Manchester United fans’ wait is almost over, with the Red Devils hosting Tottenham on Saturday morning in their first Premier League fixture of the new season. It is also the season’s first competitive game at Old Trafford, a stadium to which European football will return after a one-year hiatus.
Louis van Gaal’s has masterminded another transfer-filled summer, and may not be done just yet. The sale of record Premier League signing Angel di Maria to Paris Saint-Germain is nearly complete, with a reported fee of £44.4 million landing in United’s coffers. The British press has also linked United closely with central defenders since the transfer window opened, including Valencia’s Nicolas Otamendi and Everton’s John Stones; the addition of one before now and September 1st is not out of the question.
With just five days until the domestic season begins, however, it is time to predict how Van Gaal will line his team up against Spurs, a team United eviscerated 3-0 last season at Old Trafford. Two unsung players, Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick, led the charge in that game, chipping in a goal each and imposing themselves on Tottenham’s midfield. As a testament to United’s summer transformation, it is likely that both begin Saturday’s game on the bench.
So, how exactly will the Red Devils line up? Here’s what the preseason, Van Gaal, and a little bit of conjecture have led us to believe:
While the 4-1-4-1 helped rout Spurs last year, it lends itself to a more defensive-minded approach than Van Gaal will want to take this year. With the addition of more quality in central midfield, United can afford to unpack the midfield and lean on its creative players; from what Van Gaal showed in the preseason friendlies, United is likely to line up in a 4-2-3-1/4-2-2-2 hybrid.
The formation has all of the tactical flexibility of a 4-2-3-1 without utilizing a player “in the hole,” the spot for a traditional No. 10. Instead, Van Gaal seems to prefer Memphis Depay, a second striker, centrally; he puts his most creative players, Ashley Young and Juan Mata, in wider positions in order to attack defenses from multiple angles. Depay and Rooney will work in tandem to stretch back lines out of shape by moving throughout the attacking half; Rooney will be primarily tasked with making incisive runs in behind while Depay will pick up the ball in deeper positions in order to run at Spurs defenders and create from there. Both strikers, however, will be expected to contribute heavily in the goal-scoring department, meaning Depay will spend more time in the box than a prototypical central attacking midfielder.
Defensively, Schneiderlin will occupy passing lanes as Schweinsteiger presses the ball. With Cristian Eriksen’s ability to open up a defense with enough time, I expect Schneiderlin to have one eye on the Dane at all times; Daley Blind, comfortable at CDM, will likely step up to vacate the space that Schneiderlin may have to vacate in order to track Eriksen. Harry Kane takes advantage of poor organization to make incisive runs, but he isn’t overly quick; I expect a high line to starve Tottenham’s midfield of time and space, with Chris Smalling tasked primarily with marking Kane. With Luke Shaw and Matteo Darmian pressing high up the field, I expect them to attack Tottenham’s wingers as soon as possible rather than letting them work down the flank and get in position to cross. This strategy will require defensive effort from Young and Mata; United cannot afford either to neglect this duty.
GOALKEEPER: David de Gea
Does not get much easier than this; De Gea is United’s reigning Player of the Year, so unless Real Madrid pull off an 11th-hour deal to acquire him this week, he will be in between the posts for United, a welcome sight for the home faithful.
LEFT BACK: Luke Shaw
Van Gaal has praised Shaw to no end this summer, an interesting reversal from his less-than-complimentary overtures this time last year. He has even gone as far as to predict this to be “the year of Shaw;” pencil in the Englishman at left back for the forseeable future.
LEFT CENTER BACK: Daley Blind
Blind may have played left back and central defensive midfield primarily for Van Gaal last season, but he was featured at center back during the Dutchman’s three-man defense phase. With LVG’s propensity for a left-foot/right-foot CB pairing, Marcos Rojo was initially tabbed for the role, but the manager came out this past week and instead conveyed that Blind was his choice to start against Tottenham.
RIGHT CENTER BACK: Chris Smalling
LVG loves athletic, composed center-halves, and Daley Blind is rather short; those two facts make Smalling a good bet to start at Old Trafford. Smalling was impressive last season, distributing well and dominating aerial duels, traits that make him valuable to Van Gaal. Whether or not this defensive pairing can properly mark Harry Kane is another matter altogether.
RIGHT BACK: Matteo Darmian
LVG has seemingly changed his tune over the past two weeks, initially backing Antonio Valencia to retain his starting spot but then recently tabbing his new Italian signing as the team’s starting right back. A full Italy international, Darmian is the complete package, and starting him over a converted winger is the most logical course of action.
CENTRAL DEFENSIVE MIDFIELD: Morgan Schneiderlin
Schneiderlin’s hefty transfer fee makes him the favorite to feature in Van Gaal’s XI against Tottenham; he was not brought in to back up Michael Carrick. If Schweinsteiger occupies the other central midfield position, Schneiderlin’s place is almost guaranteed; Carrick does not have the mobility to fulfill his defensive duties unless he has an Energizer Bunny-like partner (e.g. Ander Herrera). The Frenchman’s blend of defensive solidity and tactical awareness make him a prototypical Van Gaal No. 6.
CENTRAL MIDFIELD: Bastian Schweinsteiger*
Brought in to provide stability, creativity, and physicality in the center of the park, Schweinsteiger is a no-brainer if fit. He has the technical quality to pull United’s strings and the proper mentality to get stuck in when necessary. He will be United’s box-to-box presence, one they lacked last season.
*If fitness proves an issue for the German captain, I expect Ander Herrera to deputize.
LEFT WING: Ashley Young
Angel di Maria’s impending transfer makes this obvious, but I’d venture to guess Van Gaal had penned Young’s name on the team sheet well before the Argentine’s departure became a likelihood. It was Young who kept Di Maria out of the starting lineup last season, and his great form fueled United’s late-season surge. He possesses a solid work rate, overlaps with his fullback well, and sends in pinpoint crosses. A new three-year contract keeps him at Old Trafford until 2018.
RIGHT WING: Juan Mata
United’s most creative talent will likely feature on the right once again, a position from which he produced a string of fine displays last Spring. Although known more as an architect than a builder, Mata was more than happy to run into dangerous positions last season and finish moves off himself, something we have not seen much since his Chelsea days. I expect the Spaniard to shoulder some of the team’s goal-scoring responsibilities this season, playing himself into “undroppable” territory.
SECOND STRIKER: Memphis Depay
When he was first signed from PSV Eindhoven, I expected Depay to deployed on the wing as he often was for club and country, the latter under Van Gaal himself. If the preseason is any indication, however, the 21-year old will feature centrally behind Wayne Rooney. He will harass Tottenham’s No. 6 (likely Nabil Bentaleb) and help set up/make himself available for Rooney in the final third, scoring and assisting whenever necessary. It is a large responsibility to bestow on such a young player, but Van Gaal clearly has the utmost confidence in him.
CENTER FORWARD: Wayne Rooney
The first name on the team sheet, United’s captain, their goalscorer: Wayne Rooney. Playing seemingly everywhere but striker last season, Rooney’s form dipped, but he found his scoring touch during United’s hot streak once LVG finally played him up front. Only injury issues slowed the English captain down, and I expect him to score 15-20 league goals if health is not a problem.