Last season in our player by player review, we made the point that the squad was unbalanced. Now we can add that it is also uneven in ability, with clear areas of strength and weakness. At the end of last summer’s transfer window Van Gaal made some attempt to address these issues with a flurry of late activity. With the new manager joining the club late, those efforts were inevitably rushed and can only be considered to have been a partial success so far. There is still more to be done and now that Van Gaal has had a season to assess his charges we can expect the job to be continued this summer.
Also noteworthy this season is that in an attempt to rebalance the squad Van Gaal has moved some players to new positions. Whether this is likely to be a temporary or permanent switch we have included the player in the section where they have featured more frequently. That has left us with a dilemma: in which section should we feature Rooney and Young, each of whom have split their playing time fairly evenly between two areas of the team? It doesn’t really matter a great deal but the fact that these players have been amongst our better performers is interesting: Van Gaal has, on a number of occasions, stressed his preference for “multi-functional players”.
David de Gea has again been outstanding this season and until his late season hamstring injury has been an ever present in all but a single League Cup game. Lindegaard has had no opportunity to progress and the arrival of Victor Valdes has relegated the Dane to third choice.
David De Gea
De Gea was our player of the season last year and it is hard to see beyond him this season. He has improved still more, to the extent that he can now genuinely be considered a World Class player. It is difficult to be precise about the number of points he has earned with his performances behind a defence that has left him exposed to too many one on ones; fortunately that is his great strength and a conservative estimate would be at least ten. He seems likely to depart for Real Madrid, which is a shame, but if we improve our defence this should not be as big a blow as imagined.
Anders Lindegaard played only three games in the 2013-14 season and this time has featured in only one game. He seems almost certain to leave this summer and needs to do so if his career is to progress. The arrival of Victor Valdes is another factor pointing him toward the Old Trafford exit door.
Valdes was a January signing after a period training with the club as he returned from a long term injury. Opportunities so far have been limited to a couple of late season games.
He has been uncomplaining and professional as an understudy but if De Gea leaves, the question is whether he should be given a chance as the new number one. Why not? Whilst he may take a while to adjust to the physicality of the English game at first team level, it isn’t hard to imagine that such an accomplished and experienced player could make a significant contribution over the next few years if required. He is certainly young enough at 32 years of age to play for a few years yet.
The defence remains a concern. We lost three experienced former Champions League winning defenders last summer and we haven’t really replaced them adequately. We would expect to see some change in personnel in this area of the team this summer with the addition of an accomplished right back and a cultured central defensive leader seeming to be a priority. United’s defensive shape has improved over the course of the season as we have settled into a four man orthodoxy but we are still prone to defensive errors undermining our general solidity.
Rojo was a late signing in last summer’s window; who had heard of him before the World Cup? He did enough there to impress Van Gaal, but many United fans weren’t convinced after his early performances. People were probably being a little unfair because any player needs time to adjust to a new country and a new club. Injury in the game at City slowed his adjustment, but from January his form has improved and he has looked much more solid, when selected in the second half of the season.
Left sided Rojo has featured at either left back or left centre back and this versatility makes him an asset. He has proved to be solid, good in the air, good on the ground and fairly astute in his positioning. He is perhaps not the most cultured defender and needs to work on his distribution. In all these areas he has improved throughout the season which appears to suggest a player with a good attitude who has worked hard at his game under the tutelage of the new coaching regime.
The most senior of the establish centre back in terms of experience he is perhaps the most under threat; quite simply he has the longest to demonstrate his worth. Earlier in his career he was criticised for not asserting himself physically and whilst he has improved this aspect of his game he could not be considered an imposing player or a determined defensive leader. Unfortunately for Evans that is what United need.
In addition there are also plenty of lapses in concentration, occasions when he is caught out of position. Evans is good at most things without excelling at any of them. That might not be enough to save him this summer and he appears likely to leave the club. The spitting incident at Newcastle was unfortunate but appears out of character. Only he knows the truth of what he was thinking in that moment.
There has been lots of talk about a new contract for Jones on the basis of which his immediate future seems secured. Sir Alex thought highly of him but has he developed into the player he thought he would become?
Phil Jones is more physically imposing than Evans and the theory was that he would become the physically assertive defensive leader. Unfortunately his bravery is to the point of foolhardiness and as a consequence he picks up far too many injuries. This suggests that his ability to make judgements is flawed. Van Gaal talks about liking footballers who play with their brains so this doesn’t appear to be in his favour.
Another right sided player, Jones has featured on occasions at right back but more usually as a right sided centre-back and occasionally as a left sided centre-back. He is at his best when called upon to make a last ditch intervention. Like Evans, he is prone to lapses of concentration which sees him caught out of position. Has he had a good season? No. But maybe we have got this wrong because when fit, Van Gaal tends to play him.
Chris Smalling has blossomed in the second half of the season and along with Young and Fellaini has been one of the three most improved players under the new regime.
He is still prone to the occasional lapse of concentration but less so these days and he has begun to look like an assertive defensive leader. Smalling usually reads the game well and ironically this is part of his problem because often his attempts to cover mistakes made by his colleagues see him caught out. An example of this was the game against Manchester City at the Etihad. On that occasion, Valencia was caught out of position and, chasing across to try to close down the space, Smalling was drawn into a rash challenge that led to him being sent off.
Smalling is big, strong and quick, a former judo player. He rarely gets out-muscled and seemed prepared to singlehandedly face down the entire Centenary Stand in the game at Anfield. Very strong, very good! Occasionally he gets out-jumped; as a tall player he needs to work on his aerial game. He has been known to get caught out of position. As his form has improved in the second half of the season he has demonstrated that he isn’t afraid to come forward with the ball when the opportunity arises, (which will endear him to the manager). He recently signed a new contract.
Paddy has made a promising start to his first team career. Another right sided player who has featured as a centre back or full back and as United have a number of players who suit this side, his emergence might push older players towards the Old Trafford exit.
McNair has made a few mistakes amongst other more solid displays and has not featured as much in the second half of the season but this year has been a steep learning curve; he will benefit from his experiences. He is one to watch.
Tyler Blackett emerged in pre-season as part of Van Gaal’s three centre-back experiments. Like McNair, he was given plenty of first team opportunities early in the season, but has not played as often recently. As with McNair, his displays have been solid with occasional mistakes. This can be expected from any youngster and like McNair, he is one to watch.
Blackett’s sending-off at Leicester was unfortunate, but did not seem to dent his confidence, as he provided good performances after that significant defeat. By mid-season however it appeared to some that McNair had overtaken him. The assertion that his emergence had stalled at this time appeared to be based upon occasions when Blind had been pushed into service on the left side of defence. This doesn’t necessarily hold though, given that both McNair and Blackett were offered and have signed improved contracts during the season.
Many people looked at Luke Shaw’s big money transfer last year and his appearance for England at the World Cup and expected the finished article. But this is unreasonable, given that he is 19 years old. He’s clearly been signed as “one for the future”.
Injury limited opportunities, but Shaw displayed a good attitude when criticised about his fitness levels in pre-season by Van Gaal. His performances so far at United have perhaps appeared less adventurous than his displays for Southampton, but that is almost certainly been at the request of the manager. Signed as a potential long term fullback he has the ability to be that player but he is still learning and, like the other youngsters, he has been inconsistent in his form. He played well at Chelsea when he was more adventurous.
He is also a player who seems to perform better at full back than he does at wing back and as such has perhaps played less because of Van Gaal’s experiments with 3-4-1-2.
Formerly a rather defensive-minded winger, he has played almost exclusively further back this year, either as a wingback or as a full back. Valencia is a player who is often criticised by United fans for his lack of adventure. This ignores the fact that he was a winger without tricks who beats people with power and pace. Valencia isn’t quick over the first ten yards and needs momentum to power past a defender. This means he has never been able to beat people from a high position or from a standing start.
A wing back or fullback role seems better suited to his talents then, but he doesn’t think naturally like a defender and is often caught out of position either too high, (the game at the Etihad), or both high and narrow, (the defeat to Arsenal in the FA Cup quarter final). Having said this he has stuck to his task and his performances have improved through the season. He has never complained and has played wherever he has been asked to play. To many he is still a winger filling in because of a weakness at right fullback.
Rafael was the established right back before this season, but the number of games that Valencia has played suggests that he isn’t Van Gaal’s type of player. Van Gaal likes full backs who are first and foremost defenders and who are capable of restraining their attacking tendencies. That isn’t Rafael and perhaps Van Gaal remembers him being sent off against his Bayern Munich team a few years ago. Always good without being outstanding, he has suffered again with injuries. It seems likely that he will leave the club, especially if United bring in a new right full back option as an alternative to Valencia.
After years of signing very few midfield players, United have signed five in the last two seasons: Blind, Herrera, Di Maria, Fellaini and Mata; but the problem hasn’t been fully solved, and with Van Gaal complaining about a lack of balance for much of the season, it is likely that this area of the squad will be strengthened. Evidence of Van Gaal’s concerns is the number of games where Rooney has been deployed as a midfield player.
Ideally Van Gaal likes to play a defensive midfield player, a box-to-box player and a number 10. What we lack is a top class box-to-box player, something we haven’t really had since Roy Keane moved on. We would expect United to sign one player and possibly two of that type. If this transpires, some of the current squad may be moved on. Successive defeats to Chelsea and Everton almost undermined our qualification for the Champions League but also demonstrated that we do not have an adequate alternative to Carrick as a defensive midfield player. Unless he feels that Blind can improve in that role, Van Gaal may look to strengthen here too.
Opinion has traditionally been much divided about Michael Carrick. We made him our player of the year back in the 2012-13 season and have always considered him to be a very important player. His qualities are not always headline grabbing, but this season even those who didn’t rate him highly have begun to appreciate his talents. He is certainly Van Gaal’s type of player and the manager has not been shy to praise his qualities. The statistics speak for themselves: United have lost just one of the games that Carrick has started. They have a win rate of 70.5% with Carrick in the side and 40.7% when he has been absent.
Carrick is still our best deep-lying midfield player. It would be wrong to describe him as a defensive midfield player because this does not fully describe his contribution. He is excellent at screening the defensive line, occupying space in front of the back four and making a good number of interceptions, but his passing means that he offers so much more. He is certainly one of United’s better passers. The range and quality of his passes is vital to United. Consider the effect of his inclusion in the side. When Carrick hasn’t played, United have been slow to move the ball forward. The team’s slow and over-long passing moves that surfaced during Carrick’s absence from the side have attracted criticism from many. When he has played, United have passed the ball forward earlier and passed the ball quicker from the back, moving the ball away from our own defensive third and pushing the opposition back, so ensuring that the game is played on United’s terms. Carrick has set the tempo and tone of the game in this position in a way that nobody else has managed this year. He has had a number of injuries and at the age of 33 that is to be expected, but he remains a key player.
It has been an interesting first year at the club. We are including him in the midfield section because that is where we initially envisaged he would play. When Carrick has been injured this is where Blind has usually played. When Carrick has been fit, Blind has not been selected to play as a defensive midfield player ahead of the Englishman. He has played many games at left back, however, and a couple of games as a left sided central defender.
Blind seems to have struggled to come to terms with the pace of the Premier League. Not blessed with great speed, he needs to work on his positioning so that he does not allow teams to get behind him, because when they do he cannot recover. When this has happened it is as a consequence of him playing too high and being caught out in transition just after United lose the ball. Generally, when the opposition is in possession for any length of time, he does well to screen and intercept in front of the defence. He reads the game well, he just needs to work on doing this when we have the ball as well as when we don’t. Other areas for improvement are his passing (he has a good range of passing but too often takes the safe option) and his decisiveness in the tackle (woeful on that first goal at Goodison Park).
He has looked more secure when played at full back and he had a magnificent game against Liverpool at Anfield, which is always a good thing.
Herrera was a regular in the first couple of months of the season but was then a victim of Van Gaal’s search for midfield balance. This meant that he didn’t play many games mid-season, leading to speculation that Van Gaal didn’t rate him. United fans did, though, and there were plenty of calls to play him rather than Rooney in midfield. He got his chance when Van Gaal moved Rooney back to a striking role, and he has not looked back.
Herrera is a busy, proactive player; terrier-like in his subtle changes in position. His positive passing and willingness to receive a pass in the tightest of areas has endeared him to United fans. He isn’t the biggest player and this is perhaps one of the reasons that Van Gaal turned to Rooney as a midfield option. He is a tenacious presser but he does not have a big physical presence and can be out-muscled. Comments made by both player and manager late in the season suggest that Van Gaal’s reservations were regarding Herrera’s positional play and tendency to over-chase the ball. He has improved this aspect of his play – a good example of a player learning from the new coaching regime and improving during the season. He also carries a goal threat. Herrera is Paul Scholes’ choice as United’s best newcomer and who are we to disagree?
Powell spent last season on loan at Wigan but was selected to play in the early season defeat in the League Cup at MK Dons. After that game a loan to Leicester City was agreed, with the intention that he would play there for the full season. Leicester chose to terminate that agreement in January. It is difficult now to see where the player goes from here. It would not be a surprise if he moved on.
Last season we made the point that half a season was too short a period to assess what he could offer our side; now he has completed a full season at the club. Despite this, he still hasn’t played as many games as we would like. We anticipated that he would feature as a number 10, but maybe his defensive shortcomings made Van Gaal nervous about playing him through the centre of the pitch? He has probably been one of the biggest victims of Van Gaal’s search for balance, along with Ander Herrera and Wayne Rooney. For a long time it felt like he didn’t have a future at the club, such were the limited opportunities he has had. But then after the Liverpool game, where he was excellent, the manager sang his praises.
Lately he has played in a position Van Gaal has referred to as a “false right-winger”, in other words a narrow right-winger and he has been excellent in developing a relationship with Herrera on that side. As we said last year he isn’t quick, but he is industrious, has good vision, is comfortable on the ball and his subtle changes of position both in and out of possession change angles and open creative passing opportunities. If he continues on the right he might benefit from a stronger right back behind him in the same way that the more advanced midfield players have benefitted from Carrick’s presence in the deep. His lack of pace remains his biggest weakness.
Last year’s fall guy for the Moyes era has proved a key player this year. Well done to Fellaini for sticking to his task and proving the doubters wrong. Fellaini has helped to provide physicality and a release option as United have looked to move the play quickly from their own defensive third to the opposition’s half.
His physicality has been an asset as Van Gaal has striven for the much talked about balance, and his ability to create a problem for opponents in the final third was pivotal in the run of games which saw United stride towards Champions League qualification. Fellaini is another player who has done what Van Gaal asked of him and has risen to the challenge. Earlier in the campaign, he was played too deep where his short square passing and cumbersome touch caused problems in front of our defence (notably at Southampton) but once Van Gaal learned how to make best use of his abilities on the edge of the opposition’s box, he has made a significant contribution. As with Young, however, question marks remain about his long term future. He has improved to a level, but can he progress further to be a part of a United side challenging for honours? His immediate future at the club seems secure though.
Angel di Maria
This has been a difficult first year at United for Angel di Maria. He started well, but concerns soon emerged when teams started to attack the space behind him. He offers much needed pace but often loses the ball. Perhaps he needs to learn to mix it up and play simple balls more often, and wait for opportunities to take people on when the odds are more firmly stacked in his favour.
There is no doubting his ability, pace, skill and vision. He is also a cool finisher (one awful miss at the Emirates aside). There has been a lot of talk about the player being unhappy in England, particularly after his home was broken into by armed raiders when he and his family were at home. People have suggested that his head is no longer on the task in hand. Isn’t that understandable in the circumstances?
Angel di Maria clearly needs more time to adjust to the English game but he is a good enough player to do so. Perhaps Van Gaal will be more inclined to play him when he has a more reliable, solid defence behind him and when Di Maria learns how to make the most of his ability in our team system. We would be amazed if, as some have speculated, he leaves this summer after just one season.
Last year we questioned his future at the club, but Young has risen to the challenge of the new regime as well as any other player. It is easy to forget that earlier in the season Young played at full-back and wing-back, but in the second half of the season he has settled into a role as a winger on the left hand side of our attack. He has done really well in this role with his direct running providing much-needed attacking thrust. Van Gaal has commented that he always does what he is asked to do, a quality which is bound to endear him to the management. His great strength is his pace and when he cuts inside he possesses a dangerous shot. His weakness is his crossing ability.
Young is one of our three most improved players, but he faces a challenge with the imminent signing of Memphis Depay. Whilst he has improved, the question remains as to how much further he can develop, and whether he can reach the standards required in a team that is looking to challenge for major trophies. His versatility and application remain assets.
Last year was Adnan’s breakthrough season when he was a rare positive in another disappointing year. This year he has been the disappointment. In truth, last year was about promise. Even towards the end of that campaign he appeared to struggle to make an impact in games, often allowing himself to become isolated from teammates as opponents worked to nullify his threat. He had become a marked man. This year Van Gaal has not used him very much, which suggests that the manager does not think he is ready. Perhaps in the future he will see this year as a step back to take a step forwards and he will realise the potential we all believe he has. Perhaps Van Gaal will arrange a loan spell to allow for his development further away from our expectations.
Januzaj needs to find a way of utilising his talents and imposing himself on the game. He looks comfortable in his skin and is brave on the ball, but all too often when he has played he has failed to make an impact.
Our forward line has been disappointing this year. Van Persie and Falcao have delivered a poor goals return and Rooney has played a significant amount of his football in midfield. Wilson is raw and needs time to develop so we should reserve judgement on him. Thank heavens the midfield has delivered an improved goals return.
The forward line has lacked pace and punch and the opposition’s defenders have had far too comfortable a time of it for our liking. Last year Welbeck left and Hernandez went out on loan, which, given our lack of forward pace, could be considered a mistake. We are not sure about this, though – neither one has set the world alight at his new club. We would expect at least one player to join for this area of the team.
Like most United fans, we would like to have seen more of Rooney up front this season, but Van Gaal’s decision to put his physicality into the midfield engine room did help to provide some balance.
Whilst this redeployment was disappointing in one respect, in another way it was a positive. Only two years ago Rooney put in a transfer request on the basis that he did not want to play in midfield for Sir Alex. His change of heart is welcome in that it shows he is prepared to do whatever required for the team. He is now one of our most experienced players and the most decorated player at the club. Van Gaal has made him his captain and clearly rates his ability and attitude very highly.
He has not always been at his best this season but he has provided much needed energy, drive and determination. He seems to have thrived in the captain’s role and whilst his elevation to that status grates with those who remember previous transfer requests, on his current contribution it is merited.
Last summer all the talk was that United would not be able to attract top class players without Champions League football. Then along came Falcao; was it any wonder that he achieved instant popularity amongst United fans?
But after the fanfare we were left with the reality of a square peg in a round hole. It just hasn’t worked out for Falcao. He has tried, worked hard and been uncomplaining. Clearly one of the good guys, he has not suited United’s methods and appears unable to adapt. Never blessed with lightening pace, he may even have lost some as a consequence of his injuries.
United have now announced that they will not be taking up their option to make his loan deal a permanent move and he has now left the club.
Robin van Persie
Another season dogged by injuries, and when he has played, van Persie’s form has not been good, making little impact. He has scored 10 goals in 26 games plus 3 substitute appearances, which throws his future at the club into doubt. He is now 31 years old. When he has played he has lacked pace and movement, the ball has often been delivered towards him too slowly and he has struggled to find space. In this he has been similar to Falcao and whilst he has generally been better at retaining the ball one would not imagine this is enough to endear him to Van Gaal.
The question remains is whether United would consider losing Falcao and Van Persie at the same time, or would they see this as being too great an upheaval in forward personnel in a single summer?
Wilson is another promising young player who falls into the “one for the future” category. Given his first chance at the end of last season under caretaker manager Ryan Giggs, he has become a full member of the first team squad this season. As our attack has lacked real pace, and given that he has pace aplenty, one would have imagined that he might have played more. This suggests that Van Gaal considers he is not quite ready. Nevertheless when he has played he has not looked overawed.