It was meant to be a season of progress. The year in which Manchester United returned to the top table of European football and made a fist of a genuine Premier League title challenge. This, after all, is the minimum yardstick by which any United team is to be judged. It was to be a season in which the “process” yielded genuine progress and just a modicum of dignity after the messy clean-up following the failed the David Moyes era. How hopes have been dashed.
It was, by contrast, never meant to be a campaign dominated by stultifying process, in which Louis van Gaal lectured his players into antipathy and bored supporters, with some irony, into anarchy. Instead, the past five months have exposed United’s antiquated structure and Van Gaal’s process as a failure; an indictment on the club’s focus on commercialisation, Ed Woodward’s ill-suited quest for power, and the Dutchman’s out-dated philosophy. With United nine points off the Premier League summit few at Old Trafford escape the stench of mediocrity.
Out of the Champions League, beaten by lowly opposition in the Capital One Cup, adrift of Leicester City in the league – the situation is barely an improvement on Moyes’ indecent seven months in charge let alone, as Van Gaal claims, progress from last season. Not after yet more millions spent in the transfer market. Nor the hours wasted on off-the-record briefing of glory and players to come.
Results are one part of an equation that may sum to Van Gaal’s Old Trafford departure. The other is a brand of ultra-pragmatic football not seen at United in three decades. How to win very few friends and alienate people.
Indeed, it has been not so much anti football as antipathy football these past five months. The ugly game. The natives might be even more restless if they weren’t so bored.
It has been five months in which Van Gaal’s idiosyncratic charm and Anthony Martial’s brilliance could not save United from a reckoning born in another poorly executed summer. One in which a scattergun transfer policy laid bare the failures of ill-planning at a club whose case for forward-thinking involves hitting the speed dial on Jorge Mendes’ personal number.
It leaves United on the precipice of qualifying for European football, the manager on the brink of a hard-earned P45, and a third season without silverware beckoning. It was not supposed to be this way. 5/10
Louis van Gaal
There was, for a moment at least, a sense of relief in Van Gaal’s appointment. Here is a coach for whom winning seemingly came as second nature – a manager who has taken control of the continent’s finest, and whose faith in youth echoed the very best traditions of the club. Van Gaal was, in essence, Moyes’ antonym; experienced, confident, and a leader.
Secure in his own skin, Van Gaal was able to cut through the difficult decisions on squad reformation, enabling the club to rid itself of the dead-wood and eliminate millions wasted wages. He did it with a nod to the future, and to a sense of renewed hope. In three windows Van Gaal oversaw the single biggest period of squad evolution in the club’s recent history, with one eye firmly affixed on a more youthful future.
Ah, the halcyon days of summer 2014; a relationship begun afresh, excitement and lustful anticipation held close. No longer. Few at Old Trafford shall weep for Van Gaal when, as now seems inevitable, he departs before the season is out. Fewer still will remember the Dutchman’s time as anything but a steadying hand gone awry, and a philosophical mismatch writ large.
In truth Van Gaal has failed on too many counts. Not only have results gone against him in recent weeks, but the quality of football alone brought Old Trafford to the brink of disorder. Add into the mix the Dutchman’s oddball tactical and systemic choices, rigidity of approach, and by all accounts a brutal training regime, and the conditions are ripe for dismissal.
Or, in other words, Van Gaal does not get United; and United does not get him. If ever a manager was lost in translation it is the Dutchman. 5/10
David de Gea
Having flirted with Real Madrid all summer, de Gea started the campaign late and then, unexpectedly, signed a new four-year contract. It was, at first, as if the Spaniard had never been away. De Gea’s class between the sticks, though not always required to the extent it has been in the past two campaigns, always tells. Calm reassurance, classy handling, intelligent distribution; de Gea is probably United’s only world-class player. Pity, in that case, that de Gea should blot an impeccable record with some uncharacteristic errors in recent weeks. Appearances: 20 | Assists: 0 | Goals: 0 | 7/10
There was once a small group a supporters, armed with a BT Sport subscription, a Twitter handle and access to whoscored.com, for whom Romero not only proffered adequate replacement for de Gea, but an upgrade. You know who you are and it is not too late to repent. Romero, in truth, is no closer to being of adequate quality to replace de Gea than Moyes was suited to succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson. Romero has featured in half-a-dozen games. He has made as many glaring mistakes. Born for the bench. Appearances: 7 | Assists: 0 | Goals: 0 | 4/10
The Italian’s outstanding start to the new campaign feels, at times, like a distant memory. As late summer turned to autumn, Darmian’s faults were exposed slowly, and then very quickly. First, came the inadequacies of an attacking game that offered little more than willing support. Then came a defensive fragility against pace that is too glaringly obvious for opponents to ignore. Darmian offers a level of consistency and fitness that make for an upgrade on Rafael da Silva, but the Italian has been some way short of the class required. Appearances: 20 | Assists: 0 | Goals: 0 | 5/10
Amid the purge of United’s dead weight Valencia, somehow, survived. Perhaps it is the Ecuadorian’s willing running, or his risk-free turn-around-and-play-it-backwards passing style. It can’t be Valencia’s defending, which is a mistake waiting to happen, nor an attacking game that has improved none for a change in position from winger to full-back. Fodder for the next manager’s inevitable clear-out. Appearances: 10 | Assists: 1 | Goals: 0 | 5/10
It was supposed to be the “season of Shaw.” Having spent the summer on a special fitness and weight-loss programme, Shaw returned a player reborn – healthy, energetic and an attacking tour-de-force from full-back. It is such a shame that the former Southampton player suffered a cataclysmic injury in Eindhoven – truly, football, is the cruelest game. Still, Shaw offered enough in two months to suggest that, recovery permitting, the 20-year-old will be a fixture in United’s first team for years to come. Bonus points for the effort. Appearances: 8 | Assists: 1 | Goals: 0 | 7/10
There is plenty to admire in the Argentinian’s no-nonsense approach allied to a natural penchant for defending. It is, however, hard to admire a player from afar – the distance between Old Trafford and Carrington’s suite of high-tech medical equipment. Rojo is not fully trusted by his manager, nor fit enough, often enough, to prove Van Gaal wrong. The former Sporting player could be a significant asset. It says something that he is just as likely to be sold to a mid-ranked Spanish side next summer. Appearances: 11 | Assists: 1 | Goals: 0 | 6/10
Contrary to popular forecast Blind has not been exposed – all that often at least – as a make-shift central defender. In defeats to Swansea City, Arsenal and Bournemouth Blind made glaring errors, but it is rare that the ‘big-man-in-the-air’ truly got the better of the Dutchman. Nimble forwards, however, have regularly been able to move the player out of position and profit from Blind’s lack of mobility. In truth, Blind is a mediocre defender – his presence in Van Gaal’s team is more the symptom of chaotic transfer market strategy, than the cause of United’s downfall. United should never have resorted to a part-time defender. For that Van Gaal and his paymasters must accept the blame. Appearances: 25 | Assists: 4 | Goals: 1 | 7/10
Smalling has matured both as a player and a leader. He is United’s outstanding performer so far this season. It says something that United’s best player is, once again, part of the defensive unit, although for once de Gea is not alone in that accolade. The former Fulham defender has also been the outstanding defender in the division this season, having improved on almost all aspects of his game. While the player’s passing remains safe, it is no longer a liability – and his fitness record is almost without fault. Appearances: 26 | Assists: 1 | Goals: 1 | 9/10
One wonders quite how many chances the Blackburn-born player has left. Part defender, part casualty of his own war, Jones is rarely fit long enough to bed down a position alongside Smalling, or to fulfill all that long-discussed potential. Yet, Jones is no longer a kid and the same observations made four seasons ago still persist. Injuries and, frankly, incompetence have held the player back. He now has limited time left. Appearances: 10 | Assists: 0 | Goals: 0 | 6/10
The matter with Mata is not so much any limitation in the talent available, but the consequence of a system ill-suited to his needs and – in truth – a level of individual performance that has dipped below his best. The Spaniard should be United’s most creative player – the midfielder that unlocks packed defences and dictates the ebb and flow of a game. Much like another Spaniard, David Silva, so brilliantly does over at Manchester City. There have been games when Mata has been equally effective – just too few of them and not often enough when afforded the rare opportunity to play in a central role. The numbers are decent half way through the season, but Mata can do even better. Appearances: 25 | Assists: 6 | Goals: 7 | 7/10
The Mancunian’s breakthrough season has been a long time coming. So often the youth-player-of-note on summer tour, Lingard has finally locked down a first team spot – often to good effect. Lingard’s technical ability, work-rate and pace suggest a player who could make a lasting impact at United. There are areas for improvement of course – the apparent lack of composure in front of goal is a trait that was not often witnessed at under-21 level. Is there more to come from the 23-year-old? There needs to be if Lingard is to help United to a higher level. Appearances: 12 | Assists: 2 | Goals: 3 | 6/10
So that promising season last year really was a one-off. Young has contributed no goals, just three assists, and created just seven chances this season. Too one-dimensional in attack and too often exposed in defence, Young found a new level for a period, only to slip back into casual mediocrity. Still, the former Aston Villa winger’s visceral effort continues to win fans even if the output is far below the standards set by United’s wingers of the recent past. Appearances: 18 | Assists: 3 | Goals: 0 | 5/10
The Dutchman arrived with much fanfare and a huge price tag this summer. He seemingly loved the attention a little too much. No longer a big fish in a small pond, Memphis has struggled to adjust to life at United – both the level of professionalism required and the standard of football expected. For a man who scored almost 30 goals last season, Memphis is too often a blunt tool. He is a player who keeps the ball too long, picks the wrong pass, and shoots too wildly. The quick feet and eye for goal are there, but set against the expected standards it has been a hugely disappointing début campaign. Appearances: 23 | Assists: 3 | Goals: 6 | 5/10
It is bordering on criminal that the Basque is not in Van Gaal’s team every week. Herrera offers tenacity in the tackle and a range of inventive and pacey passing that distinctly increases United’s tempo. The challenge, for Herrera as well as Van Gaal, is that the player is neither an obvious number eight in his manager’s prosaic system, nor a classic number 10 – just one more victim of Van Gaal’s failed philosophy. On the pitch Herrera has often been United’s brightest spark – a player for whom possession with a mission is not always in sync with his manager’s world view. Appearances: 15 | Assists: 3 | Goals: 3 | 6/10
The German is a dichotomy. He is both United’s de facto leader, it’s classiest midfield performer, and five years past his peak. Schweinsteiger no longer has the legs to operate as an attacking force without exposing United’s fragile back four. Yet, the German is not the force of old as a box-to-box athlete either, nor a pure defensive midfielder.United is a better team for Schweinsteiger’s presence, and yet he is also a manifestation of the team’s decline. Schweinsteiger offers Van Gaal control in abundance, but with it comes an absence of attacking verve and defensive bite. Appearances: 24 | Assists: 1 | Goals: 1 | 7/10
The long goodbye. Carrick has been a fine asset since a £14 million move from Tottenham Hotspur in 2006. At times the Geordie has been United’s finest passer, most intelligence defender, and the quarter-back around which the side’s rhythm was set. No longer. Carrick, age now firmly catching up, has become the player he was once unfairly branded – conservative and inhibited, the king of the sideways pass. In truth, of course, Van Gaal values Carrick’s control, but the peak performance level is now some way short of the Geordie’s best. Appearances: 19 | Assists: 1 | Goals: 0 | 4/10
Roy Keane he is not. While that is, of course, an unfair comparison it is also inevitable. Few have ever matched the Irishman’s brilliance in both attack and defence. And yet it is the measure of any central midfielder at United. Schneiderlin is a willing worker and adds a touch of much-needed energy to the Reds’ midfield, but too much of the Frenchman’s work is below the very highest level. The passing is too safe, the runs from midfield too limited, the defensive work not always consistent. Schneiderlin’s capture was required, but he is never going to take United’s midfield to a new level. Solid, if uninspiring. Appearances: 16 | Assists: 0 | Goals: 2 | 6/10
Strange player. Fellaini’s recent reintroduction to the side as a central midfielder has been an unmitigated disaster. The Belgian is neither mobile enough, nor intelligence enough to player the role. In more attacking positions Fellaini can prove an awkward opponent, as evidenced in United’s recent defeat at Bournemouth, but it remains a desperate tactic. There is no clear role in the team, nor any evidence that Fellaini excells in any position. Appearances: 17 | Assists: 0 | Goals: 2 | 5/10
If the captain sets the tone, it is little wonder United’s season has come off the rails. In the process of decline for three years, Rooney’s performances have been universally abject. Too blunt to be effective as at nine, yet lacking the nuance to make an impact at 10, Rooney is a problem whose solution is found only on the bench. Yet, the Scouser’s “special privileges” have too often left United crippled – a team without a focal point, nor a creative heart. Moreover, Rooney is a problem that impacts not only the team but individuals too: Mata, Herrera and Martial in particular. Appearances: 21 | Assists: 1 | Goals: 7 | 3/10
The Frenchman’s brilliance is not necessarily recorded in his output. He has scored just seven goals this season, with four of them coming in the teenager’s first four games as a United player. Yet, the numbers tell so little of Martial’s story. He is the most technically accomplished United player, the team’s quickest, the best mover and the best finisher. Recently awarded the Golden Boy as the continent’s best young player, Martial is well on his way to super-stardom. Martial’s finishing remains cool, his close control world-class, and his personality is, well, suitably aloof. Already United’s best player – and by some distance. Appearances: 20 | Assists: 2 | Goals: 7 | 8/10