United ended the season with a 0-0 draw at Hull City; a result confirming the relegation of the home side. It was a disappointing lacklustre final day performance coming at the end of a run of disappointing performances and results. United rather limped over the line in securing a Champions League qualification tie in August with a sequence that comprised loss, loss, loss, win, draw, draw since their visit to Chelsea.
This was all the more disappointing as that sequence followed a run of six wins on the trot and some of the most exciting and dynamic football United have produced in recent years. United ran out of steam, but the nature of United’s finish tells us something about where we are now as well as where we need to go next.
An unbalanced squad
After spending around £150million last year many United fans have expressed disappointment that we have only finished fourth. Van Gaal has stressed that he is engaged in a process and a part of that involves the rebalancing of a squad; a squad which has be subject for under-investment for many years, (we might call that era the “no value in the market years”. Van Gaal made a start on this rebalancing last year but there is still much to do and the last few weeks suggest that whilst we have come some way we have perhaps gone about as far as we can go with the current group without further action.
Van Gaal has set out his timetable, an end of season drink with the players followed by hard conversations where those who he feels aren’t part of the future will be told that they can move on. The process of bringing new players with greater potential, (in the managers view), has already started of course with an agreement to sign Memphis Depay. More will certainly follow, but whether they will be the names we hear endlessly speculated about remains to be seen.
The Next Stage of the Process
There is no doubt that the squad has embraced Van Gaal’s philosophy, buying into his methods in a way that last year’s squad never looked like doing for David Moyes. United now play possession based football, recording the highest average possession percentage and the most completed passes of any premiership side across the season. The next step is to develop the ability to play that football at a consistently higher tempo and with greater penetrative threat.
The point is that whilst the squad has developed to the point where they are comfortable in possession against all domestic opponents some in the squad are not then able to take the next step and play his type of football to a level that will blow teams away, especially where opponents are inclined to “park the bus”.
The Transfer Window
The next few days will probably give us a few clues about where Van Gaal feels he needs to re-balance and strengthen, but without those clues we can identify areas of the side that need to be strengthened.
On recent evidence United need a specialist right-back, a central defensive leader, another defensive midfield player, another box-to-box midfield player and a guaranteed 20 goal a season centre-forward who is quick. In addition and if the budget stretches that far a right sided wide attacking player would be an advantage given that we have so many left sided attacking players and only Mata to who features regularly on the right.
But it isn’t just about filling team positions where we may have a weakness. Any team needs solidity, creativity, combativeness, clinical efficiency and a determination to take control of a game and wrench a victory from almost any match situation. United have demonstrated on any number of occasions this year that they do not always have these characteristics.
In that sense then it isn’t just a case of buying or promoting players to fill gaps but also buying players who might address these deficiencies.