Manchester United’s disastrous performance last season led to many claiming that this could well be the beginning of a decline for the former giants. Such arguments rested on the case that David Moyes, the manager who was hand chosen by Sir Alex Ferguson as his successor, had inherited a squad in decline. One only has to look at the likes of Manchester City, where one could easily pick a whole new starting XI that would be deemed competitive. They have the ultimate strength of depth while Manchester United have seemed to be too patient with the likes of Ashley Young, Nani, Cleverley and Anderson.
However, it is of course too simplistic to address this as the ultimate reason for last season’s decline. I would argue that David Moyes was especially to blame. It was never going to be easy to replace Sir Alex but Moyes had made damaging mistakes. His failure to perform in the transfer market was unacceptable.
After the failed pursuit of Cesc Fabregas, Moyes opted to sign Fellaini and later Mata out of desperation. Although both good players, neither were the domineering midfielder that United craved.
Meanwhile, Moyes’ successor at Everton, Roberto Martinez, bought in Lukaku, Barry and Deuolfeu.
Moyes’ lack of game plan was also a catalyst for his downfall as lineups would be seen to be baffling in the tactical sense. Take his decision to opt to play Giggs and Fellaini in midfield against Everton at home; Everton would have obliterated the midfield in the counter attack as neither had the legs to work back effectively. The Liverpool game also showed the lack of strategy from Moyes. He was too eager to start Mata, Januzaj, Rooney and Robin Van Persie all at once, when perhaps it would have made more sense to devise a plan to stop Liverpool’s impressive midfield. Instead Mata was played out wide, where he had no effect on creating chances, nor the legs to get back to help his fullback. Liverpool’s midfield would exploit these spaces left.
Drastic change was needed in the summer and so in stepped the new manager, Louis Van Gaal. His CV speaks for itself: he has enjoyed Champions League success with a rather young Ajax team and has won league titles with Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Most recently, he has just led the Dutch National team to a third place finish at the World Cup in Brazil. He has often been credited with discovering the great players of our generation, Seedorf, Xavi and Iniesta and Muller being the most notable examples. This track record has enabled him to attract the calibre of player Manchester United are looking for. David Moyes arguably needed to prove himself as a manager before he was able to attract players he had wanted. Now Manchester United have ‘splashed the cash’, with the summer acquisitions of Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw, Marcus Rojo, Angel Di Maria, Daley Blind and Radamel Falcao on loan for a combined £150 million.
In ‘splashing the cash’, Van Gaal has hindered what has been one of the most crucial ethos of Manchester United as a football club: its youth development. His contract itself being three years (compared to the five years that David Moyes had signed) implies short term success as the aim. It is therefore quite upsetting seeing Danny Welbeck, a local lad from Longsight, leave to join Arsenal. I don’t blame him for wanting to leave either. Most Manchester United fans can understand the ability he has but see that he is unfortunately not given the chance he deserves to prove himself. With Champions League games lacking this season, Welbeck is at the age where he needs to be playing regularly to be able to improve. This does not mean that Manchester United won’t continue to produce good young players. Tyler Blackett, for instance, has started every game this season. But one can only imagine in such a short term plan to get Manchester United back to winning trophies again, that youth development would have to be put on hold. The expensive signings made are necessary, considering the fact that the squad looks depleted compared to Manchester City’s.
How Louis Van Gaal has lined the team up to play is certainly not what one would regard to be the ‘Manchester United way’. Manchester United are known for quick counter attacking football; they have always used wingers to play daring football where chances are taken to win the game. What we now see with Van Gaal’s 3-5-2 formation is a specialised, disciplined structure. This worked incredibly well for Van Gaal at the World Cup and he essentially believes that with this shape, the player would defend the space and the opposing player coming into it more easily. However, there must be reservations with the formation. Roberto Mancini in his final season at City had initially insisted on playing three at the back, but this had led to notable criticism from his own players. City crashed out of Europe without winning a game in their group and the formation was dropped.
Can Van Gaal really make this work then? Time will only tell. The formation itself has so far seemed to make the Manchester United players nervous in defence. They appear to knock it around, unsure what to do. Personally, I would think Evans should start as the middleman instead of Jones. Jones of course can play in the other two centre back roles, but he hasn’t got quite the confidence to bring the ball out and to feed the midfield. Evans, on the other hand, is remarkably comfortable on the ball in this department.
In signing Rojo and Blind, perhaps Van Gaal has gone for players that are specialised for this formation. Blind for instance can operate as the wide wing back or can play as the holding midfielder and may very well help bring the ball out of defence. Many have argued that Manchester United should have signed a ‘world class’ centre back this summer but I see this to be very harsh on Smalling, Evans, Jones and Rafael. Without midfield structure last season, the Manchester United defence had very little help and this allowed such experienced defenders as Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra to be exploited. It is hard to beat the drum for such players being ‘past it’, considering that they won the league a year before. According to Squawka, the Manchester United keeper David De Gea made more saves (87) than any of the top four teams’ goalkeepers, which seems to reflect how exposed they were. It is not easy for young players to suddenly stand out and confidence would certainly be depleted with such consistently bad results. Moreover, at no point in Moyes’ reign did the starting XI remain the same and such a huge amount of changes does not help to build consistency.
Creating chances was also very poor last season, with Squawka recording that Manchester United created the least amount of chances compared to the teams that finished in the top four this season. Manchester United could only carve out 388, which is low compared to the winners: Manchester City at 533. In terms of assists, United were also at the lowest with 37, compared to City’s 65. United are famous for wing play but Moyes took it to extremes last year as shown in the 2-2 draw against Fulham where 905 crosses were attempted, more than any other team in the league. This made United look too predictable. Van Gaal has set out to solve this problem by signing Angel Di Maria for a British transfer fee of £59.7 million. He alone was able to create 90 chances in a season, along with succeeding in 17 assists. Perhaps United will be able to switch to 4-3-3, to accommodate Falcao in attack. There is no need to introduce Falcao as the man has proven to be a goal machine, but it will be interesting to see who will be dropped in the line up to accommodate him.
Although it is upsetting to see the sacrifice of youth, United fans are able to see a plan in place, something that was very difficult to see under David Moyes. Yes, the defence may look a bit shaky but perhaps we should be patient before we criticise it, to see if the players can regain their confidence. Van Gaal has arrived and has taken the challenge by the scruff of the neck. He has already stated that the squad is “unbalanced” with the amount of number 10s in the squad. This has led to the departure of Kagawa back to Bourissa Dortmund, a player I believe has been wasted by Manchester United. Others have also been shown the door with notable players Javier Hernandez, Cleverley and Nani leaving on loan. The great question is, how on earth was Anderson able to survive the cull?
Nevertheless, it is an exciting time for Manchester United. Not since 2009 have Manchester United seen such an attacking force, with players such as Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez and Berbatov. It must only be a matter of time before they start competing at the top again.