Since the closing of the summer transfer window there has been no shortage of articles reviewing who has signed and released who and which club has had a good or bad window. Nowadays many of these articles go as far as to identify a winner of the window almost as if that club will receive a prize; maybe they will but the real football prizes will be distributed much later in the season of course. To make judgements at this stage seems premature, but we at www.manutdtactics.com are not immune from this phenomenon. Our focus though is what the transfer activity will do for our team rather than how well we have done compared to other clubs, or as seems the vogue amongst fans to score points of other clubs supporters by pointing to players who have joined us rather than them.
To put all this in context and to use one of Van Gaal’s favourite words this summer’s activity is all part of the “process”. In our case that process started before this window and will continue long after the window has closed, it involves not just changes to personnel but also work to improve players through training sessions and allow fostering of a stronger team understanding and team spirit. The progress of the process will be tested through our matches. Seen in the context of the wider process we shouldn’t expect one summer’s transfer activities to address all issues; solve all problems. The process is going to be longer and more significant than most supporters would like; we are still some distance from where we would like to be. Another “p” word seems relevant, patience. That’s something often in short supply amongst fans. The big question should clearly be are we potentially in a stronger place now after the transfer window than before it?
Before the window opened we identified a number of areas of the squad that in our view needed to be strengthened. Previous transfer activity and developments on the field last season led us to a situation where we considered that United needed to strengthen at defensive midfield, right back, the left side of the central defence, the right side of the attack and given the failure of Falcao and the decline of Van Persie a centre-forward. In addition to this there was the uncertainty around the goalkeeping position.
The players you need or to use another one of Van Gaal’s favourite words the “balance” of your squad will depend on the tactical shape you intend to employ. Van Gaal has a preference for “multi-functional” players because this gives him flexibility so the significance of the link between the composition of your squad and the tactical shape is reduced, but for the benefit of this piece we will assume the use of 4-2-3-1, our current orthodoxy. (We have considered the issue of the relationship between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 here http://manutdtactics.com/?p=4860).
One of the most glaring areas of weakness in the squad was the defensive midfield as evidenced last year whenever Michael Carrick was missing. Other players were utilized here in his absence but United’s win rate with Carrick plummeted whenever he was absent. This isn’t just about Carrick and what he brings to the role, it is the significance of the role in the team. Whatever team shape Van Gaal employs his possession based game relies upon this position to control build-up play and confidently distribute and redistribute the ball around the team. Going into last season the manager may have anticipated that Daley Blind might have been the left sided alternative to Carrick’s right sided contribution allowing the selection of a double pivot, but as the season wore on it became clear that it was either Carrick or Blind and when Blind was in the team United’s football didn’t flow in the same way. Blind may become a player suited to this role in the future but at the moment he isn’t functioning in this position as needed in the context of English football.
As a consequence of this United have signed two defensive midfield players, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin and switched to a system where two pivots are usually employed at any one time. More crucially United now have a good mix of left and right sided players. This gives Van Gaal options here ensuring that injury in this area of the team is now far more unlikely to undermine performance and results. Who plays where and when and what specific role each of the pivots adopts will be issues that are played out over the months ahead. That too is an issue all about balance. It is fair to say that the stilted nature of United’s early season play can in part be attributed to getting this balance right; something again requiring a little time in of the number of new players being assimilated.
Last season United’s first choice right back was Antonio Valencia, a rather cautious defensive winger converted to the role. Over the summer United moved Rafael da Silva on to Lyon. I would confess to being surprised by how popular appears to have been amongst United fans. Choosing Valencia ahead of Rafael for much of last season Van Gaal had clearly signalled his intention.
The issue at right back was that Valencia is essentially a forward who seems to prefer defending and Rafael conversely was a defender who prefers attacking. Valencia doesn’t offer enough going forward but isn’t a specialist defender whilst Rafael is a defensive player who often forgets that that is his specialism. It was not a surprise to www.manutdtactics.com that United were in the market for a right back then, but what was a surprise was Van Gaal’s pronouncement on tour that the new signing Matteo Darmian would be Valencia’s understudy. On reflection perhaps this was a statement by Van Gaal designed to take pressure off the newcomer. Whether this is the case or not Darmian has made an impressive start and already looks a steal for the transfer fee. What he clearly offers is the balance between attacking and defending that Valencia and Rafael lack. We will consider his relationship with the right sided attack later in this article.
Left sided centre back
United don’t have a problem with numbers at centre back and we have identified the left side as an issue because of Van Gaal’s stated preference for a right footed player on the right and a left footed player on the left. United are very well served in the number of right sided centre backs they possess with Smalling now the established player, Jones, (when fit), as the understudy and McNair as the promising newcomer. This is enough and as a consequence Van Gaal felt prepared to allow Jonny Evans to leave.
The right side is a different matter. Last year as the season wore on Rojo established himself as the first choice. The fact he plays for his national side as a right back is irrelevant; he can play here and is solid if unspectacular, he is a player who improved steadily as the season wore on. The understudy is Blind who played either as a defensive midfield player or left back last year. There were many eyebrows raised when pre-season Van Gaal stated that Blind could play this role and whilst he has done reasonably well he was tested at Swansea recently when the power and pace of Gomis exposed weaknesses. Blind is an intelligent footballer who reads the game well and has the footballing skills to become the sought of ball playing defender Van Gaal requires. What he lacks however is pace and physicality and whilst he could develop a more robust physical side to his game he will never develop the pace needed to be a really high class centre back. When teams isolate him, as Swansea did, he will struggle.
This position looks like an area where United have failed to strengthen then, but they always seemed likely to fail if they only focused their efforts on the recruitment of Sergio Ramos. That strategy always looked flawed and only seems to have had merit as a tactic to make Real Madrid’s pursuit of De Gea more complicated.
United’s defensive record wasn’t that bad last year with goals conceded being roughly comparable with most rivals, (the parsimony of Chelsea stood out of course); what they appeared to lack was defensive leadership. Perhaps Van Gaal considers that the improvement in Smalling’s game might see him emerge as the defensive organiser. He might be right and United do need to improve in this area with communication not being one of the strengths of De Gea’s game. Smalling has improved significantly. He now looks more composed, commanding and assertive as a defender and has shown plenty of signs that he is developing composure in possession as well.
The centre of defence though is an area which may prove a weakness over the course of the season against better opponents and it is hoped that the greater solidity offered by a double pivot might compensate.
Right sided forward
There has been plenty of speculation about players who United have been supposedly interested in for this area of the team with the perennial speculation over Gareth Bale and this year Barcelona’s Pedro. It seems certain that United were interested in Pedro and “you pays your money, takes your choice” in deciding whether he chose Chelsea or as United have professed they considered him and then decided not to move on their interest. The question is to what extent is improving this area of the side a priority.
The answer to this question depends upon what you view of Mata’s continuing role as a right sided “false winger”. Mata plays this role well and was particularly effective last season when Herrera, with whom he developed a good understanding, was positioned close by. But how effective can this role be. Mata isn’t quick and so doesn’t really have the option on going past people to attack the by-line. Consequently his starting position as he receives the ball is with his back to the side line looking to pass or run inside. This leaves space behind and outside him as he does so for Darmian to overlap. This can provide the attacking width that will stretch the opposition and ensure that they must defend across a wide front but there are two clear issues. Firstly this tactic becomes predictable if it is the only pattern to our right sided attacking play. If we had a wide right sided player with pace then the defence don’t know whether he will attack the line or come inside. With Mata they know. Secondly the time required to wait for the fullback to push forward is time lost and can see the whole attacking move slow down unnecessarily. United have pace on the left where Shaw’s surges forward are all the more potent for the fact that Young or Memphis also threaten with pace, but on the right they have to wait for Darmian to advance to inject pace into the move.
This makes Van Gaal’s decision to let Januzaj go out on loan all the more intriguing. He could provide that pace on either side or through the middle. Many consider Mata’s best position to be as number 10 behind the main striker and a 4-2-3-1 shape seems to provide that opportunity. Why then if Rooney plays as the main striker did Van Gaal choose to play Januzaj centrally and Mata on the right in early season games rather than vice versa? Does he consider Mata’s lack of pace and lack defensive guile weaknesses too significant to use him in central areas. We would highlight the point that even when Mata starts wide he often comes inside into this area anyway.
Late signing Martial is another player who can play on the right although he is really a central player. He has pace and maybe Van Gaal will try him out wide. In terms of pace and balance across the team however we would currently assert that the right side of the attack remains an issue.
United’s specialist centre forwards had a difficult time last year and it wasn’t a surprise that United decided not to make Falcao’s loan a permanent move. It was perhaps a little surprising that United allowed Van Persie to move on in the same window however and that seems to leave United light up front. United still have Rooney and Wilson but have also sold Hernandez late in the transfer window after his return from his loan move to Real Madrid last year.
The issue up front isn’t just the options; Van Gaal generally favours systems which utilise a single central striker so numbers aren’t necessarily needed. The issue is as much to do with the type of player and the threat they pose.
A big part of our current problems in the final third is to do with a lack of pace and a physical threat to the oppositions centre backs. In our end of season reviews we questioned whether Rooney is still the type of player to lead the line as a single central striker. He wants to be involved so he tends to drop deep, not something to be valued when you want someone to occupy the opponents centre backs and threaten the space behind them so creating space for others. The other thing that threatens the oppositions rear guard is pace in behind. Rooney doesn’t have the sought of pace to generate that threat, Wilson does but he is still fairly raw. Enter the aforementioned Anthony Martial. The question around him is whether he is ready for the English Premier League. Only 19 himself he will have rough edges like Wilson, but he does have some Champions League experience. He looks like a signing for the future but if he settles quickly there is the option of playing him as the central striker with Rooney in the position behind as the number 10, a position many feel is still his best. Rooney is the captain of course and as Van Gaal says “has special privileges”, the captain always plays.
It feels like Sergio Romero has been signed as a replacement for the out of favour Victor Valdes rather than as a replacement for the want-away David De Gea. Now that De Gea’s move to Madrid has collapsed we would expect the Spaniard to be re-establish himself as the first choice keeper. Romero has done okay so far and we should not dismiss him on the basis of his mistake on Swansea’s second goal the other week but it says much that despite being Argentina’s regular keeper he has failed to hold down the number one spot in either of the last two seasons at two different clubs.
De Gea staying at the club should be seen as a bonus in our view. In real terms it’s kicking the goal keeper problem down the road as he is still likely to move on next summer. His staying buys United time and whilst it may be hard to secure a top class replacement in January, the intention should be to line one up for next summer.
The left side of attack
This brings us to United’s final senior recruit this summer Memphis Depay. We didn’t anticipate a recruit for the left side of our attack as Young was one of our most improved players last year. He was however rated by UEFA as the best young player in Europe last year so presumably United simply felt that he was too good a player to pass up.
Memphis has done okay so far; in his first couple of games he was too easily knocked off the ball but appears to have begun to adapt to the physicality and pace of the Premier League. He is still settling in and it will take him some time to adapt to English football and his teammates, but the potential is there for all to see.
So we return to the original questions; where does the transfer activity leave the team now and are we in a stronger position than at the end of last season? In our view, some people, the media included, focus too heavily on the question of what is the strongest team. It is a stick regularly used to beat a manager; “he doesn’t know his strongest team”. That can of course be rephrased as “I disagree with his selection” or “that’s not the team I would have chosen”. This is a simplistic line of reasoning and ignores the fact that football is a squad game.
We aren’t going to pick a strongest team but instead identify the ongoing issues. The problem areas still appear to be the left side of defence, the right side of attack and given the unknowns surrounding Martial the centre forward position. How well Van Gaal is able to work on strategies around these areas and resolve issues on the training field is likely to determine how good a season United will have. Despite this we do feel that United are now in a stronger position. United’s squad is now more balanced and defensively more solid. The defence is perhaps stronger than the attack right now but we would expect United’s attacking game to improve over the course of the coming months from a developing understanding between new teammates and as new players adapt to the English domestic game.
Will the left side of United’s defence hold up against the very best? Can Smalling prove to be a defensive leader? Can United generate enough pace and spontaneity on the right to offer a balanced attacking threat across the width of the pitch? Does the centre of our attack pose a big enough threat to make life uncomfortable for the opposition’s defenders and can the front four deliver enough goals? Time will tell.