It hasn’t been a great year on the pitch but one thing which stands out from our squad overview is that there is now an on-going process of renewal on a level that we didn’t see in the latter years of Sir Alex period as manager. By that we mean the post-Ronaldo period when many of the signings felt like they were stop-gap measures of insufficient quality. What we have seen in recent years under both Moyes and Van Gaal is an attempt to sign players to address clear areas of weakness and a promotion of youth. Of course United have always given youth a chance but both Moyes (think Januzaj) and especially Van Gaal have been brave in promoting young players. Last year and this year Van Gaal has promoted youngsters and this year a number of them have emerged to show great promise.
We must remember that not all signings will prove a success, and not all youngsters will realise the early potential they show, but there has been a feeling around Old Trafford for a while now that the club has embraced the need for renewal across the squad. Willingness to take that risk is a sea change from the era of “no value in the market”.
It’s all about De Gea. Undoubtedly one of the best keepers in the world and without question United’s first choice. Where does this leave the others? Where does it leave United if Real Madrid come calling again?
David De Gea
After flirting with Real Madrid last summer the season started with continuing uncertainty about David de Gea’s future. Having missed out on a move to the Spaniards he knuckled down, signed a new contract and has had another excellent season.
Who knows what the future holds as contracts mean very little these days, but he has matured into a high class performer, perhaps the only United player who can currently be considered in that World Class bracket. There are still a couple of areas where he has room to improve; his communication and distribution are not at the highest level and he has not yet developed the ability to play as a “sweeper-keeper”, something that might help United’s often sluggish build-up play. His strength is his shot stopping, especially in one-on-one situations. If he leaves United have a problem, if he stays he will be a real asset.
With De Gea’s head turned Sergio Romero started the season as United’s No.1. Unfortunately for him once the transfer window closed and the Spaniard’s mind was re-focused, Romero’s opportunities to play have been limited. He did okay in those first few matches but if the test of a really top class keeper is that he makes a percentage of saves he really has no right to make then he probably falls short. Injury to De Gea saw him featured in a couple of games in February and performed well without any great dramas.
Nevertheless, he remains Argentina’s first choice so the question of whether he is prepared to accept an understudy role indefinitely remains.
Out of favour after falling foul of Van Gaal towards the end of the 2014-15 season he secured a loan move away from the club in January and it seems unlikely that we will see him in a United shirt again.
Despite a reasonable record the defence is an area of weakness necessitating a more cautious approach in midfield. This has greatly restricted United this season. We expect United to strengthen on the right side of the central defence, but we said that last year and United spent all summer chasing Sergio Ramos; that was a flawed idea and we ended up signing nobody for this area.
It is a different story in the fullback positions where our resources have been significantly depleted by a freakish number of injuries. If players stay fit we would suggest that United have enough here with a series of more established players and a number of promising youngsters. It’s not hard to imagine Shaw and Varela as United’s regular fullbacks in a couple of years’ time.
Last summer we highlighted that Smalling was one of United’s most improved performers under Van Gaal. We stand by that but he has plateaued a little this season. He has however been the mainstay of our defence and but for a period of injury in February he and Blind have been a constant when all around them has been changing. That has been a bonus.
To improve further he has to stop wrestling with players; all too often he gets caught in an upper body tussle and has given away countless free kicks and a number of penalties in his United career because of this. At times he also lacks decisiveness and can still get caught out of position. His forward surges are interesting until he suddenly realises that he is now in the opposition’s half and then he passes meekly square. This suggests he isn’t confident advancing in this way.
He is currently at the level of being a competent defender and so his position as first choice centre-back is not under threat, dependent upon any signings for next season. He isn’t yet at a level of excellence which is where he now needs to aim. In fairness if United had a stronger defence this might then give him a platform to work on his own game without having to try to compensate for weaknesses around him.
Is Daley Blind really a defender? This season selection patterns suggest that he has been one half of Van Gaal’s preferred central defensive pair and he did feature there many times for his previous club Ajax. His selection as a centre-back however is perhaps a consequence of a general weakness in this area of the team.
Many laughed when Van Gaal suggested that he was happy to go into the season with the plan of using Blind as a central defender but United have a reasonably good defensive record, (although we will consider the reasons for that elsewhere). He has made a pretty good fist of it and stuck to his task so credit to him for that. Nevertheless, he has a number of weaknesses which make him less than well suited to this role in the Premier League. He lacks physicality and pace and this means that he can be overpowered and when caught out of position struggles to recover. He has however, grown into the centre-back role as the season has progressed.
Blind’s strength is his weakness; he is versatile. Would he have an obvious regular role in midfield if United signed a player to play regularly as a left sided centre-back? Perhaps he would because his distribution is good which might see United play the ball forward quicker from deep positions.
Another injury ravaged season. Is he ever likely to secure a regular first team place if he cannot learn when to be brave, commit and when to be more cautious and cover? He is at his best making a last ditch tackle which of course is the situation where you don’t require judgement but instead just need to act. This just highlights his biggest weakness, his judgement and is the very reason he is injured so often. Right sided he has to compete with Smalling, but he has to stay fit to do that.
Rojo is another player whose season has been greatly disrupted by injury. Last season he made a reasonably good start to his United career but those injuries mean that he has treaded water this time around. His tackling can be impetuous and he is always competitive. A robust player but where is his better position, the left side of the central defence or at left-back? At centre-back his impetuousness can result in United conceding free-kicks and penalties, but does he contribute enough going forward as a fullback although he did show a slight improvement toward the end of the season with his crossing and combination play.
Rojo needs to stay clear of injury and have a good season next year to secure a longer term future at United. Or perhaps his future is as a useful squad player?
Paddy featured more in season 2014-15 than he has this year, which is a surprise. Perhaps he has slipped down the pecking order and given United’s clear weakness at centre-back we would have expected him to feature more. He needs to kick-on next year whether United sign to strengthen this area of the team or not.
Had plenty of game time early in the 2014-15 season but appears to be another player who has slipped down the pecking order this year and has spent most of the season on loan at Celtic where he only managed eight games.
After a disappointing first season at the club Shaw worked hard on his fitness last summer and started the season like a house of fire in an excellent vein of form. He looked like the player we thought we had bought. So it was unfortunate that he suffered such a horrendous injury. His loss to the side was twofold, both in terms of his defensive contribution but also in his attacking thrust; his pace bringing genuine menace in his surges forward on the left.
He has worked hard to regain his fitness and his attitude has impressed everybody. Let’s hope he can come back stronger and realise the potential he showed in the first few weeks of the season.
Darmian started the season well but then went through a period of inconsistency followed by an injury disrupted spell in the middle of the campaign. Perhaps a fair description of his first season at United would be satisfactory with scope for improvement. He is always competitive and this has led to a significant number of bookings. He needs to work on making his challenges that bit more clinical to reduce that number. The other issue is that movement ahead of him in the first half of the season, (with Mata often moving inside) left him vulnerable to overloads. When exposed in this way he has struggled, (notably at Southampton and Arsenal).
Going forward there is also room for improvement in his judgement about when to overlap into the available space made by the movement of others and his delivery; his crossing has been a disappointment. Darmian needs to push on in his second season as there are a number of youngsters who are likely to challenge him for his position.
A revelation to most United fans. Varela was our first post-Sir Alex signing but was sent out on loan to Real Madrid last season where he featured in their reserve side, then managed by Zidane. Zidane was reportedly so impressed that he wanted Madrid to keep him. United wouldn’t entertain that idea.
Varela has looked confident at right-back and will be a challenge to Darmian as the first choice in that role. He has looked fairly solid defensively, (one or two moments aside, and he has struggled like Darmian when exposed to overloads by movement ahead of him), he is quick and contributes lightening overlapping bursts forward to support the attack. He doesn’t hesitate to cross when he does get forward often delivering early crosses. He does need to work on the quality of his delivery though. At 23 years old he might be considered one for the future but might equally be one for the here and now.
There have been noises about Borthwick-Jackson around Manchester youth football circles for a couple of years now. He is quick and strong, but raw. He is still at 18 years of age a very young player and any appraisal must be tempered by this.
He has done well when played at left-back often getting forward and always delivering good crosses from wide areas. These were a potent weapon mid-season. He has a good tendency to attack the bye-line when so many others on the left cut inside. At youth level Borthwick-Jackson often played as a centre-back so even judgement on his potential regular position should be reserved at this stage. He is definitely one for the future. Calm and confident, he has stated that he never really gets nervous, something evidenced by his calmness on the journey to West Ham when he sat quietly in his seat as many others cowardly crouched down in the aisle as United’s coach came under fire.
This season was a right-off up until mid-March, being dominated by a long term injury. Can he re-establish himself as a right-back given the arrival of Darmian and the emergence of Varela? His late season showing suggest that maybe he has can; on return to the side he looked at least as dynamic as Varela and defensively as solid as either of the other two players competing for this place.His crossing is never what it should be, except it seems in an FA Cup final.
Fosu-Mensah is another of United’s promising youngster. It is hard to believe he is only 18-years-old such has been the assured start he has made. He looks confident, is strong and quick and he has demonstrated that he likes a challenge. He is aggressive so has to make sure he learns to channel that. The most impressive thing about him though is his match sense and his ability to smell danger. These are good defenders instincts but he is more than a defender from the planet defender as he is cool and confident on the ball and threatening going forward.
He has usually featured as a fullback but did fill in as a centre back briefly at the end of the Everton home game. He has the physical stature to play there. Could he be a future United defensive leader or does his future lie in midfield. Why not?
Young is another player whose season has been dominated by injury. Again the question is can he re-establish himself.
The midfield area is a bit of a mixed bag. It is an area of the side that has received significant investment recently after many years of very little investment. It still feels that there is something missing however. There is clearly a lack of midfield grit and leadership but perhaps also a lack of dynamic creativity which means that it often seems no more than the sum of its parts.
Carrick has been a key player for United for many years now. Another player who has been in and out of the side with injury this year, he has still however played enough games to merit a further contract offer; (his current contract expires this summer). You would not expect him to play every game at 35 years of age, but something is missing from United’s game when he doesn’t play as he is a player with a good range of passes who looks to pass forward and pass forward early into areas designed to stretch and hurt the opposition.
Many United fans seem not to appreciate his qualities, but for www.manutdtactics.com he will be missed when he eventually moves on as his qualities will be difficult to replace. He is still a key player who usually features, injury permitting, in the big games.
It has been an interesting first season for Schweinsteiger. There is no doubt that he is still a high class player, but he doesn’t seem to be the player he was just two years ago when he won the World Cup with a man-of-the-match performance in the final. He is not the quickest player, either over the ground or in deed, but he is always assured on the ball and rarely loses possession. He has had a couple of really poor games when he has been regularly caught out of position in high positions and from that he is unable to recover.
Late in the season when returning from injury he performed well when introduced late in a game where United are trying to kill-off an opponent by starving them of the ball. Then he gives a degree of control; but then he picked up another injury. Injuries are an issue and many have suggested they are the reason Bayern were prepared to let him go last summer.Van Gaal wanted him to set an example for the younger players to follow and the player also managed to keep the ball rather well when he did feature, registering a pass accuracy of 85% in the Premier League.
Never frightened to receive the ball, even in the tightest positions and seemingly never flustered he reads the game so well but his lack of pace seems to be increasingly undermining his ability to dictate the game. Maybe that is unfair and we will see a more assured contribution next season, if he can stay fit.
Morgan Schneiderlin is another player of whom we hope to see more next season after a season settling in at the club. At Southampton he was a leader on the pitch, co-ordinating the press in Maricio Pochettino’s high pressing side. At United he has been less combative, less dynamic. Why? Is this as a consequence of United’s generally less dynamic style?
A criticism would be that he passes square far too often. Has this been under instruction? He has been a player in and out of the side and has not yet had a significant long run of performances. Perhaps that is a factor and his form has suffered as a consequence. Despite this United’s win ratio goes up whenever he is in the side. He should be a key player in the years ahead if he can be more purposeful and dynamic.
Herrera is a fans favourite who for some can do no wrong. He is a busy player who does things quickly. He also does the simple things well, or at least he does when in possession. Van Gaal criticised Herrera last year for moving too much and so getting caught out of position; he lacks positional discipline. He is better at this now but astute opponents can still pass around him when he chases the ball. We saw this late in the season in the West Ham league game when he also gave away far too many free-kicks.
His busy play can help the tempo of United’s game in the final third and his understanding with Mata helps make up for his countryman’s lack of pace. There are however many games when the play seems to pass him by and he has no impact. He has had an injury hit second half of the season which hasn’t helped. He hasn’t consistently played well this year.
Powell spent last on loan and the first part of this season on loan. Powell has never really looked like breaking into the first team and we would imagine that he doesn’t really have much longer to demonstrate that he can do so. We would expect him to move on some time soon.
Mata is a bit of a conundrum. On the face of it you would consider him a number 10, but he never seems to turn in great performances when played there. More usually during Van Gaal’s time he has featured on the right from where he usually runs inside with the ball. He has to do this because he doesn’t have the pace to beat a defender to the bye-line. This has caused problems at times because it leaves space behind to attack United’s right back when we lose the ball. It’s also too predictable. He is not quick over the ground or defensively astute, (although his awareness has improved), so he can be a liability in defensive transitions. But his playing on the right has also caused problems for the opposition at times, especially when he combines with Herrera.
When played centrally as a number 10 he tends to be too static so often doesn’t see that much of the ball as then he doesn’t present a passing option. As a consequence he will then drop deep to involve himself in the play, leaving the centre-forward isolated and taking himself away from the area where he can cause most damage to the opposition. The plus side is that when he does get the ball to his feet in the final third his short passing can be devastating. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to happen as often as it should.
One of the most improved players last year it has been a mixed season for Fellaini. The arrival of Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin has limited his playing opportunities but Van Gaal has turned to him on a “horses for courses” basis when United have needed a bit more height, physicality and nuisance value, (the FA Cup replay at West Ham for example).
United fans get frustrated with Fellaini, but he is what he is. He is never going to be a silky smooth elegant player, he is an irritant who is at his best causing problems for the opposition on the edge of the oppositions box. He isn’t really suited to a deeper midfield role, but Van Gaal likes him because he always sticks to the tactical plan. Perhaps the best player at chest control seen in a United shirt since Mark Hughes.
Januzaj spent the first half of the season on loan at Borussia Dortmund where he failed to make a significant impact and in fact played very few games. As a consequence United brought him back from Germany but he has had very limited first team opportunities and he has failed to make an impact on his return. Where does this leave him?
It is difficult to say, Januzaj showed such promise when he first emerged but has not realised that promise. Is it an attitude problem, has he not yet learnt how to utilise his talents or has he just reached the limits of his ability? Januzaj needs to show progress next season.
Memphis has become something of an enigma. Signed last summer having been voted UEFA’s best young player his career at United just hasn’t taken off. Early in the season he featured as a number 10 but seemed to struggle with the pace and physicality of the Premier League. He always seemed to get knocked off the ball. He was then moved out wide to the left where he began to develop a promising relationship with Luke Shaw.
Unfortunately after Shaw’s injury Memphis has lost his way and he has more recently been eclipsed by the emergence of Martial. The problem is that in many games when played he has made no impact and now appears to struggle to impose himself on a game. Quick and strong he is not afraid to take people on but he often fails to deliver and his crossing has been poor. Rumours suggest that United might cut their losses which would be a shame as we genuinely believe he has great potential. Does he have an attitude problem, believing he has made it or that he is better than is currently is? Let’s remember he is still only 22 years old.
Lingard featured in Van Gaal’s first league game last season but picked up an injury in that game and missed the rest of the season. So he needed to make up for lost time; and he has. He is quick and athletic; a busy player who reads the game well and has often brought a dynamic forward force to United’s play in the final third. He has featured on the right and as a number 10 behind Rashford, just occasionally he has featured on the left.
The downside is that his link play is often disjointed and whilst he is busy his good work can be undermined by this. He also needs to be more clinical in front of goal, where he misses too many chances. He needs to work on these two aspects of his play to take his game to another level.
At the start of the season having allowed Van Persie and Falcao to leave one wondered where the goals would come from. This seemed to place a significant burden on Rooney. The concern has seemed perfectly justified for while United have a number of promising attacking youngsters they are not yet at the point where it is reasonable to rely on them for the volume of goals needed to make an impact on a league campaign.
Those young players are developing rapidly but it still feels like United need to sign a proven 20-25 goal striker to take the burden of expectation away from the youngsters.
At the start of the season we asked the question whether Rooney was capable of playing a single central striker role these days. The answer has on balance been no. So where now for Van Gaal’s captain?
He has been a great player over the years and still reads the game well. He can still deliver some sublime moments. Some of his long passing has been excellent and when in form and focused he still looks a high quality player well above the average standard in the Premier League. With young emerging strikers at the club he probably needs to reinvent himself now as an attacking midfield player.
A couple of very good performances and a number of important goals in his first few games immediately made him a fan favourite. Martial is a great prospect. Quick, strong, cool in front of goal and so a good finisher. He can hold the ball up or run in behind. He has all the attributes of a top class forward. He is not yet the finished article however and his form has been inconsistent. He is a rough diamond who will take time to polish up. That is to be expected in such a young player; he is only 20 years of age. He has featured wide on the left from where he cuts inside, or through the middle. The jury is out on his more permanent role.
There are shades here of Herrera who became a fans favourite on the basis of early performances and as a consequence can do no wrong in the eyes of some fans even when he isn’t playing well. Their blindness to his fluctuating form can lead to calls for him to always play, which would absolutely be the wrong thing for him. Rather he shouldn’t be overplayed; his development needs to be carefully managed. That said Martial is a very talented player who, (say it quietly), could mature into a World Class player.
Wilson is another player who featured more last season than this. Has his big chance passed? He spent the second half of the season on loan at Brighton and Hove Albion. Has great pace, but does he know how to use it?
Burst onto the first team radar in February with four goals in his first two appearances. He probably stayed in the side thereafter despite a series of goalless games because of injuries to others. Despite calls for him to be rested he was still in the side to score the winner in the Manchester derby in late March. That sought of thing is always to be applauded.
The press went a bit overboard when he made his breakthrough, but he clearly has a number of characteristics which will stand him in good stead. Inconsistency is to be expected but should he work hard and keep his feet on the ground he could have a very very very very big future