Season Preview: Manchester United
Ahead of the 2015/16 season, it’s safe to say that Manchester United are a considerable distance ahead of where they were at this point last year despite the recent departure of Angel di Maria. While United made significant signings last summer (six in total), only two had successful seasons—Marcos Rojo and Ander Herrera. Adding to that disappointment, there was the issue of Louis van Gaal’s failed attempt to implement the tricky 3-5-2 system, as well as an injury record in the first 5 months rivaled only by Abou Diaby. Quite ironically, United had to rely on the improved performances of players such as Marouane Fellaini, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia who appeared to be on their way out, to bail them out and ultimately push them to a level of football the Old Trafford faithful hadn’t seen at all in the disastrous ‘Season of Moyes’. Although this improvement came a little too late, the signs of a capacity to improve were visible and the foundation of van Gaal’s philosophy was set going into a summer that has promised so much and hasn’t disappointed.
Filling the gaps
United has so far signed five new players, with each being necessary and of good quality in his own right. Memphis Depay, Matteo Darmian, Morgan Schneiderlin, Sergio Romero and the highlight signing, Germany captain Bastian Schweinsteiger, have all been brought in and should bring significant improvements to United. With Darmian added and Luke Shaw fit as a fiddle, United is now well covered at fullback with sound options and a good balance on both sides. Questions however, remain over the centre of defense. Marcos Rojo, the only central defensive reinforcement since Van Gaal arrived, has brought about a decent amount of consistency but despite improved performances from the hot and cold pair of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, they will have to prove themselves now more than ever with no centre half signed and roughly three weeks left in the summer transfer window. Already, doubts have been cast over the two as a central defensive pairing, as van Gaal has opted to experiment with Daley Blind at left centre-half in preseason and seems set to start the 2015/16 Premier League season with him in that role. This means a straight up battle between the two England internationals for the role alongside Blind. Both are both still relatively young (particularly Jones) but yet to earn full trust from any manager as a reliable centre-half pairing. A large part of this has been down to the fact that both are injury prone and as such, rarely even fit enough at the same time to be used as a pair. This has adversely affected their development as defenders but there is still evidence of their raw talent. Unless something major happens in the next 23 days, United fans will be praying that van Gaal can apply his sometimes Midas touch when it comes to developing said talent.
Goals, goals, goals?
In attack, United either has a big problem, or an ideal balance of forward options for the single striker system van Gaal prefers to utilize. Captain Wayne Rooney is set to enjoy his first season as the main striker of United for three years and if his tally from mostly midfield last season (14) is anything to go by, Rooney should hit the 25+ goal mark with the help of Schweinsteiger and the skill and pace of young Depay forming a faux- strike partnership. United’s other striker options include the returning and usually reliable Javier Hernandez who may still leave before September 1st, young James Wilson who recently changed from number 49 to 19, possibly signalling a more permanent role with the first team, and finally, Adnan Januzaj, who it seems will be converted into a striker possibly along the lines of a certain Robin van Persie. Both Januzaj and Wilson offer the kind of youthful exuberance and pace that any team needs and while Wilson will be hoping to improve on his meagre two goal haul last season, it is Januzaj who will feel he has something to prove after his breakout season in 2013/14 season under David Moyes. The young attacker has bulked up significantly and certainly looks a stronger player without sacrificing his pace. As such, one will hope he can regain the confidence in his game to make the differences he did in matches under Moyes. Providing Rooney stays fit, United should be fine where goals are concerned, especially if the heavily mooted signing of FC Barcelona’s Pedro actually goes through. However, if Rooney does sustain a major injury, there will be a lot of stepping up to do. A LOT.
Dave Saves…in Spain?
The final and arguably most pressing issue United has to solve before the end of the window is the situation surrounding David de Gea and his desire to join Real Madrid. At this point it is pretty clear that the player wants to go and United won’t be bullied. To the fans, United is either playing a very dangerous game with this saga or standing their ground like true “big clubs” do. With the apparent failure of a move for Sergio Ramos as the only condition for De Gea leaving, United is now left with an unhappy and unfocused goalkeeper who has been dropped for the season opener as a result. To make matters worse, Victor Valdes, a previous contender to take on the #1 role, is all but gone after being ostracized by van Gaal due to his reported unwillingness to work with the manager’s philosophy. Sergio Romero has been bought but there have always been question signs over the consistency of the Argentine at club level, while Anders Lindegaard is most likely on his way out and 22-year-old Sam Johnstone has never played a Premier League fixture in his career. One of Romero or Johnstone will start tomorrow but United will need to solve this issue immediately. Luckily, van Gaal has noticed and has suggested the possibility of a new goalkeeper signing before deadline day.
Despite the issues regarding United’s squad being incomplete ahead of the new campaign, Louis van Gaal can comfortably say that the most tedious part of the job, getting the players to understand and buy into a new and admittedly difficult way of approaching playing the game, has been completed. Another top four finish seems on the cards and a good draw against Club Brugge of Belgium in the UEFA Champions League qualifiers should see United back into the group stages of that competition. Now it is up to Executive Vice-Chairman Ed Woodward to complete this squad of players and Louis van Gaal to effectively utilize the players at his disposal to realize the dreams of the United fans and executives.