Van Gaal builds from the back but cannot neglect United’s attacking front
Manchester United’s impending capture of Torino right-back Matteo Darmian is the first in what could be three defensive acquisitions this summer; the Italian international may even join before Louis van Gaal’s squad leaves, next Monday, for a short tour of the United States. It is a sound purchase in a window that promises a more pragmatic approach than last summer’s glitz. After all, defensive-minded reinforcements are much-needed after a campaign of inconsistency at the back. And yet Van Gaal’s apparent focus on defensive solidity could also mask a real gap in United’s attacking arsenal with just a month to go before the Premier League begins.
Reports emanating from Italy on Wednesday suggest that the club has struck a £12.5 million deal for the 25-year-old who featured for the Italian national side on 13 occasions in 2014. Darmian started all of the Azzurri’s matches in Brazil last summer and was awarded Pallone Azzurro for the best player in the national team over the past year. High praise indeed.
Darmian has built a reputation for defensive solidity in a Torino side that was otherwise largely mediocre last season. The former Milan defender contributed a modest five goals and four assists in 47 games for the club in the past year, but consistently scores highly in a number of key defensive metrics. The Legnano-born player made not a single defensive error last season and averages highly in the number of tackles and interceptions made.
With Rafael da Silva likely to move on this summer, and Antonio Valencia no closer to becoming a natural full-back, Darmian’s acquisition should add much to United’s cause. So too will the player’s genuine turn of pace, solid tactical awareness and impressive stamina, if not the inconsistent passing.
Elsewhere the club’s apparently genuine move for Sergio Ramos remains on hold while Real Madrid negotiates both a potential new contract with the player and David de Gea’s transfer to the Spanish capital. It is a triumvirate of complicated deals that may take a summer to resolve. If, indeed, Ramos’ interest in United remains genuine.
Should Ramos remain at the Santiago Bernabéu then United’s perfunctory interest in Argentinian Nicolas Otamendi may be solidified. Either way it is almost inconceivable that the Reds will start the new campaign at home to Tottenham Hotspur with Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Jonny Evans as central defensive options – even if the English pair now enjoy lucrative new contracts.
At left-back Luke Shaw’s summer fitness regime has already yielded impressive results, with the former Southampton youngster having lost some three kilos before pre-season training began. No longer should Van Gaal’s rather public dismissal of Shaw’s fitness resonate; Shaw is a player ready to provide a return on the club’s £30 million investment.
Indeed, should Ed Woodward complete a deal for Darmian this week, and land a top class central defender before the window closes on 2 September, then United will enter the new campaign in better defensive shape than over the past two years.
Add the probable acquisition of Morgan Schneiderlin from Southampton – should United match the £25 million fee reportedly demanded – and the Dutchman could even resist tinkering with United’s defensive shape. The veteran coach repeatedly switched between a back three and back four last season – to mixed effect.
Schneiderlin may not be an acquisition twinkling with stardust, nor – in an honest assessment – in the top five players in his position in Europe, but the Frenchman will add discipline, some steel and defensive nous to United’s midfield. After all, Michael Carrick’s ageing body managed to complete just half of United’s fixtures last season.
If United’s defensive weaknesses are being addressed then the club’s paucity of goals remains a stark concern. Van Gaal’s team scored just 62 Premier League goals last year; 11 adrift of the champions, Chelsea, and 21 fewer than rivals Manchester City.
The concern is only partly abated by Memphis Depay’s arrival. The Dutch youngster scored 25 and made another five for PSV Eindhoven in the past year, although there are few examples where players have immediately transferred goalscoring feats in the Eredivisie to the Premier League. Memphis’ talent is genuine, but one that his manager is likely to nurture over the coming season.
Elsewhere, Nani’s sale and likely departure of Robin van Persie has removed, if not numbers over the past year, then at least some attacking talent. The Portuguese winger was always unlikely to stay beyond this summer after United effectively put the 27-year-old in the international shop window by loaning him to Sporting last season. Nani scored 11 for the Lisbon club in his most productive ever campaign as a professional.
Meanwhile, Van Persie’s huge wage had begun to look like a burden rather than the sound investment it once was; the Dutchman has suffered two mediocre injury-plagued seasons in succession. Still, the striker’s impending sale to Fenerbahçe, for just £5 million, removes attacking experience from United’s squad.
It also leaves Van Gaal with a quartet of forwards about whom there are plenty of concerns. Javier Hernández will be sold if an adequate buyer fronts up the sub-£10 million fee demanded, while Will Keane is set to spend the season on loan at Preston North End. In truth the young forward is unlikely to ever feature for United’s first team again.
Retained in the Dutchman’s squad, just a week before United departs for the States, is captain Wayne Rooney – who suffered his worst ever goalscoring campaign last year – and the callow James Wilson. It is no kind of attacking unit to take into domestic and European competition. Rooney’s numbers last season were effected by a lengthy spell in central midfield, but the paucity of goals over the final three months or, indeed, of shots and chances created, says much for the Scousers’ waning attacking threat.
United’s goalscoring weakness, on paper at least, is less obvious in midfield, but still in need of assessment. Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini scored 25 goals between them last season, but managed just eight assists. The supply line to United’s, albeit static, forward line too often ran dry, with Angel di Maria starting on the bench for much of the campaign. It is an observation that may well fast-track Andreas Pereira into the United side during the opening weeks of the campaign – especially with Fellaini suspended.
The real challenge, of course, is no longer United’s Glazer-inspired parsimony in the transfer market, but the intense competition for attacking talent across the continent. United will need to spend, possibly in the tens of millions, to secure the standard of forward now required at Old Trafford.
This ensures that the focus returns to Woodward in the weeks leading up to 2 September. He is a much maligned executive who may well have secured a very reasonable priced new defender. Supporters will look for a similar effect up front.