it publicly but fourth place will do just fine at the close of his inaugural campaign.
Can it happen? The jury remains out until the close of the transfer window as the executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, continues the quest to recruit two central defenders, a central midfielder, and at least one player who can play wing-back. The bottom line is that choosing which of Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal United can replace is tricky as all have bolstered their ranks impressively this summer.
The Old Trafford faithful will hope that having no European football will allow United to focus on the league as Liverpool did last year. And that as Brendan Rodgers’ side are now in the Champions League they are one candidate to drop out of the elite four, with the loss of Luis Suárez proving a significant blow. Yet Rodgers has added seven new faces, can draw on last term’s experience of nearly winning the title, and will have a fresher Steven Gerrard following the captain’s retirement from England duty.
With less than a month of the window remaining, Van Gaal has brought in only Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera and each of these were identified by Moyes, before being signed off by the Dutchman. Van Gaal has yet to add one of “his” players to boost options and only the attackers in the potential starting XI convince.
Juan Mata, as the No10, and the strikers Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney (with Danny Welbeck a deputy), in Van Gaal’s proposed 3-4-1-2 (or 5-2-1-2) system are high-class operators. Yet even here there are issues. Shinji Kagawa may be an obvious and worthy competition to Mata yet Van Gaal is unsure regarding the Japanese player and has already mentioned he wanted to “try him as a No6 or No8”.
While Rooney is a natural No10 so can perform there, how fit will Van Persie be throughout the season? Perhaps his close relationship with Van Gaal will have the same effect Van Persie’s respect for Sir Alex Ferguson did in his first United campaign and the forward can remain available more often than not. A counter argument runs that having turned 31 last week and following a long summer captaining Holland to third place at Brazil 2014, Van Persie – and United – may have already enjoyed the best of his career.
But it is in midfield and defence were the alarm bells really ring. This is a two-pronged issue of weak resources and Van Gaal’s decision – yet to be fully explained – to switch to the new formation, which the manager admits “is not easy”. Darren Fletcher’s fine form on the tour of America will have played the Scot into Van Gaal’s thoughts as a worthy squad member but an elite midfielder is still required. Michael Carrick is absent for another 10 weeks due to an ankle injury and Marouane Fellaini is for sale – Napoli are suitors – so Fletcher joins Herrera and Tom Cleverley as the only frontline operators.
Regarding Herrera, 24, Fletcher says: “He’s been fantastic. He has great energy and enthusiasm, his English is quite good, and [he] is a good lad who has settled in really well. He’s a humble kid who wants to learn, but he is going to be a really good player.” Herrera has yet to convince. A good first half in the tour opener against LA Galaxy in Pasadena was followed by three disappointing ones against Roma, Internazionale and Real Madrid.
Cleverley remains an enigma whose career – and progress – has stalled yet is needed because Woodward is again finding it difficult to recruit stellar names. It must surely worry the executive that last summer’s transfer farrago occurred while being able to offer Champions League football. Now, Woodward cannot.
The question marks over midfield are mirrored in central defence and at wing-back where the manager seems to have the most doubt, despite plumping for the new shape himself. Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand all left in the close season and though each were waning forces they are still three senior defenders – and dressing room influences – that are yet to be replaced.
Of the rearguard, which is a five-man affair when teams come at United that features three centre-backs and two wingbacks, the manager admits: “The greatest impact with this system is on the back line. It’s amazing that they have picked up a new system like that, because it’s not new for Mata, for example, he [still] plays in his position. Neither for Rooney, Welbeck, nor the two midfielders.”
Whether Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, the injured Rafael da Silva and Shaw can be effective operators as wing-backs remains to be seen. So far Van Gaal seems content though he mentioned more than once in the US that if results go south a rethink will occur. In Young and Valencia the Dutchman is asking attacking players to become defenders – though the Ecuadorian has filled in as a right-back on occasion – and demanding the opposite of Da Silva and Shaw.
As the sight of full-backs in the modern game bombing forward is hardly a novelty, Da Silva and Shaw may have an easier task than Young and Valencia. Yet the newly arrived Shaw is being put on a pretty steep learning curve as a 19-year-old who is also adjusting to life at the world’s biggest club.
Young is enthusiastic about the challenge, saying: “If you look at the performance overall and all the displays we’ve put on during the tour things have gone well. It’s a new system and a new way to play but everyone has to adapt it and understands the manager’s philosophy. The formation gives us more time to play and more space and we’re all enjoying it.”
There are further issues at centre-back. Van Gaal’s chosen system requires at least five to mediate against injury and loss of form. At the moment, he has only three, in Jonny Evans, the injured Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. With Van Gaal declaring the young defenders Tyler Blackett and Michael Keane not yet mature enough to put in consistent first-team displays, he must search outside the club.
Thomas Vermaelen’s proposed move did not happen and whether Borussia Dortmund’s Mats Hummels, the manager’s No1 target in the position, joins before 1 September is one part of the big question regarding how United fare when they start on 16 August: can Van Gaal strengthen enough to elevate United?
If not, it could be a wearying season.
By Jamie Jackson for the Guardian