It is no simple task to please Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal. The veteran Dutchman should be in good spirits given his side’s form of late: seven matches, six victories, in which United has earned 19 points to reach the Premier League’s top three. United’s difficult start to the campaign now forgotten, the outlook is a little more rosy at Old Trafford once again, even if the Reds dropped two points in last weekend’s fixture with Aston Villa. The dominant narrative of the past 18 months is now overturned; United is no longer a club on the slide, but one recovering strongly under Van Gaal’s leadership.
Yet, the Dutchman is far from happy with a fixture list that brings five games over the festive period, including last Saturday’s draw at Villa Park. On Friday Van Gaal’s outfit faces Newcastle United at Old Trafford, with a trip to Tottenham Hotspur less than 48 hours later.
“We have to play these two matches and that is normal in the Premier League. I cannot change that,” moaned Van Gaal last week. “A lot of matches in so few days is, in my opinion, ridiculous.” Welcome to England, Louis.
Yet, it is a run of fixtures that, despite the festive burden, should bring United plenty of points; those matches with Newcastle and Tottenham are followed by a game at Stoke, where the home side has a mixed record this season. Van Gaal’s outfit will legitimately hope to capture nine points from three winnable games before the FA Cup fixture with Yeovil Town in Somerset.
Van Gaal has plenty of resources to throw at games over the next few weeks too, with a sick list that is shorter than at almost any stage this season. Not least in defence, where United has been hit hardest in recent months. Indeed, it is David de Gea alone of United’s frontline backline that is yet to succumb to injury. Chris Smalling, Rafael da Silva, Jonny Evans, Phil Jones, Luke Shaw, and Marcos Rojo, by contrast, have each spent time in United’s high-tech Carrington medical facility. It is a location with which the former quartet is overly familiar.
Not for much longer it seems, with Evans and Jones now fit, and Rafael making the bench against Villa. In the coming days Rojo, Shaw and Smalling could feature against Newcastle or Tottenham. The relief coursing through Van Gaal’s coaching team is no doubt strong, although judgement will soon pass on the Dutchman’s regime that is not caveated in the language of injury.
In the treatment room
[table id=21 /]
Injuries are only part of Van Gaal’s defensive challenge though. Assuming no further enforced absence in the weeks ahead – a wild premise under the prevailing circumstances – Van Gaal will enjoy the luxury of finding the right balance in a defence that has leaked 18 goals in the Premier League. It is a problem exacerbated on the road where United has conceded a dozen goals – more than 15th-placed West Bromwich Albion.
Many of United’s defensive problems have been precipitated by frequent revisions in Van Gaal’s tactical philosophy, often switching from a three to a four-man defence week-to-week, even when turnover in personnel is also high. Indeed, 13 players have featured in Van Gaal’s defence at some point over the campaign, not including United’s humiliating defeat at Milton Keynes Dons in the Capital One Cup.
Injury has played a significant part in this equation, of course, but it is far from the whole explanation of Van Gaal’s tactical variation. After all, in recent matches midfielder Michael Carrick has been pressed into a defensive role as part of a three-man rearguard with Patrick McNair and Tyler Blackett left on the bench.
Fitness notwithstanding there also remain questions of all defenders in the Dutchman’s squad. At right-back Antonio Valencia has deputised for much of the campaign, prompting Van Gaal to revive a three-man defence that has not always imbued confidence. Few believe the Ecuadorian is a long-term solution. Meanwhile, Rafael’s maturity has been a long-time coming, but it is the Brazilian’s fitness that undermines the player’s future at Old Trafford. After all, the 23-year-old has only once featured in more than 20 Premier League games across a campaign – seven seasons after making his United debut.
Much the same comment can be passed of Smalling, Evans and Jones. While each is talented, although not without faults, none has remained fit long enough to hold down a place in United’s first team. The former has averaged just 14 Premier League starts per season over four full campaigns. Evans a touch over 18 games on average in six full seasons with United. Jones 21 over three. No matter how rare the talent it is without value in the treatment room.
Van Gaal must hope that early season injuries to new acquisitions Shaw and Rojo are no more than teething problems and not a forebears of a pattern to come. Meanwhile, Blackett and McNair remain callow – and out of contract next summer with seemingly no guarantee that new deals will be signed.
While the Dutchman has rejected the notion that the club can spend its way out of the challenge Borussia Dortmund’s Matts Hummels is presumably high on Van Gaal’s wanted list should Ed Woodward sign off on yet more spending this winter. Not that the German international has always remained fit over the past two seasons either. Valencia’s Nicolas Otamendi is a potential alternate.
“Do we have to buy players? No. We have more than enough,” was Van Gaal’s rejoinder earlier this month. Yet, there is little doubt circumstance demands he should strengthen. After all, it is the observation that his defensive cohort cannot be trusted when it comes to fitness or form that diverts the eye towards the transfer market.
There is a much at stake. Talk of a challenge for the Premier League title is presumptuous at this stage, but neither is a spot in Europe next season guaranteed. Not least if Van Gaal’s side continues to suffer injuries in the rearguard. And history says further absences are likely even if Van Gaal has a full compliment of defenders to choose from in January.
In the meantime the Dutchman will labour through a period he says his players find “fun.” Only if they remain fit, of course.