Manchester United’s relatively easy start to the season in terms of fixtures led to widespread belief that van Gaal would soon get the best out of the team and a good start to the season was forecast by many an optimistic fan. However, it was not to be. Tom Chambers looks into the reasons behind a rocky start and emphasizes the need for realism at Old Trafford.
Manchester United’s indifferent start to the new Premier League season has brought widespread rhetoric from plenty in the footballing media and fans alike. Thanks to Louis van Gaal’s considerable credentials and his achievements at the World Cup this summer, tied in with their “easy” opening eight games, many expected United to be top of the tree at this stage, and the fact that they are not has brought expected criticism. United have always been the biggest story, particularly in the last quarter of a century where their success has become the envy of many. With this in mind, in addition to their considerable struggles over the last 14 months, the opportunity to critique and mock is one almost no one has missed. However, there are a multitude of reasons for their perceived “poor” start. Whilst it is unrealistic to expect a more reasonable outlook from some pundits and journalists, who seem to take things on face value, United were never likely to have won all of their first eight games, as many expected. Here are the reasons.
An abundance of changes – departures and arrivals
Manchester United have undergone a great number of changes in the 17 months since Sir Alex Ferguson announced his decision. Whilst focusing on this season, it is clear that the effects of his departure in conjunction with long serving CEO David Gill’s decision to move onto pastures new, at the same time, has contributed to the club’s current difficulties. At the time of his decision, Ferguson describes how “it was important to me to leave an organisation in the strongest possible shape and I believe I have done so. The quality of this league winning squad, and the balance of ages within it, bodes well for continued success at the highest level”. Sadly, this was not the case. A large and crucial number of the squad’s stalwarts who had served the club so well and provided so much success were on the decline even before Sir Alex left his role as manager whilst many of the other players such as Nani, Valencia, Hernandez, Cleverley, Anderson and Kagawa had been in poor form for a long time or in some cases, were not up to the standard of a United player. Ferguson extracted every ounce from a relatively average and top heavy squad with his unmatched managerial ability. Leaving such a team in the hands of a manager out of his depth and a new CEO who had no previous experience in the role was a recipe for disaster, meaning an expected period of transition was soon replaced with one of immense decline.
Then came Louis van Gaal and with him, revolution. A much needed clear out and rejuvenation of the playing squad took place over the summer with no fewer than 14 departing and 6 incoming transfers. This however, brings with it a need for patience. Any new player needs time to adjust to his new teammates and tactics while 5 of the new signings also came from different countries and, in the case of Rojo and Di Maria, cannot yet speak the language. This tied in with the fact that with the possible exception of Di Maria, the new arrivals are now playing under higher expectations and on a bigger stage than they were previously accustomed to means patience is the key. The introduction of a second new manager in twelve months, particularly at a club familiar with long term stability is also not be taken lightly. Van Gaal has stated on numerous occasions so far that “we give the players a lot of information… we are starting with a new team and a new relationship between players so that’s why it needs time”. Implementing a new and complex style of play is a long process and doing so with players only just getting to know each other only prolongs that process.
An area of the team that has come under substantial fire is the defence. One argument put forward is that United failed to sign a truly world class centre back, a leader who would marshal the men around him. The name of Mats Hummels has repeatedly been put forward and while his qualities in terms of organisation, authority and stature are obvious, his lack of pace, with United looking to play with a high line, and more importantly availability in the summer, proved problematic. United have previously chased players not interested in leaving their current employers and had their fingers burned thus wasting valuable time better served in negotiating more viable transfers. It is also important to stress that they are yet to field the same defence for more than 2 consecutive games this season and have arguably only played their strongest defence once together, in the last game against West Brom. Improved performances from the defence will only occur when the same back 4 plays an extensive run of games together. Leaders in the defence will also emerge once they become mainstays in the team and therefore feel they hold the authority to organise those around them.
Chronic injury problems and finding a formation
Leading on from the previous point, a vast number of injuries have become an almost permanent fixture for United for as long as six seasons including the current one. This can only have a debilitating effect on the team’s ability to find consistency of performance and results. United’s defence in particular has suffered with injuries this season with Shaw, Jones, Rafael, Evans and Smalling all enduring spells on the treatment table making it impossible for the defence to become familiar with each other. Despite the season only being in its embryonic stage, United have already used an incredible 30 players, the most in the league, and are yet to field their strongest XI. Until this is the case on a consistent basis, expecting results and performances to be anything other than erratic is unreasonable.
Finding a formation to get the best out of his squad is something van Gaal is currently experimenting with. Tactical flexibility is an asset to any manager, however finding a go to system that works is vital to creating a cohesive and dominant team. In their most recent match, a 2-2 draw with West Brom on Monday night, United switched from a 4-4-2 diamond formation to 4-2-3-1 with van Gaal stating after the match that, “I’m looking for balance and maybe with this formation but with the same philosophy we could do better and I have seen in the training sessions that we are better now, that players understand the philosophy more with this formation”. This would leave dilemmas in terms getting all of his best players on the pitch in their favoured positions but may be beneficial to the overall effectiveness of the team which is van Gaal’s main goal. Indeed, last week he stated that “I have said only that not always players of name are the best”. With the quality available to them, once United can select their strongest XI and a formation which gets the best out of the team, they will be able to put a run of wins together and confidence on the pitch and in the stands will grow as a result.
Facing the top two and reasons to be positive
The common consensus is that given the strength of the opposition and United’s current inconsistencies it is unlikely they will take points off Chelsea or Manchester City in their next two games. In years gone by United would have started both games as favourites but the change of position to “underdog” does not mean they cannot cause a shock or two. Despite their current problems, United’s injury crisis appears to be easing, they have one of the most tactically astute managers in Europe, an injection of players who can win a game on their own and perhaps crucially, a lack of pressure. Nobody expects them to win. With this in mind, fans should hold on to the fact results might just go their way but not be too disheartened should they not. A new team is building and in just over two weeks’ time or so they may have the momentum.
Written by Tom Chambers
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