How close is Louis Van Gaal to achieving his philosophy? The Dutchman’s side dropped its first points of the campaign against Newcastle United on Saturday — and the Manchester United family wept at the heinous crime that is a goalless draw. United struggled in the final third of the pitch against a resolute Geordie defence, which was happy to park the bus and take a solitary point. The visitors almost stole the match at the death with a rare counter-attack.
The Red Devils now have seven points from nine, and have yet to concede a goal in the Premier League, but something isn’t quite right. On paper, United’s starting XI is full of both function and flair, but the attack rarely threatened with menace against the sleeping giants from the North East.
United enjoyed 70 per cent possession in Saturday’s game and created 20 attempts on goal, but Tim Krul hardly had his busiest day at the office as Van Gaal’s team laboured in attack. Van Gaal seems content to carry on deploying the Wayne Rooney-Adnan Januzaj axis as the front pairing, but the two players managed a combined total of five attempts on goal in 90 minutes. It is the same figure as Juan Mata, who opened up space by cutting in from his wide right berth.
The fourth player in this attacking quartet is Memphis Depay, and it would be unfair to pass any deep judgement on the boy at this stage. Memphis showed in the Champions League play-off first-leg that he is a special talent – and yet also incredibly raw, with some clear deficiencies in his game.
Memphis’ languid style without ball is going to gain him few fans in the Stretford End, with only Dimitar Berbatov displaying similar traits in United’s attack in recent memory. In the player’s 240 minutes of Premier League football Memphis is yet to register a goal or an assist, only shining against Club Brugge — the level of team he was used to facing in the Netherlands.
United’s new Magnificent Seven needs to add genuine application to his armoury, as well as finding the space to play his A game. Like many 21-year-olds, Memphis struggles to retain control of the ball consistently, but the early signs suggest he will not be the marauding player the team needs. If one could harness the efficiency and work of Ashley Young, and combine it with Memphis’ technical ability, it would be a wonderful talent. Memphis’ transformation is unrealistic in the short term, but the player has to bring more to the table in each game. The trait of strolling around the pitch with his head down when not involved with play wont be accepted over the longer piece.
It is unlikely Rooney, Adnan, Memphis and Mata will be Van Gaal’s long-term forward line though. As it stands it is a huge gamble to see if the quartet pays off over the coming months, rather than just weeks. The transfer window closes in nine days, and Van Gaal needs to find the club’s next principal goal-getter — a striker who will come straight in and require no time to settle down, guaranteeing the team an extra 20 goals a year.
The odd one out appears to be Rooney. Against Newcastle, the captain played 55 minutes at number nine and 35 minutes as United’s number 10. He did not excel in either role. Since Rooney joined United as a teenager there has always been a fluid debate about the player’s best position, but currently he neither has the pace to be the striker, or the touch to be the playmaker.
Fans of the England skipper will happily highlight the deficiencies in United’s other three attacking players, but it is Rooney’s job to inspire and lead this team. Januzaj and Memphis are kids, and Mata has defensive duties added to his mandate on the right – a job something that is not natural. Rooney has few excuses: he is playing a role he knows and yet is committed to wanders all over the midfield like it’s 2007. The Scouser’s contribution is minimal.
United’s game against Newcastle offered plenty of evidence. At one point during the second half Mata slid a beautiful pass between full-back and centre-back for Rooney to chase, but the Boy Wonder got nowhere near it. Sergio Aguero would have. United must consider finding a striker who has the kind of pace that allows Van Gaal’s attacking players and central midfielders to harness.
However, there are also positives amid the concerns. Daley Blind looks more than competent in central defence; his lack of pace will certainly be exploited when facing genuine world-class strikers, but this will not be the case for most of the season. Chris Smalling has developed his game to a new stratosphere, looking both powerful in the air and assured on the ground, and the Londoner’s overall performance value is the main reason United has not yet to conceded.
The defence will definitely suffer uncertain moments in the coming weeks, but the back-four and players in reserve now dictate that Van Gaal needs to invest in goal scorers rather than defenders. Matteo Darmian is already one of the finds of the summer, and Luke Shaw now looks more like a man this season compared to the boy of 2014.
United’s central midfield has been the club’s achilles heel since Paul Scholes’ retirement, but if Bastian Schweinsteiger, Michael Carrick and Morgan Schneiderlin remain fit, there will be few concerns about area of the team. Ander Herrera appears to be the squad’s forgotten man; superficially, Van Gaal simply doesn’t rate him, despite Herrera’s incredible popularity among United’s supporters.
Yet, Van Gaal only has days to solve the issues in attack. The Dutchman will know better than anyone he wont be given limitless time to get it right, given the number of marquee managers who will be available next summer. If there is not a marked improvement this term, the board will move for a fresh coach, with Pep Guardiola set to leave Bayern in 2016 and Jurgen Klopp looking for his next great challenge. Success does not need to be instantaneous, but anything that resembles failure will be punished with the sack.
Van Gaal is not a gambler; he prepares meticulously and studies players with a forensic eye. He is not afraid to give youth a chance or persist with less fashionable players, but as Robin van Persie can attest, Van Gaal is ruthless when it comes to his task. It is personal survival.
The similarities between Van Persie and Rooney are apparent, and the coach must decide to find a new natural predator for his attack, or stick with the captain – a player who just achieved two shots on target in a Premier League game for the first time since the 28 February.
Is that really good enough? Only Van Gaal and his process can decide.