“The decision to retire is one that I have thought a great deal about. It is the right time.”
Sixteen months have passed since that infamous day in May of 2013. A day in which football, not only in England and Europe, but throughout the entire world was rocked with the news that Sir Alex Ferguson was to step down as Manchester United manager at the end of the Premier League campaign. Having spent 26 years at Old Trafford, the Scot left behind a legacy which may never again be replicated: 13 league titles, two Champions Leagues, five FA Cups and four League Cups. He had spent over a quarter of a century building a formidable dynasty, an empire to be passed on for generations to come.
Yet, only one year later, the foundations and structure of Sir Alex Ferguson’s State of Supremacy in the Premier League looked on the verge of collapse, as the heir to Ferguson’s throne failed to handle the pressure of the crown. David Moyes’ sacking was the result of a disastrous 2013/14 campaign in which United hurled from champions the previous season, to seventh place the following; meaning there would be no European competition of any form for the first time in 18 years. In fact, the United board did not give the former Everton manager until the end of the campaign, as Ryan Giggs was appointed as interim coach until a permanent successor could be found.
That successor came in the shape of tactical guru and football icon, Louis van Gaal. The 62 year-old’s track record (and performance at the World Cup with home nation, the Netherlands,) has left United fans, and journalists of the British media, in great anticipation for the season ahead as they tip the former Barcelona and Ajax coach to sail the now steadied ship, adorned in expensive treasures and riches, through the turmoil free season ahead and back where the club feels they belong: among Europe’s elite in the Champions League.
But with three games played in the Premier League so far, against opposition Manchester United would have expected to defeat, how realistic is it to expect van Gaal’s Manchester United to replicate the achievements of Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers last season? Will the Carrington outfit live up to the expectations on their shoulders, or has too much been asked of the twenty times champions of England?
Following a summer of frustration for the Old Trafford faithful, United ultimately spent big; very big; and have subsequently assembled an attacking force similar to what many would compile on a computer game. Two particular names standout from the list below: Angel Di Maria, and Radamel Falcao.
An illustrious compilation of names and talent, with incredible fees spent in bringing them to the club without the allure of Champions League football, it is hard not to be impressed with United’s ability to attract such these players; albeit for inflated prices. The second stage of assessing the performance of the club’s transfer business is to take a quick look at the players who departed, with key personas leaving the Old Trafford dressing room.
Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, and Nani (yes) were all at one stage key pieces to Sir Alex’s incredible title-winning teams in the Premier League at the turn of the 21st Century, as well as the end of it for club legend Giggs. While all of these players are now at a level that is below the standard Louis van Gaal requires to progress with his methods, there is no denying that an incredible amount of experience and presence, particularly at the back, has departed. Other notable departures include Javier Hernandez, Danny Welbeck, and Shinji Kagawa; but more on those in a moment.
The final list of Manchester United’s first team squad looks like this:
As we can see there is still the guts of a very good squad here, but there are a couple of issues to look at before delving into the tactical possibilities at van Gaal’s disposal.
- There are only 3 recognised, first team centre-backs (Phil Jones, Jonny Evans, and Chris Smalling), although Marcos Rojo can operate in this position as well as youngster Tyler Blackett.
- Cover at right-back. Rafael is Manchester United’s first choice right-back, but should they play a 3-4-1-2 or 4-3-3, if the Brazilian picks up and injury or suspension they will be asking converted wingers to operate this position, or moving Smalling/Jones across to cover: which further weakens the van Gaal’s choices at centre-back.
The above diagram is a 3-4-1-2 formation which replicates a similar setup that was deployed by the Dutch National Team at the World Cup: Arjen Robben’s role is taken up by Angel Di Maria, with Falcao in for Robin van Persie and Rooney operating similarly to Wesley Sneijder. The diamond in the centre of the pitch begins with Smalling at the base, Daley Blind and Ander Herrera just ahead, with their new captain Wayne Rooney at the apex. One glaring characteristic absent from this diamond is the lack of pace in all four positions. The options directly after Herrera and Blind include Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick; neither of whom are renowned for their box-to-box athleticism, power, or pace. This was an issue before the transfer window, and United failed to address the glaring weakness in their squad and may possibly hamper them this season.
As well as this, Smalling would have to operate as an auxiliary defensive-midfielder who distributes the ball, but having seen his performance against Sunderland it will be interesting to see how he adapts to this role. There is also the question as to whether or not Juan Mata and Robin van Persie will be satisfied sitting on the bench, if Rooney will work with two players ahead of him, or if Di Maria can perform in a position where his back is to goal.
A more viable formation may look something like any of the three below, each varying in an attempt to accommodate the high number of attacking players at the club.
Each one of these formations requires sacrifices in selection, particularly up front. It will be almost impossible to effectively accommodate Wayne Rooney, Radamel Falcao, and Robin van Persie into the same team. Many will point to squad rotation, but van Gaal will be hoping that a certain selection will find form together and stick with a winning formula. The maximum amount of games United can possibly play this season is 41, and that is requiring them to make it to the FA Cup final, and having been knocked out of the League Cup by MK Dons in an embarrassing 4-0 defeat van Gaal will only have the Premier League to juggle the squad up until January.
One thing United fans can be positive about is van Gaal’s pragmatism and flexibility within his philosophy. The above formations are musings and speculative, but early indications would suggest the Dutchman will persist with the 3-4-1-2 formation for now. Speaking in Jed Davies’ superb Coaching the Tiki Taka Style of Play, van Gaal gave an insight into his own philosophy.
“It’s a footballing philosophy more than a system. A system depends on the players you have. I played a 4-3-3 with Ajax,a 2-3-2-3 with Barcelona and I can play 4-4-2 with AZ. I’m flexible. The philosophy stays the same though.”
Whatever challenges Manchester United may face tactically,they will have a coach with a track record of developing successful sides and making teams work as a unit. Nonetheless, there is an undeniable sense of imbalance in this current Manchester United squad. Although Falcao, Rooney, and van Persie are more talented than departures Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez, one must wonder whether they would have been better holding on to one of them, if not both instead of Falcao. The Colombian is coming off an incredibly serious injury suffered last season, and alongside either van Persie or Rooney his skill-set may not compliment his partner. Welbeck and Hernandez have the ability to stretch defences, to use their movement and work ethic to push teams back and create space, and having this option off the bench instead of highly-skilled but stagnant strikers who rely on movement and chances created for them may have been to van Gaal’s benefit.
Another major problem is the midfield area and their lack of presence and creativity. Mentioned above, the selections in the middle of the park for United lack power, pace, and penetration. Should Angel Di Maria be expected to operate in a midfield three, it will certainly add those “Three Ps” to the side, but when operating in this role for Real Madrid it often began as a 4-3-3 which transitioned into a 4-2-2-2, illustrated below.
Emulating such a system would be incredibly complex for United. Real Madrid’s midfield and defence was (given Xabi Alonso has departed for Bayern Munich) vastly superior in terms of tactical intelligence and ability when transitioning between the two shapes. Substituting Herrera for Modric and Blind for Alonso would certainly be a possibility this season for van Gaal, but whether such a move would work in the Premier League remains to be seen. Not to mention the standard of defenders at the 63 year old’s disposal (and lack of numbers), suspensions and injuries could severely damage United’s hopes of progressing in the league.
Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers
To the supporters and staff of Manchester United, wanting to replicate the achievements of their most despised rivals will leave teeth grinding and hair being pulled out; which one can only assume is what Wayne Rooney occupies his spare time with. An astonishing accomplishment from the former Swansea coach, Brendan Rodgers took Liverpool from 7th place to Premier League runner ups in the space of a year; and did so using an incredibly thin squad. Similar events have occurred in the last decade of the Premier League: incredibly, David Moyes guided Everton from 17th in 2003/04 to 4th in 2004/05 (and back to 11th in 2005/06), while Harry Redknapp took Tottenham Hotspur from 8th in 2008/09 and into Champions League qualification the following season.
What both Redknapp and Moyes aided from was Liverpool dropping out of the top four on both occasions, although under different circumstances. 2004/05 saw Rafael Benitez take charge at Anfield in his first venture into management work away from Spain, while 2009/10 featured the concluding year in the Spaniard’s managerial role with the Merseyside club as off-field issues (and on-field) simply could not stop his team falling to a 7th place finish. There is no denying that Rodgers was helped by similar circumstances, capitalising on United’s year of transition to catapult his Liverpool side into the Champions League, although few expected them to leapfrog Everton, Spurs, Arsenal, and Chelsea in the process.
So, just how viable is it for Manchester United to replicate this achievement?
Albeit relatively rare, there is a chance that United can get back into the top four this season. However, it is who exactly they replace in the successful quartet that must be contemplated. Manchester City and Chelsea have strengthened their squad this summer and are also into their second year under the same management, Manuel Pellegrini and Jose Mourinho respectively. Arsenal have also reinforced this summer with Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona and Danny Welbeck from United themselves, while Liverpool have managed to assemble a very well-balanced squad in the wake of Luis Suarez’s departure for Barcelona. Each team is continuing their own development from last season, with only Liverpool expected to be in transition as they cope with added fixtures due to Champions League football.
Even the two teams above Manchester United last season will be hard to overtake. Everton’s growth and style of play since Roberto Martinez took charge has been outstanding, but they are still weak in certain areas. Tottenham’s disastrous campaign post-Gareth Bale was largely due to players being signed from abroad with no Premier League experience, but they will expect better performances from their under-achieving players thanks to the ability of former Southampton boss, Mauricio Pochettino.
It is not an impossible task for United to break into that top four. It will require a number of circumstantial incidents to fall exactly as they need them to, as well as each and every one of their squad members to perform to their utmost. Liverpool benefited from a number of beneficiary events such as United’s collapse, Spurs’ underachievement, and having no European competition to prepare for during the week.
But, they were also a fantastic team. The beneficial incidents listed would have meant nothing had Brendan Rodgers not had the capability to perform as a coach, dealing with injuries and suspensions to almost every single one of his players. The last season the club had no European competition to distract them from league progress was in 2011/12, which saw them finish 8th; 17 points off of top four.
When one looks at Manchester United’s squad, there is no denying the talent at their disposal. It is, in parts, better than what Brendan Rodgers had to work with at Anfield last season. But what the Ulsterman did have beyond the names on the squad-sheet were two vital components to Liverpool’s success last season; and currently, they look to be absent from Louis van Gaal’s troops.
Hunger & Desire
Louis van Gaal has trusted in youth in his previous managerial roles. One only has to look at his Champions League winning Ajax side with an average age of 23, and even the youth players played in Brazil this past summer. Youth offers desire, they look for their chance to play, to impress their coaches and clubs. United have talented youth players, Adnan Januzaj the most touted of them all, but the Red Devils’ current structure is not allowing these types of players the opportunity to breathe, or inciting their best talents to achieve their potential.
One of Liverpool’s key motives to their players is the incentive based contracts they sign. Pay related bonuses, added wages etc. all stem from their own ability on the field, rewarding them as they progress. Looking at the wages United are set to hand to Falcao, Di Maria, Shaw, coupled with the reported £300,000 Wayne Rooney will earn as well as Robin van Persie and Juan Mata’s lush contracts, United players are not given an incentive to achieve: everything has been handed to them so that they will be Manchester United players.
Falcao’s father has revealed that the player had his heart set on a move to the Bernabeau to play for Real Madrid, while Angel Di Maria controversially stated he did not wish to leave the Champions League winners. Even though they are supremely talented, one wonders what their reaction will be should waves become choppy on the sea United currently sail. The desire to fight, to give their all, may not be there. Welbeck’s love for United is evident:
“I’m a local lad and a fan myself, not just a player in the team,” he told Manchester United’s matchday programme earlier this year.
“It hurts a lot when I see that United aren’t doing as well as we know we can. I feel that extra passion inside me and I want to do everything I can for my team, my team-mates and the club I support because United means so much.”
Sometimes passion is not enough, but talent without desire is a poor recipe. Look no further than Jon Flanagan, a local Kopite who gave everything to help his boyhood team climb the table. Is he as talented as Luke Shaw? No, but he loves his club and worked hard, his hunger and desire inspired performances that players with twice his ability fail to produce.
Danny Welbeck may not have the ability of Wayne Rooney, Radamel Falcao, Robin van Persie, Angel Di Maria, or Juan Mata, but whether they will replicate the fight and desire the England international was prepared to offer in the forward line in a season, where they will be in a number of battles, is another matter.
Manchester United face an incredibly daunting challenge this season. Supporters and pundits believe that they will find their balance, and that their best players will gel together. But the foundations that Sir Alex Ferguson left the club with are rotting from the inside, and this summer was their chance to rectify that. Their is no denying the impressive transfers they pulled off, but whether they were the right ones will be revealed over the coming months. It feels as though the club have bought luxurious paint of the highest standards to decorate their house, but failed to plaster the walls in the process. The attacking talent alone may not be enough, their options up front appears too static and lacking variance, while the creativity, tempo, and dynamism at the heart of the team appears to beat with a whimper.
Keeping all of his players happy will be a challenge for Louis van Gaal. Egos and wage packets will certainly be a hurdle if key players are unhappy sitting on the bench, or should injuries occur to players they cannot afford to lose. One must question whether the Dutchman would have been better served picking the finest talents on the verge of breaking into top class players for fractions of the prices they paid for ready-made stars.
They have every chance of replicating the feats of Liverpool last season. But the gambles they have taken in getting them back into Europe’s elite tournament are incredibly dangerous, and should it backfire, it is frightening to think of the aftershock which may bring the Manchester United Empire crashing to the ground.