Is it something in the water? The knee injury suffered by Daley Blind on international duty this week is the 39th such setback Manchester United’s squad has faced since Louis van Gaal officially took charge on 15 July. From Michael Carrick’s damaged ankle two days into pre-season, to David De Gea’s finger, popped out of position during Spain’s training session last week, it has been a campaign of injury misfortune and, perhaps, mismanagement.
Blind limped off 20 minutes of Netherland’s 6-0 victory over Latvia on Friday night, with Dutch coach Guus Hiddink claiming that the 24-year-old may have “twisted and ruptured” a medial ligament. It is an injury that could keep the £14 million signing on the sidelines for months not weeks if confirmed in the coming days. The former Ajax midfielder revealed little in the aftermath, although speculation is running from four weeks in the physio room to a premature end to the Dutchman’s season.
It is just one more stroke of bad luck in what is becoming a disastrous pattern for United.
United’s veteran coach could have done with far better luck this season – up to 10 Reds have been absent at any one time. Joining De Gea and Blind out of next weekend’s fixture with Arsenal will be Carrick – who has a “minor groin injury” – Marcos Rojo, Ashley Young, and Jesse Lingard. There is no guarantee that any of Jonny Evans, Phil Jones, Rafael da Silva or Radamel Falcao will be match fit by Saturday.
Carrick’s latest problem comes after a season of fitness problems for the Geordie, while De Gea will receive intensive treatment on a dislocated finger in a bid to negate the ‘worst case scenario’ of four weeks on the sidelines. Either way former Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdés, who is training with the club, is yet to be offered or accept a contract with United and cannot play at the Emirates.
The latest setback leaves Van Gaal with a choice between Tyler Blackett, Patrick McNair and Chris Smalling in the centre of defence in north London. There is little in the way of defensive midfield alternatives either. Indeed, United’s back five at the Emirates could well read: Anders Lindegaard, Antonio Valencia, Blackett, McNair and Luke Shaw.
In midfield United enjoys a raft of attacking talent, even if Van Gaal is yet to find the right balance between defensive shape and attacking fluidity. On Saturday the Reds may have little choice but to go for broke with Carrick and Blind out.
Further absences are hardly the news Van Gaal needs with United desperate to pick up some momentum after what has been anything but a consistent opening 11 Premier League games. It is fortunate, some might add, that neither Liverpool, Everton nor Tottenham Hotspur have been able to find a level of consistency either or United may have slipped behind in the quest for European qualification next season.
Damning the Gods of misfortune is only part of the story though. Of United’s 39 recorded injuries this season, around half have been impact-related, with another tranche of muscular, hamstring and ligament damage. It leaves an obvious question: whether Van Gaal’s intensive training methods have contributed to a packed medical centre at Carrington?
Rent-a-quote Dutch fitness trainer Raymond Verheijen was quick to blame his countryman for United’s early season injury list.
“Encouraging to see so many people noticing this year’s ‘pre-season incompetence’,” said the 42-year-old in August.
“Hopefully, one day players will be prepared professionally. LVG is tactically superior to most other coaches but planning and periodisation is not his strongest point. During the World Cup preparation, the Dutch players had to do frequent double sessions, so not surprisingly the muscle injuries accumulated. At United, in the first few weeks, LVG has applied the same approach and, as expected, with the same result.”
Many will dismiss the criticism – after all Verheijen is seldom reticent to berate the methods of others. Yet, Van Gaal moved to question his own approach in September, asking whether he needs to “evaluate how we train” in order to reduced the number of player absences. Whether Van Gaal identified a cause has not been further illuminated; neither, though, has a path to a fully fit squad.
Elsewhere the Dutchman has moved to strengthen United’s response. While the club has spent millions on high-tech medical equipment at Carrington, Van Gaal has already recalled United physios Rod Thornley and Tony Strudwick from part-time assignments with the English national team. The pair will end their involvement following Tuesday’s friendly with Scotland. Strudwick has worked with England since the World Cup, while the Scotland fixture will be Thornley’s 161st with the national team.
It is on the pitch, of course, where United needs a positive news story the most. On Saturday Van Gaal is faced with yet another decision: whether to persist with the 4-4-1-1 formation used to mixed affect in recent weeks, or to tinker once again with United’s tactical makeup.
Van Gaal may yet switch back to deploying three players in the centre of the park at Emirates, with no genuine defensive midfielder in United’s squad and an absence of in-form or experienced central defenders. Marouanne Fellaini, Ander Herrera and Angel Di Maria may comprise a new three, while Juan Mata, Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Adnan Januzaj may compete for three attacking roles.
Whatever the approach in north London the Dutchman will keenly watch the final round of international fixtures in the coming days. England, with Rooney in tow, faces Scotland in Glasgow, while Argentina – including Di Maria – takes on Portugal at Old Trafford. United can ill afford further unwelcome injury news.
Then there is the longer-term problem – to find a solution to pattern that, superficially at least, has been season-long.
Injury data from Physioroom.com