In truth Louis van Gaal’s side achieved par and nothing more last season. It was a campaign of incessant tinkering and of flowing football morphed into pragmatic conservatism; of debilitating injuries and, in the end, Manchester United limping over the finishing line and into the Champions League. One year on from Van Gaal’s arrival at Old Trafford expectations are now higher. Much higher. After two years of drought, silverware is now the Dutchman’s imperative. It is a tough call, perhaps, but nothing else will do.
The uptick in pressure on United’s 62-year-old manager comes, in part, from another summer of free spending, albeit one in which United has also offloaded a number of players to keep the squad size roughly even. Ed Woodward’s newly loosened wallet has stretched to five signings by the eve of the new campaign: Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin, Matteo Darmian, Memphis Depay and Sergio Romero. More may well come in the next three weeks.
United’s summer business is eminently rational this time – far from the scattergun approach of recent summers. Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin will fill a much-needed hole in central midfield, while Darmian is set to take over from Antonio Valencia at right-back. Each of that trio will add to United’s defensive solidity in the coming year, even if the much vaunted experienced central defender is yet to arrive.
Defensive questions remain
United spent the summer chasing Sergio Ramos, with the Spanish international yet to commit either to Real Madrid or the Reds. This one could go to the wire, although the smart money still lies with Ramos signing a new contract at Bernabéu. Either way it borders on negligence if Van Gaal is reliant on the unreliable fitness, form and consistency of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Jonny Evans over the next year. Hope is no kind of strategy.
Of that quartet only Smalling finished last season with reputation enhanced, although Rojo’s no-nonsense approach won many friends in Manchester. The Argentinian simply must stay fit to have a greater impact this season. Ill fortune has already struck, with the former Sporting player starting the season on the sidelines after missing United’s short tour of the USA. Meanwhile, Jones suffered an awful summer, capped by a calamitous performance against Paris Saint-Germain, and is set to be dropped for the campaign’s opener against Tottenham Hotspur.
In response United will start the campaign with Daley Blind in central defence. It is the kind of oddball experimentation that is much in keeping with Van Gaal’s year in charge. Blind enjoyed a mixed début season at Old Trafford, excelling at times when used at left-back, but largely out-of-his-depth in midfield. Blind’s lack of pace, and to a lesser extent his small stature, means that it is inevitable opposition managers will target the 24-year-old in the opening weeks of the campaign.
Elsewhere, in defence, Luke Shaw’s summer fitness programme has already paid dividends, with the former Southampton youngster one of the standout players on tour this summer. Shaw’s pace and bold instincts could add much to United’s attacking game providing he remains fit for selection. It has not always been the case.
For all that the most important factor impacting United’s defensive performance is David de Gea’s future at the club, or otherwise. It is no secret that the 24-year-old wants out; nor that Woodward, rightly, has refused to let the Spaniard go on the cheap. Alongside Thibaut Courtois and Manuel Neuer, De Gea is comfortably one of the three best goalkeepers on the planet. Losing the Spaniard would represent a significant blow to United’s hopes of mounting a title challenge; one softened only if the Reds add a top quality central defender to the Schweinsteiger-Schneilderlin defensive midfield axis.
For now de Gea stays until Real meet the asking price, or the situation becomes untenable. Not least because there is no obvious replacement. Hugo Lloris had a fine season last year at Spurs, but the Frenchman is poor with the ball at his feet. It doesn’t feel like a natural candidate for United’s possession-based game. Jasper Cillesen is untested at the highest level; a player that instinctively many supporters dismiss as a class below de Gea. Either way, United must not fall back into a Roy Carroll-Tim Howard style axis of mediocrity. Anders Lindegaard and Sergio Romero take note.
The Schweinsteiger-Schneilderlin combo is augmented by players who can also operate in central midfield, representing more resources in that position than the club has enjoyed in a decade. Van Gaal will squeeze at least one more season out of Michael Carrick, while Blind, Ander Herrera, Juan Mata, and Marouane Fellaini will all compete for roles in United’s engine room. It is an embarrassment of riches spoiled only by Van Gaal’s inherent need to tinker.
On the wings Angel di Maria’s departure is tempered by Pedro Rodriguez’ impending arrival. The Spaniard is not blessed with the same class as Di Maria, but promises to be kind of team player – all clichés aside – that will fit into Van Gaal’s ‘philosophy’, where the Argentinian very much did not. Still, United will miss Di Maria’s creativity – he was the only player at the club to register more than 10 assists last season despite spending much of the final three months of the campaign on the bench. It leaves United short, as the manager has already noted, of pace and creativity in forward areas.
Ashley Young solves only part of that problem. Reward for a decent campaign us a new three-year contract, and the Englishman will compete with Memphis, Mata, Pedro, a resurgent Adnan Januzaj, and perhaps even Andrea Pereira for roles in what looks like a three-man attacking support to Wayne Rooney. The Scouser, meanwhile, believes he can score 25 goals in the season ahead. History does not support Rooney on that front, but United may well need it those numbers if the club is to progress on four fronts this year. Javier Hernández and James Wilson represent limited striking options should Rooney fall injured or out of form. It is a risk that United should fix before the window closes on 2 September.
United’s domestic progress
For all the additions to United’s squad the Reds remain only fourth best priced to regain the Premier League trophy; odds of 5/1 or better are available in a four horse race for the title. Chelsea remains favourite, although manager José Mourinho has added only Asmir Begovic, Radamel Falcao and a smattering of teenagers to his title-winning squad. Meanwhile, over at Manchester City, Raheem Sterling could prove to be an astute, if fabulously expensive, new recruit. The 20-year-old scores and creates goals, while Fabian Delph could prove to be more than just a ‘home grown’ squad filler. Delph offers midfield bite and determination; qualities that City lacked at times last season.
In north London, Arsenal’s soft underbelly remains, although £10 million capture Petr Cech solves a goalkeeping problem years in the making. Still, the jury remains firmly out on whether Arsène Wenger will ever lead his team to the Premier League title again, more than a decade after the Gunners were last champions of England. The odds are that he will not.
Whatever Chelsea, City and Arsenal’s quiet progress this summer, United’s has been greater and bolder. Van Gaal has fixed two significant problems in central midfield and at right-back, even if the club remains short in central defence and up front. It points to a significant improvement in United’s points total over the next 10 months; one that may not lead to the title, but should take the Reds to within five of the eventual winners.
Europe is another challenge again. United hasn’t progressed beyond the quarter-final in three seasons, although entry into the competition is a bonus after failure to qualify under David Moyes. The Reds must negotiate a friendly looking qualifier against Club Brugge in August, but United’s coefficient has dropped so sharply that Van Gaal’s side is now ranked 20th in the competition and will face at least one of the continent’s top clubs this autumn. Qualification for the quarter-final is probably par-for-the-course, although Van Gaal’s ambition surely stretches further.
If neither the Premier League nor European titles are expected, then the club’s hierarchy is seeking silverware in the domestic cups. It is, after all, two years since United last tasted glory under Sir Alex Ferguson. The Glazers may not demand it, but supporters and sponsors certainly do.
Yet, if the club is to regain competitive preeminence, alongside global marketing domination, then Van Gaal will need to establish his presence beyond oddball tactics and humorous media conferences. The Dutchman micro-managed the summer tour with progress in mind; now the philosophy must take United a significant level higher. Van Gaal has almost all of the resources that he requires at his fingertips.
The question remains whether the manager has a stronger influence on United’s success or it’s failure this season. Van Gaal is certainly under the microscope.