Manchester United’s heavy defeat at Arsenal last weekend was always likely to provoke questions; the kind of searching self-analysis that usually follows public humiliation. In truth the visitors lost the game at the Emirates inside 19 minutes, and while Louis van Gaal’s side regained some credibility in the second period, United rarely came close to reducing the deficit, let alone taking something home. It was the Reds’ third defeat of the season – one that put some perspective on the club’s recent rise to the head of the Premier League table.
If anything, defeat in North London highlights Van Gaal’s project as a work-in-progress, one far from finished. This is a team much improved from the disastrous David Moyes era, but one facing issues on multiple fronts. Perhaps more than a dozen for Van Gaal to solve as United heads into a crucial period of the season…
Wayne Rooney is a problem, not a solution
Make no mistake, Rooney is a shadow of the idea, of the player he once was. Skip the public-relations inspired puffery that found its way on to the BBC this past week; Rooney’s burn-out is real and accelerating. Perma-poor-form has metamorphosed into genuine decline. No longer is Rooney’s touch sure, nor his game instinctive. Nor, crucially, does the player retain that burst of pace that used to mean so much. Rooney is neither United’s best number nine, nor the club’s most effective 10. On form alone the former Evertonian no longer deserves a place in Van Gaal’s side. So poor, indeed, has Rooney been that the player’s retention is now actively damaging United’s cause. The time for a bold decision may well be on the Dutchman’s horizon.
Van Gaal must find the confidence to attack
It is perhaps a blurred memory – one wrapped by the nostalgic influence of time – but did Van Gaal’s teams not used to be a touch more daring? United’s veteran coach took an Ajax side to European glory in the mid-1990s and, if memory serves well, it was a team built not only on vibrant youth, but a bold attacking approach. No longer is that the case, with Van Gaal’s outfit one of the more cautious among the top-tier Premier League sides. Perhaps United’s manager does not trust his back-four; maybe the old fire is no longer burning so strong. What if, in Van Gaal’s last managerial assignment, the willingness to take risks is no longer there? Either way, it is hard to see United securing too many trophies without taking a few more risks.
United’s away-day blues is an ongoing problem
United’s record on the road under Van Gaal is not good. Not good at all. In four away Premier League games this season the Dutchman’s side has already lost twice; it is only the ninth-best record in the league, while defeat at PSV Eindhoven can also be thrown into the analysis. This is no one-off. Last season, away from Old Trafford’s comforts, Van Gaal’s side enjoyed just the seventh-best domestic record – behind Crystal Palace, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. The problem is potentially linked to United’s lack of ambition – a cautious approach invites the opposition to attack against a side that is rarely set-up to break at speed. United’s victory at Southampton remains a stand-out result this season, but far from the norm.
The consistent inconsistency must end
After 13 games this season Van Gaal’s team remains hard to predict. It is not just that performances levels have fluctuated, but with it also results. The record reads nine victories, one draw and three defeats; there have been real lows in performance (away at Arsenal) and the occasional high (home to Liverpool). In the past month United enjoyed victory over Ipswich Town, Sunderland and Wolsfburg, only to capitulate in demoralising fashion at the Emirates. With the Reds facing a trip to Goodison Park this weekend, Van Gaal’s side must not only recover from defeat in North London, but find a better performance away from home. The side is so inconsistent that, with some irony, there will be few surprises if United pulls it off.
Defensive issues are mounting
Just as it appeared Van Gaal had crafted a title-challenging back-four then the Dutchman has multiple problems to solve. Top of mind is finding the right replacement for Luke Shaw, with the 19-year-old on the sidelines until deep into next year. The manager has tried four options in Shaw’s absence: Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, Ashley Young and Matteo Darmian. He appears totally comfortable with none. There are challenges elsewhere too, with Blind yet to convince that he is a high-quality defender despite the obvious class on-the-ball. Then there is the Darmian problem: the Italian began the season in fine form, but has contributed more than one mistake in the past month.
Ander Herrera is criminally under-used
The Spaniard has started just five of United’s 13 games this season and appears no closer to a permanent role in Van Gaal’s side than he did a year ago. Indeed, Herrera started just 22 of United’s 44 games in all competitions last season. It a data point that frustrates many. After all, Herrera contributes much to United’s attacking vigour as a creative passer, a dogged runner and an occasional goalscorer. Still, with Van Gaal insisting on deploying Rooney at 10, with two defensive midfielders locked in behind, there is probably little change on the horizon. It leaves the Reds a little more ponderous through midfield than could be the case.
Van Gaal will have to rotate a small squad
In three transfer windows Van Gaal has cut more than 30 players from the club’s squad. True, there was plenty of post-Ferguson, post-Moyes dead-wood to chop and, at times, the Dutchman has been sufficiently ruthless. Van Gaal has acquired many as well, but with far fewer players coming in it leaves United with a relatively small squad. United’s manager has seen little cause to rotate heavily to date, but with Champions League football back that will change: it is two games a week from here to Christmas. Yet, there are also plenty of questions to be asked of United’s strength-in-depth. Not least up front and at the back where the options are particularly thin. That fact could be a source of regret later this season.
Anthony Martial will need a rest
Anthony Martial has been nothing less than sensational in his seven games for the club. The Frenchman’s four goals have been a real bonus, but it is Martial’s all-round quality that has impressed most. Natural at number nine, Martial’s pace, outstanding first-touch and ability to beat an opponent has expanded United’s attacking horizons. Once again it was the Frenchman who was United’s outstanding contributor last time out – even in heavy defeat at the Emirates. Still, it is a big call to place all the club’s hopes on shoulders so young; a fact that ensures that Martial’s form will dip at some point, and that he will need to be taken out of the spotlight. Right now, with so few alternatives, it is an unthinkable scenario.
Impactful substitutions are a must
There is no science to the observation, but is Van Gaal’s use of substitutes just a bit unambitious? For all Sir Alex Ferguson’s increasing conservatism in the winter of his time at United, the old Scot was still a gambler at heart. When in doubt, with a game in the balance, Ferguson often threw caution to the wind in search of victory. Van Gaal’s approach to substitutes seems more circumspect, with changes most frequently like-for-like. It is an approach that builds on a cautious mindset, seeking greater control or defensive security, and not risking it all in the search of glory. It is also one, anecdotally at least, that rarely seems to change the course of a game.
The Marouane Fellaini temptation should be resisted
There is little quite so insidious as Fellaini. The Belgian has plenty of attributes; it’s just that so few of them fit at United. Fellaini’s leaden first touch, near-absence of creativity, and non-existent mobility make the 27-year-old a strange player in many circumstances, but especially at Old Trafford. Worse still, with Fellaini of little value in central midfield, Van Gaal appears to have earmarked the former Evertonian as his go-to second-choice number 10. It is a role Fellaini may well take up next weekend with Rooney struggling for fitness. The temptation is not just Van Gaal’s though, it is the squad’s. Fellaini’s impact is too often mental: promoting the urge to launch aimless and ineffective straight balls.
The next fortnight will prove crucial
There is little doubt United’s quality will be tested over the next three weeks. The Reds face Everton in Merseyside, followed by an away trip to CSKA Moscow in the Champions League, and then the Manchester derby at Old Trafford. The team closes out October with an away-day at in-form Crystal Palace. There are few guarantees to come from that quartet of fixtures, not least because of United’s poor record away from home under Van Gaal. It is a period that will shape the season, albeit a few weeks that will not actually dictate the season’s final outcome. Van Gaal needs a strong set of results or the pressure will undoubtedly build.
Van Gaal has options in the January transfer market
Not all problems in football are fixed with money, but there is no doubt that it helps. United’s weaknesses in defence, and challenges up front, mean that the club could look to recruit in January. Ed Woodward will no doubt remind supporters that January is a tough period to recruit, with few of Europe’s top names likely to be available during the season and many being cup-tied in European competition. Still, Van Gaal may well look to the market to fill in for weaknesses at the back or to provide a fresh spark up front. Either to change the course of United’s season.