Last summer Manchester United’s transfer activity seemed chaotic. Of course, the club had both a new manager and a new chief executive, but even so events seemed farcical – the pursuit of unobtainable targets, followed by last minute panic buys for fees in excess of expired release clauses and unexplained last minute dashes to the Spanish FA by lawyers who claimed to represent the club. After all that, the pressure is on the club to perform this time around, even if we do have another new manager. The aim is to secure players to strengthen critical areas of the squad via co-ordinated, predetermined strategic action. So how has it gone?
On the face of it United’s transfer window in Summer 2014 seems to have been pretty schizophrenic; co-ordinated predetermined activity came at the start of the window with the arrival of Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera in deals that were already lined up. There followed a period of inactivity which was in turn followed by late action. The ‘late’ action has been far more co-ordinated, strategic and decisive than last summer. In spite of a difficult start to the season there has been no smell of panic; rather, a greater sense of purpose which speaks of the certainties that van Gaal is bringing to the club.
Upon his arrival van Gaal announced he would take his time to take a good look at the squad, review strengths and weaknesses before making his mind up and acting. He has been as good as his word so far, identifying an unbalanced squad, players who seem unable to reach his standards in executing his strategies and then working to address these issues by either bringing players in or moving players out. This late transfer window activity demonstrates that the manager knows his mind and is not afraid to act upon his judgement. This we already knew, but it is significant that the club’s hierarchy is clearly prepared to back him. This, and the absolute logic of van Gaal’s approach should be a source of great optimism for all United fans.
There has been a lot of muttering about United’s late activity, most of which does not stand up to close scrutiny. One school of thought is that by spending big, United are going ‘all Real Madrid’ and looking to a galactico approach. This is nonsense; United have always bought big to supplement what we already have, whether that be an Andy Cole to supplement the class of ’92 or even further back a Denis Law to supplement home grown products such as Charlton and Best.
Another thought is that by moving on home grown products United are turning their back on their traditions of youth promotion and are somehow losing their identity (the sale of Welbeck appears to be a source of sadness for many). Again, this is nonsense. United have always moved youngsters on if it is felt that they do not quite reach the standard. How many of the youngsters blooded by Sir Matt or Sir Alex were ultimately moved on? Answer: the majority. It is rather more of a rarity for a player to have an enduring career at the club. For every Giggs there is a Robbie Savage.
An extension of this concern is the suggestion that home grown products will not have a chance under the new manager. To this we would say: Tyler Blackett and Reece James. What’s more, it is important that young players who aren’t quite up to the mark are moved on, so that other youngsters coming through have a clear idea of the levels they are expected to reach. Surely you would want an emerging forward to be striving to displace a World Class talent rather than somebody who is merely good enough to make the first team squad without being able to hold down a regular starting place. We shouldn’t forget that van Gaal has a history of promoting youth….providing they are good enough.
So what of the incoming players?
At the start of the window there was a clear need to strengthen the defence, given the loss of a number of experienced players. There was also an imbalance across the line, in that we appeared to have far greater numbers on the right side of the pitch in defence than the left. To address this, United have signed a left-back in Luke Shaw, one of the England’s most highly rated youngsters and a World Cup semi-finalist Marcos Rojo, who can play as either a left sided fullback or centre back. The Rojo signing is interesting. It is widely understood that van Gaal wanted Vermaelen, but he chose to move to Barcelona. It is difficult to make a definitive judgement about the United defence right now, given that the new manager is trying a new formation, but one is left with the feeling that a commanding centre-back is still required to lead the defence.
Two other questions seem pertinent. If we persist with a three man defence do we need to recruit specialist wingbacks? The answer would appear to be yes, given early season performances. Secondly, are the defenders good enough to play out from the back as the new manager requires? Early season performances have indicated that we are capable of defending with a three; it is an inability to start moves by building from the back that has proved more of a problem. There have been too many misplaced passes. Will van Gaal try Carrick as one of his three?
One of the other areas where there was a clear weakness was in midfield. This has been an issue for a long time now. United have strengthened in this area with the additions of Ander Herrera, Angel Di Maria and Daley Blind, but one is still left with the feeling that the club need to buy a box-to-box, uncompromising midfield player who can take games by the scruff of the neck – the type of player who can drive a game, the type of player you would want alongside you in a battle.
We include Angel Di Maria when considering the midfield, for although he is often referred to as a winger, since moving to Europe he has spent nearly all his time playing as a left sided midfield player. When he has played as a winger it has usually been as an inverted winger with a tendency to cut inside. Those waiting for him to hit the by-line may have a long wait. The other issue that Di Maria has been bought to address is a lack of pace in the side. He is quick in thought and deed and fleet of foot.
Our final signing of the summer is also fairly quick.
Radamel Falcao was a bit of a surprise and is perhaps the least premeditated signing. It appears that United only became aware that there was an opportunity to sign the player when dealing with his agent during negotiations to secure Di Maria. However, early season concerns regarding van Persie’s fitness mean that this signing makes sense; again van Gaal has shown decisiveness driven by logic. The player himself missed a large part of last season to injury, but in the previous four seasons he averaged over 30 goals a season at a rate not far short of a goal a game.
So where does all this activity leave United? Answer: undoubtedly stronger. United’s dynamism in the transfer market won’t make us the finished article but it will put us in a good place to focus our efforts in the next transfer window on a couple of specific areas. Last week van Gaal told his squad that by the end of the window United would have a very different group. Once again he has proved as good as his word.
In: Luke Shaw, Anders Herrera, Marcos Rojo, Angel Di Maria, Daley Blind and Radamel Falcao.
Out: Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, Alexander Buttner, Danny Welbeck, Tom Lawrence, Shinji Kagawa, Bebe, Federico Macheda, Nani, (Loan – Sporting), Nick Powell, (Loan – Leciester City), Javier Hernandez, (Loan – Real Madrid), Guillermo Varela, (Loan – Real Madrid), Wilfred Zaha, (Loan – Crystal Palace), Michael Keane, (Loan – Burnley) and Tom Cleverley, (Loan – Aston Villa).