This Is Actually The Position Manchester United Needed To Strengthen The Most This Summer… Or Is It?
When the transfer window slammed shut two weeks ago you would have been forgiven for thinking it would spell the end of the incessant rumours, round-ups and ‘Five Things We Learned’ articles but the truth is the transfer window never really shuts, ergo the constant stream of receptive ‘content’ never ends. With that said, here’s some more for you to absentmindedly scroll past on Twitter dot com while on the Tube.
Marouane Fellaini: From Moyes Man to LVG’s Pillar of Pragmatism
Louis van Gaal has admitted Marouane Fellaini will be utilised as a forward this season. While the manager’s admission doesn’t exactly come as shock it’s not the news many Manchester United fans were hoping for.
We All Want to Kiss Memphis Depay
On Tuesday evening Manchester United fans got their first real taste of Memphis Depay. The Memphis Show rolled into town with a display of real intent, something seldom seen from United number 7s in recent years, as he bagged two goals and even grabbed an assist.
Tuesday Night Takeaway
In lieu of pod this week, here are a few short observations:
– Security can be liberating. After an off-season of links to any central defender worthy of the description and goalkeeping instability it was understandable that the ‘trainer-coach’ placed the emphasis on creating a secure platform at the expense of entertainment. Successive clean sheets has instilled trust in our capacity to defend and tonight the handbrake seemed to be released just a little. It was noticeable that each of the back four seized opportunities to stride into midfield and the forward players took the hint that this was the time to express themselves. We approached fluid at times and even showed off some neat positional interchanges without losing team shape. It might have been largely disjointed but it was a start.
– Rafa who? A cult hero may have left but what an upgrade. Darmian again looked utterly magnificent. Not to be outdone, Shaw continued his metamorphosis from chubby inbetweener to fully grown action man. On the (very) early evidence we have the finest pair of full backs in the league. Quite a transformation considering just two short seasons ago Alex Büttner was considered a legitimate consideration.
– Quietly crucial. Morgan Schneiderlin has arguably been the least lauded of the new arrivals but that should change. It is easy to forget that this is a player moving from a comparably small club, with little experience on the European or International stage. Such has been the extent of concern over our lack of central midfield quality that the assumption has been only an established world star could fit the bill (Thiago, Modric, Fabregas, etc). You would be forgiven for feeling a little overawed; even more so with both the captain of the world champions and a fan favourite sitting on the bench. Schneiderlin has appeared nerveless since a shaky opening twenty minutes against Spurs and tonight debuted in the Champions League as if he belonged. Clearly far greater tests await than tonight’s opponents but on this evidence he has the mentality to cope with the enhanced expectations.
– Depths plumbed for Wayne? He wasn’t great tonight. In fact he was barely above average but even that was a gigantic improvement on last Friday. Positionally he was more disciplined whilst being alive to the potential for counter attacks. A shaky start suggested the criticism was weighing heavily yet he grew into the game and even contributed a delicious flick to put it on a plate for Memphis that reminded all as to why van Gaal has backed him to lead the line. Many of us might not like Captain Wazza but the reality is that he is key to our hopes for success this season and signs of improvement are cause for celebration.
– Memphis Hip Shake. A young player shining on a European night at Old Trafford is what our club is all about. Two stunning goals, a pinpoint assist and movement that had Brugge defenders chasing shadows. If any criticism could be levelled it would be an unnecessary unselfishness and defensive negligence but neither merit real concern. This patient version of United has lacked genuine menace; Di Maria threatened to provide it last season but slid into irrelevance. Memphis tonight gave every indication he can provide that X-factor required to disrupt the best defences. Consistency will take time but screw tempering expectations – I’m excited!
– Grass is always greener. There is an impatience about football fans that has many coveting the next acquisition. Social media today was awash with ‘experts’ lamenting our failure to sign Otamendi and the usual pissing contest of suggested players they had barely seen to take the place of those they have. The only players without a blemish on their United career are those who are yet to have one so it is tempting to assume that Otamendi would walk into the side and be the world class commanding centre back we crave. A bit like Mangala did at City. The reality is that aquiring a high quality left sided play making centre back is as difficult as it is welcome. Based on 270 minutes of football this season we currently have a high quality commanding centre back in Chris Smalling and a very capable partner in Daley Blind. The habit of dismissing existing players as clearly inferior to the names that populate gossip columns baffles me. Elsewhere in the side tonight we saw Januzaj deliver another promising performance at the point of the midfield, Hernandez contribute effectively from the bench and Fellaini demonstrate his value. One or even two below par seasons does not render a player worthless and we would be wise to remember that. I write as someone who in a fit of pique (topical!) called for Chris Smalling to be sold just a few short months ago.
Stupid know it all podcasters.
(We’ll be back next week.)
Can Adnan Januzaj Afford Another Season of Stagnation?
He may only be 20-years-old and only have two seasons of top level footballing experience under his belt but that hasn’t stopped many calling this season ‘make or break’ for Adnan Januzaj. The Belgian winger is reportedly a loan target for Sunderland but would a move away from Old Trafford really benefit the player?
UNITED ARE BACK!!! (sort of)
In lieu of a pod this week, here are a jumble of thoughts about United’s week;
Well that was fun. Ninety minutes of the commentary team desperately struggling to apply a formation to a free form display. Paddy McNair on the roam, Big Maoam dishing out lollipops like a rich child desperate for friends; this was jazz football. I loved it.
To borrow the most overused intro in the (brief) history of new media football writing ‘so what did we learn?’
We have some fast players (ADM), we have some slow players (MF), and we have some kind of in the middle players (WR). The equally demoralizing dichotomy of recent displays has been the random switches between prolific procrastination (‘We want to score but we don’t really know if we can so we will just pass it around pretty slowly for a long while and can at least point to dominating possession even if we haven’t managed to do anything remotely interesting with it.’) and hit and hope (‘The ball is hot, the ball is hot, kick it away quick, the ball is hot.’)
Last night had elements of both at times but bit by bit there seemed to be an emerging coherence to what we were trying to do. To labour a weak analogy; my son is rubbish at swimming. It’s acceptable given he is only two but until last weekend trips to the pool principally consisted of him clinging to me for dear life. On Saturday the penny dropped that if he stood on his tip toes his head stayed above the water and BANG – instant love of swimming. No longer fearing instant death he rapidly went through the repertoire of kicking, splashing, jumping in, the works. Barely pausing for a second to even acknowledge my existence he had discovered a new freedom and was damn well going to enjoy it. Perhaps the home comfort of facing a side way below the level of our usual competitors was the encouragement needed for United to embrace the madness and finally engage with the ‘wacky’ Dutch style we had been waiting for.
I’m exaggerating. I know it. Our principle game plan of get it wide and get it in was positively Moyesian; yet the relish with which McNair advanced and continued to support the creation of openings was an indication that a wind of change was a blowing. Di Maria soon joined in on the attack, hitting the nitro injection at every opportunity and having a thoroughly good time doing it. Rojo once again displayed how much more adept a footballer he is than I thought by effortlessly showing a versatility that had echoes of the great Sheasy. They weren’t alone in impressing; Mata played on the half turn all night looking to link up and make things happen. Robin proved you don’t have to score to be of use. Wilson came on and reminded us that it helps if you do. Wayne was pretty good if we gloss over the whole passing thing. Evans looked less like an absolute catastrophe waiting to happen than he has all season. Smalling did some headers. Blind was handsome. (I think that’s everyone?) On a purely personal level I enjoyed the fact that all our goals came from genuinely nice humans. I also thought the gesture of black armbands in memory of Anderson was poignant.
Tougher challenges await; Sunday sees a visit to those charming cockneys who will be sure to fill the air with bonhomie and lovely banter. They are missing loads of players so I think we’ll do well. When a team has to block the departure of Can’t Control you can confidently deduce that they are not at their strongest. We might play five at the back and restate our claim to the least interesting mega bucks side in football history but I hope not.
Ander Herrera has been the name on many a disgruntled Red’s lips in recent weeks. It is probably our most asked pod question – beating even the ever fascinating ‘When will we stop playing a back 3?’ His continued absence has certainly disproved my rib injury related theory and it seems that for whatever reason he is not to our trainer-coach’s taste. Speculation on non-pitch related reasons are best left for the informed articulate forum provided by twitter. On the pitch he hasn’t seemed to do too much wrong; he certainly seemed to vastly improve with every passing match that he wasn’t involved in. To read/hear the thoughts of some you would assume that Roy Keane himself was being left to stew on the sidelines. Last night appeared the ideal time to re-integrate him but again he was reduced to a cameo role. Whilst conclusions about his future should not be jumped to (hands up who thought Ashley Young would be an LVG favourite?), there does seem something amiss. I wouldn’t be surprised if he joins Rafael on Woodward’s secretary’s ‘Sorry your leaving’ card list come the summer. I dearly hope I’m wrong as the lad seems to have the lot – but all the more reason to suspect all is not as it seems.
Transfer deadline day came and went with a whimper. Like most United fans with a minor profile (does under 3k followers even qualify for minor?) I fielded a fair few panicked pleas ‘Why are we not signing anyone?’ The answer seems quite straightforward to me. We are in the champions league places and are doing ok as things stand. Our squad has survived the most debilitating of injury crises meaning we have several players who could legitimately argue they are yet to have a fair chance. All of that would be immaterial of course if one of Woody’s Wonder Targets had become available but that didn’t happen. Whispers of deals arranged for the summer are plausible but unless you really are in dire financial need selling your best defender in January for anything but astronomical fees makes absolutely no sense. For all our legitimate criticism of Jones, Smalling, Evans and Valencia they have proved themselves capable of performing adequately in this league. Where things get interesting is when we consider the challenge of coping with a European campaign and a genuine tilt at the title. Van Gaal knows that the goodwill he has received from United fans this season is based on this promise. It is for that reason that I fully expect one or two of the much anticipated mega-signings to materialise come the summer.
It would be remiss to end without paying tribute to one of the most courageous individuals ever to pull on the famous shirt. Ferguson always used to respond to questions about the possibility of retirement by pointing to his health as the key decision maker. It is a truly horrible experience for your body to begin to fail you at any age. As a young man reliant upon supreme physical fitness to even compete, never mind excel, in your profession; coping with the reality that you will never again be able to reach the levels to which your potential suggested is as much a challenge for the mind as the body. We hoped and he hoped that the odds could be defied but ultimately they couldn’t. A move to a less demanding environment though saddening is a decision I entirely understand. He goes with our best wishes.
Sorry for the lack of pod this week – the irritating reality of doing it for fun and for free means that sometimes we can’t fit it in. Rest assured we haven’t fallen out of love with you magnificent bunch.
Come on you Reds.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Angel di Maria
Tom’s #CTS10pBetClub prediction: 3-1 United.
*OBVIOUSLY I was talking about Super Fletch. An incredible and inspirational human being.
No more crying without wings: Time for Louis to let us fly.
Defeat on Sunday came as a disappointment rather than any great shock. A decent defensive display was undermined by a blunt attack and a solitary goal was too big a challenge to overcome. As the league table shows, Southampton are a good side, but that doesn’t excuse a failure to register a shot on target in ninety minutes at Old Trafford. Sunday was a dismal failure.
I bloody love Louis van Gaal. He is everything I want as a United manager; but that doesn’t mean I don’t disagree with several of his decisions. As I’ve said many times on the pod; one of the reasons I was such an early advocate of bringing the Dutchman to Manchester was the guarantee of exciting, progressive football. We saw an approximation of this in the early season as goals flew in at both ends thanks to a diamond system that sparkled in attack but left a fragile defence exposed. In a nod to his illustrious predecessor (Moyes never happened) after shipping five at Leicester attention shifted to reducing the goals against column. It made sense and paid dividends. For all the criticisms from impatient fans, three at the back was a contributor to a long unbeaten run which saw the ship steadied and the team climb into a comfortable top four position. It was deemed a necessary evil for an injury ravaged squad.
Necessity is no more. Boasting of a near clean bill of health before the match; expectations rose of the football we expect from a van Gaal side. The reality was a ponderous in attack and little penetration down the flanks. The whole experience was deflating. United fans wants to be thrilled again and for that to happen some brave decisions need to be made.
Three at the back is very sensible for a counter-attacking strategy away to a difficult opponent. It should not be our default. On Sunday it provided greater security but crucially left us a man short in attack. Our two wing-backs give their all but are both makeshift in the role. Opponents have sussed this out and flood the middle rather than engage the wide players directly. We need fresh points of attack and for that to happen we must take the ‘gamble’ of removing a third centre back to provide an additional forward. If the trainer-coach’s mistrust in our central defenders really is too severe to risk a back four then the extra millions it might cost to bring in our summer options should be spent.
Shaw, Young and Valencia have put in commendable shifts and rebuilt their relationship with the fans as a result. However none are the quality of wide player necessary to threaten against the better sides. Teams are content to allow our wingbacks to have the ball whilst our talented but pedestrian midfield struggle. We are fortunate to possess a plethora of players who are happiest in central areas yet the inevitable consequence is a congested middle and a slower tempo. Look how often Rooney seeks to play his favourite diagonal ball – increasingly unsuccessfully going by recent games. The switch of play from a deep central position is the SOS of the central midfielder. The Dutch school of thinking is all about making the pitch big when we have the ball and to do that we need wingers. Let Di Maria be our Overmars! Let Januzaj be our Finidi George! Both players are far from conventional wingers but have that blessed ingredient we have so often lacked of late – pace. By providing wide attacking threat we increase the service to both the number nine (Falcao or RvP) and the number ten arriving from deep (Rooney or Mata).
Januzaj has been the subject of speculation over a possible loan move or even a permanent departure in the summer. This would be an error of Pogba proportions. Less football this season will do him no harm physically but it is a legitimate concern at his limited game time in suitable roles. Given the hesitant, lethargic nature of recent displays I see no rational reason not to restore him to the side. He is stronger than last season, is surrounded by better players and if given a run of games to find his rhythm can provide the missing spark to ignite our season.
We should have nothing to fear in this division. The Premier League is populated with good but not great sides. I firmly believe that the benefit of allowing our attacking strengths to flourish far outweighs the risk of conceding more goals. The ‘shock’ defeats will be an unpleasant consequence but the transformation of draws into victories will more than make up for it.
Time to let us fly Louis.
My line up for Saturday:
Running the Rule Over the Defence
Kevin Levingston examines our defence and gives his views on which players may be on borrowed time….
The main narrative of our season so far has been a persistent struggle against injuries in the first team. Nowhere has this been more prevalent than in the Red’s back line. Putting aside all discussions about training process and the ability of our medical team to rehabilitate people capably; it is becoming clear that there are a number of players that Mr Van Gaal can no longer rely on to be consistently available. One thing is certain; new defenders will arrive before long. Whether it’s in January or in the summer, the boss needs players he can rely upon for fitness and form. The clock is ticking for our defence. Below is a rundown of our current troops and how secure their futures are based on performances and fitness.
Rafael Da Silva
Undoubtedly a fan favourite. The right-back is in his seventh season at Old Trafford now and on his day looks every inch the player we all hoped he could become. A particularly impressive 2012-13 season saw him put paid to what remained of his critics and prove that he could indeed be a fixture for us on the right hand side. Impetuousness had made way for a far more measured and methodical approach, without having lost the boyish exuberance that complimented his game so well. He had arrived. An interrupted (by injury) and inconsistent 13-14 season followed, but he was no worse than anyone else had been under David Moyes.
Fitness – Injury has restricted Rafael to just 3 appearances this term. Seems to miss a considerable chunk of every season.
Form – Probably hasn’t quite featured enough to make up Van Gaal’s mind one way or the other about his ability.
Verdict: Lack of depth in this position means the Brazilian will be retained and judged at a later date, though it wouldn’t be surprising to see another right-back brought in for competition. A summer move for Southampton’s Nathaniel Clyne seems a possibility.
A £29million arrival from Southampton in the summer. The youngster was a revelation for Southampton last season and the Reds were just one of a number of interested clubs. For such a hefty price there is a certain amount of pressure on the left-back but there is a confidence that Shaw can go on to make the left back position his own for the next ten years. He has shown his quality in fits and starts so far this year.
Fitness – Unfortunately set to be out until the New Year with injury. Initial doubts about his conditioning and application in training were put to bed in the autumn; Louis Van Gall calling him an “example” to the rest of the team. There doesn’t seem to be any long term fitness concerns, though he will be looking for a long run of games in the New Year.
Form – Understandably still settling in, the left-back has done enough for fans and pundits alike to get very excited about his future.
Verdict: Has a massive opportunity to become the first name on Van Gaal’s team sheet each week. His future seems secure.
Now in his fourth season at the club, the player once described as “better than Duncan Edwards” has not lived up to expectations. An impressive enough first eighteen months has made way for a more interrupted last two years. On his best day Jones is a powerful presence at the back but his overall game has not improved as one might have hoped it would. A habit of making fantastic last ditch tackles has often distracted from the Lancashire lad’s inability to read the game, whilst a tendency to throw himself about like he’s made of granite has exposed the fact that he’s actually made of glass. He has missed far too many games over the last few seasons. Quite often as a result of his own recklessness.
Fitness – Made his return from injury (again) against Liverpool. Spends just as much time on the treatment table as on the pitch.
Form – So-so.
Verdict: His potential means Van Gaal is unlikely to get rid of him just yet, but the boss will be far from convinced that he can rely on Jones’ form or performances going forward. Expect him to stick around, but expect his place in the first team to be taken by a new arrival. After that, who knows?
A product of the academy and our most experienced centre-back; dating back to the heady days of partnering Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand in turn and not looking out of place. The lad from Norn Iron overcame a lot of adversity in his formative years at Old Trafford and there was even talk in some quarters of awarding him the captaincy at the start of the season. Our only defender with proper experience of playing consistently at the peak of the British and European game. You would hope he could be an example for the rest.
Fitness – Currently on his way back from injury. Good for at least one medium-term injury per season. Usually more.
Form – Awful. Looks a shadow of his former self this season and has made a number of key mistakes.
Verdict: He should be worried. He has a massive affiliation with the club and being a home grown player will count in his favour, but he has shown Van Gaal nothing in games to suggest he’s the man for our defence going forward. Needs a massive upturn in form and fitness or he’ll be off in the summer.
Once heralded as the new Rio Ferdinand; a subsequent three seasons of shanking the ball into team-mates midriff, shins or into the stands has put paid to that particular theory, however the former Maidstone stopper is probably the most natural defender in our squad. It’s a good thing too, as he has very little to offer in an offensive sense. He possesses extremely capable reading of the game and is a strong tackler.
Fitness – Currently injured. Again. Brittle.
Form – Mixed. THAT mistake against City is fresh in peoples minds but it was flanked by impressive showings against Chelsea, Arsenal and Hull. Injury couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Verdict: Chances are that only one of Smalling, Jones and Evans has a long term future at Old Trafford. Before succumbing to injury against Southampton, Smalling looked set to ensure that it would be him. Still, you feel that his Manchester United story is not yet over.
A new arrival at United after an impressive World Cup showing and versatile enough to play at left back or in the centre of defence; Marcus Rojo is still very much an unknown quantity. Has impressed at times and looked an uncertain prospect at others. He is a left footer and the boss is apparently a big fan.
Fitness – Disolcated his own shoulder in a tackle for his second injury of the season. He had previously missed time with a knee complaint. Pulled out of the Liverpool game the day before. Three months, three injuries. One would hope it’s the exception rather than the rule.
Form – Steady. No worse than any of his colleagues in defence, but needs a run of games. Looks competent, if not a little weak in the air. Very much still adjusting to the Premier League.
Verdict: Shouldn’t be worried. Van Gaal is a hard task master but Rojo should get more than his fair share of chances to prove himself. Should be the least worried of our centre-backs. The boss will look for Rojo to become a fixture in his defence.
Paddy McNair & Tyler Blackett
In many ways the success story of Van Gaal’s tenure, particularly in the case of Paddy McNair. The youngsters have come in and done a job due to the sheer weight of injuries in defence. For the most part, they have exceeded all expectations and should be commended for that. It is too soon, however, to make any judgements on their future. For now they remain exciting prospects.
You can follow Kevin on twitter at – @KevinLevingston
How Louis van Gaal Fixed Manchester United.
Normal service resumed. After humiliation last season United climbed back atop their perch and Liverpool returned to their rightful place in our shadow. Aside from the joyous satisfaction at putting three past the enemy; the result confirmed United’s position in the upper echelons of the division. Title talk that seemed fanciful in October is now a legitimate topic for discussion among football’s ever chattering and twittering classes. As we eye a busy festive program it seems an opportune time to reflect on why United look a force once more. For all the excitement over tactical philosophy; it is the psychological management of the side which is most responsible for our resurgence. Quite simply, Louis van Gaal understands people. Here’s how he did it.
It might seem obvious, but without trust in the ideas of the ‘trainer-coach’ a player is unlikely to perform. When learning to drive you have total confidence that the terrifying maneuvers you are being asked to perform with little success will ultimately result in your goal of holding a legal licence. If that trust isn’t swiftly established the relationship is terminated. clichéd as the analogy might be; it reflects the first stage of the Van Gaal era. Players would be forgiven for feeling apprehensive at the arrival of the subject of so many anecdotes. In the statistical age we are quick to focus on tactical quirks but should not underestimate the unsettling impact of forging a new human relationship. Sleepless nights at the thought of becoming acquainted with the new boss’s testicles would be understandable. The swift introduction of previously alien concepts such as a three-man defence might have exacerbated these very human fears were it not for consistent reiteration of the vision. Confident declarations of domestic and continental success within three years might have been viewed by some as Mourinho showmanship yet for the players this was a welcome return to aiming for the stars after 18 months where such aspirations were frowned upon. I don’t need to recycle the Moyes quotes that we became so familiar with to remind you how difficult it is to gain or regain the trust of players whose abilities you have publicly denigrated. Five months into his tenure and the newspapers are free from the off-the-record complaints from disgruntled players that became de rigueur last term. The current squad has remarkably quickly placed their trust in van Gaal to get the best out of them; even when on-the-field indications have suggested legitimate cause for concern.
Trust is, of course, a two-way street. Woodward’s claims of a summer spending splurge were treated with great suspicion from several (including your’s truly) yet so it proved. Arrivals and departures dominated the summer and the indications are that there will be more to come. Ample grounds to suggest the new man has little trust in the squad he inherited yet the opposite has proved the case. A three goal triumph over Liverpool was achieved without starting any summer signings. Fittingly the only relatively recent recruits were players signed by Moyes and earmarked for departure under van Gaal. Contrary to expectation, after moving on the players who failed to gain his trust, players whose careers had stagnated under either Ferguson or Moyes have been reinvigorated. Young, Valencia, Fellaini, Carrick and even Rooney are all enjoying their best run of form in years. A large reason for this is the feeling of being trusted by the manager. Each has been deployed in a myriad of roles yet such is the belief that the boss has shown in them they have risen to the challenge. Potential disgruntlement also lay in the young players at the club. International stars seemingly arriving each week will have done little for confidence that chances would be afforded to homegrown players yet through a mixture of design (e.g. Wilson) and necessity (e.g. Blackett) the path from academy to first team has never looked clearer. On last week’s pod I voiced my disapproval of the early substitution of McNair; the gesture yesterday of enabling the young defender to receive the warmth of the crowd was a demonstration of the value the manager places on preserving trust.
The final – and arguably most important – element is trust in oneself. In high-profile public jobs you will never please everyone. The reality is that mild discomfort can escalate into full-blown crisis. United are often at the centre of a storm and this was a position to which David Moyes was entirely unsuited. Making decisions through fear of the reaction of the mob makes failure inevitable. Unlike his well-meaning predecessor, Louis van Gaal has total trust in his own capacity to deliver a long-term plan. Even those supporters who have most readily embraced the new chapter have questioned the continued faith in a three-man defence. Last week’s pod poll revealed 70% of United fans would like to see it binned permanently. The mob want to be obeyed; but they will not be caved into. Yesterday gave some indication of why; Jones and Evans admittedly looked rusty and the absence of a defensive midfielder left us exposed – yet the performance of Michael Carrick suggested the mob may have acted hastily. Whether right or wrong, the determination of the new boss to persevere with an unpopular system is to be respected. This should not be confused with rigidity or stubbornness; formation changes mid-game have been commonplace. van Gaal trusts in his judgment and that is an admirable quality in a world populated by millions who believe they know better.
EQUALITY FOR ALL
Poisonous dressing rooms are a recipe for disaster. David Moyes to his cost found himself presiding over a divided dressing room with enough axes to grind to feature in Game of Thrones. Rightly or wrongly, a common accusation made against Moyes was favouritism. The cult of Wazza, at least from the outside, threatened team harmony and disaffection was rife. Fast forward to this season and on the face of it, little has changed. Rooney has gone from undroppable golden boy to undroppable golden captain, van Persie is written in permanent marker on the tactics board, and bafflingly Ander Herrera has spent much of the season as a spectator. Faces should not always be trusted. Dig beneath the superficial and you find a united dressing room with nothing but praise for the new coaching team. The secret? Equality. Drawing up a code of conduct for modern footballers would seem akin to making a rod for your own back; yet expecting all to adhere to the same rules has fostered team spirit. Reports this week of Sinatra karaoke paint a very different picture from the stern Sargent Major we were led to believe was our manager.
On the pitch too, this belief in equality for all has been demonstrated. Marouane Fellaini is the personification of this. Earmarked for the exit door, his fortunes have dramatically improved. van Gaal has afforded him the opportunity to make a case for his retention and he has seized it. Get in, play well, stay in. Similar examples can be found when reflecting on the seasons of Ashley Young, Tyler Blackett, Paddy McNair and Antonio Valencia. The established hierarchy has been set aside in the main; nationality and service meant no captaincy for van Persie, James Wilson was selected ahead of Falcao to suit a particular game plan and Luke Shaw was made to wait until he met the manager’s fitness requirements. The incongruous effect of recruiting six multi-million pound signings has been a harmonious squad.
Three and a half hours of diabolical football, concluded by a penalty shootout so poor that neither team deserved to go forward to Wembley. ‘I can sense the team getting better,’ said our manager. No he didn’t. We knew he didn’t. Taking supporters for idiots is never a wise move and so it proved for Moyes. Let’s not forget though that Ferguson was fond of the same routine; though admittedly he was much better at it. ‘Fergie’s mind games’ may have worked brilliantly on a handful of occasion but on the whole they were embarrassing and unbecoming of a man of his stature. Refreshingly, van Gaal takes a different approach. His approach to the press is no less abrasive, yet brutal honesty is the order of the day. We have become expectant that managers will seek to deflect attention after a poor result elsewhere, even ball boys. None of this from van Gaal; an unexpected delight has been his willingness to identify areas of dissatisfaction despite victories. A dangerous game admittedly, yet when played well it can have a galvanizing effect and guard against complacency. For all the excitement over the scoreline yesterday the manager was right to express disappointment in retention of the ball. The reverse is also true; although critical of ‘throwing the game away’ at Leicester, the manager still identified positives in the performance. Honesty also extends to self-evaluation. A highlight of his many illuminating post-match interviews this season was the tongue in cheek claim of being ‘a genius’ for opting for a three-man defence that was routinely cut to ribbons for half an hour at the Emirates. Whether the honesty strategy works in the long-term remains to be seen, but for now it is a valuable weapon against the sensationalist reporting that follows every Manchester United performance.
So there you have it. No stats or insightful tactical analysis (if you’ve listened to the pod you’ll be well aware of my limits in those fields.) It might be overly simplistic, but it is my belief that the installation of these three old-fashioned values have gone a long way to rehabilitating the whole staff and restoring faith that United are a club on the rise.
Manchester United’s Tactical Malleability
Manchester United’s ‘easy’ start to the season is over and after three months of competitive games the shape of the team has taken form. The diamond has, thankfully, replaced the faltering 3-5-2 and United now play fluid, attacking football with a reasonable degree of certainty at the back. However from watching the team in recent games, it is clear that their tactics facilitate an orthodox diamond with quite a few possibilities. Di Maria and Herrera are chalk and cheese in terms of styles but their positions reflect each other and the knock on effect this has on the full backs is stark. Also, depending on how high the opposition presses, United’s player sitting, for me, should rotate subject to the midfield they are up against. Some may call this unbalanced but I call it flexible and I believe these tactical nuances in the line-up will become more apparent in the next five games and beyond.