This is the first of a series of four articles coming to you in the space of the next two weeks in which I will focus on this season’s top 4 of Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal. I will highlight the 5 positions these teams need to strengthen over the summer to improve their chances of being crowned Premier League champions this time next year. Today, Manchester United will be the team put under the microscope.
Louis Van Gaal has completed the first step of his quest at Old Trafford by (almost certainly now) finishing in the Top 4 and qualifying for Champions League football. This was arguably the easiest of the tasks ahead of him, though certainly not a simple one, with the Dutchman inheriting a rather ageing squad that has had a poor first season since the departure of long-term legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson. In his first summer in charge, Van Gaal has spent £200 million to bolster his squad and give himself a squad to work with.
The arrivals of Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao, Ander Herrera, Daley Blind, Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo all looked very good on paper, however the Red Devils spent a large part of the first half of the season struggling to settle for a given starting 11 and a given formation, which also goes down to numerous injuries to key players. In effect, Wayne Rooney was often deployed in midfield rather than in attack where he does most damage. Radamel Falcao never returned to the form he showed prior to the knee injury suffered last season. Ander Herrera had a relatively slow start to life at Old Trafford but has not established himself into the starting 11 and is arguably the best of Van Gaal’s transfer business so far. The Dutchman also managed to get the best out of Marouane Fellaini by deploying the 6 ft 4 Belgian in advanced roles, using his advantage to win aerial duels down the pitch. Angel Di Maria, who was possibly one of the five best players in the world last summer, has now been outshined by the likes of Young, Herrera, Mata and Carrick after making a sublime start in the Premier League at first.
Despite those big signings, Manchester United have not quite impressed anyone until a run of 3 victories in a row against Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City and rarely set the league on fire with their performances. A run of 3 defeats in a row without scoring a goal followed their 3 game winning streak, underlining the importance of the balance Michael Carrick brings to the team. The truth is, had Liverpool’s decline compared to last season not been so dramatic, (18 points less than they had after 36 games last season) the Red Devils would now be in the middle of a fierce battle with their city rivals and Arsenal for that crucial fourth place.
Now that his first season’s task is settled, Van Gaal can focus on preparing a squad with thich he can challenge for the title next season. It goes without saying that it is absolutely necessary United fend off Real Madrid and hold on to De Gea this summer. The Spaniard has been the difference between the Top 4 and another poor season for the Red Devils and in the next seasons he can be the difference between a title and a runner-up. Here are the 5 positions United must strengthen this summer if they are to mount a serious title challenge against Chelsea next year.
Best option: Mats Hummels
Other option(s): Marquinhos, Diego Godin, Raphael Varane
The centre-back position has been a thorn in United’s heels for a couple of seasons now. Since the old duo of Ferdinand and Vidic passed their prime, Manchester United have not had one player capable of filling the gaps left in the backline, leaving much of that on the shoulders of De Gea.
Mats Hummels has been linked with a move to Old Trafford for over a season now, dropping hints recently he will follow his manager Jurgen Klopp out of the Dortmund team. The German international would be a formidable signing for United, having the leadership skills necessary to organise the backline. Hummels would be a commanding presence, who is a threat from set-pieces at both ends of the field and is very good on the ball too, representing all the qualities of a modern central defender. His asking price could go up to £30 million, which is still a bargain considering United have the money and Hummels is still only 26 with his best years ahead of him. He would most likely line up on the right with Marcos Rojo, a left footer, to his left.
Other possibilities for Van Gaal include Marquinhos from PSG, Raphael Varane from Real Madrid and Diego Godin from Atletico Madrid. The first two are both less than 23 years old, and with Rojo at 25 and De Gea at 24, United need a bit more experience at the back, though they would represent great defenders for a decade to come. Godin has all the experience United would need and is also a set piece threat.
Marquinhos has the best statistics with the ball at his feet playing an average 56 passes a game with a 92% accuracy. Hummels is commanding in aerial duels with just over 6 per 90 minutes and he tops the tackles category with 1.99. Diego Godin is the best at reading the game with 2.66 interceptions, making full use of his experience. He also comes out on top with clearances making a very high 6.19 clearances every game. Raphael Varane wins the highest percentage of all duels and aerial duels with a rate of 64.24% and 70.53% respectively. The Frenchman also leads the way with blocks, having made an average of 0.95 every game.
Best option: Memphis Depay
Other option(s): Gareth Bale
The left wing position has been occupied by Ashley Young who has gone through a formidable rejuvenation under Louis Van Gaal this season. However next season, he will more than likely cede it to Memphis Depay, who has already completed his to United earlier this week for a fee of around £25 million. Depay has been the Eredivisie top scorer with 21 goals (make it 22 this weekend) this season and set the league on fire. At the age of 21, he is a formidable talent and can only thrive in a club like Manchester United. He of course knows his future boss from their World Cup 2014 campaign and qualifiers, which should make it a lot easier for the pair to understand what they expect from each other.
Though Young has not played badly down that left wing, Depay can offer United a new dimension of a threat. United have struggled to break down stubborn, organised opposition like Everton and West Brom. However with Depay cutting from the left on to his right foot and unleashing a fierce shot like he has previously so many times in the Dutch league, this can all change next season.
Gareth Bale was another name often linked with a move to Old Trafford, however with the arrival of Depay, it is hard to imagine where exactly Bale would fit in at Old Trafford. The right wing is more than sufficiently covered by Juan Mata, who is not likely to move into central midfield should Van Gaal stick to his 4-3-3 formation which is more than likely. A move for Bale would only make sense if United reverted back into a 3-5-2 formation they experimented with at the start of the season where Depay and Bale could play wing-backs. It remains an option, however it has not had the desired effect when used previously.
With 22 goals, Depay has scored 0.80 goals per 90 minutes, however it is worth noting that his opposition was Eredivisie defenders and goalkeepers, both of who are expected to be a level higher when he comes up against them in the Premier League. His goal tally is still remarkable for a winger nonetheless. Bale’s assist statistic is at 0.33, which is more than Depay’s 0.15, showing the Dutchman is more of a finisher. However he does create more chances for his teammates than his Welsh counterpart with 2.15 chances created and 2 key passes compared to Bale’s 1.66 and 1.34 and Young’s 1.50 and 1.31. Out of the three, Young reaches the highest pass completion rate with 81%. While Bale has a more successful rate of completed take-ons (55%), it is Depay who has completed the higher average with 2.84 per game. Bale then leads the way with duels with his impressive physique, winning 1.41 duels a game compared to just 0.29 of Depay’s at a rate of 48.75% compared to the Dutchman’s 38.1%. Aerial duels may be the only aspect in which Depay could potentially struggle, as he is most likely to come up against much more physical opposition in England than he was used to from Holland.
Best option: Edinson Cavani
Other option(s): Danny Ings, Gonzalo Higuain
With Radamel Falcao flopping over the season and never finding his Atletico Madrid form, it would come as a shock if Manchester United opted to make El Tigre’s stay at Old Trafford a permanent one. Robin Van Persie who was such an asset in their title winning 2012/2013 season is suffering from injury setbacks and won’t be getting younger after turning 32 later this summer. Wayne Rooney is currently the most dangerous striker Louis Van Gaal has (unless you count Marouane Fellaini) and he is often played in midfield to balance the team…
Should both Falcao and Van Persie be shown the door at Old Trafford, the Red Devils will be in the market for a proven goal scoring forward. There won’t be many top quality forwards available this summer but one that is rumoured to be allowed to leave is Edinson Cavani. The Uruguayan has never got ahead of Zlatan Ibrahimovic into the main striker role and often had to settle for a place on the wing. Despite playing out of position, the Uruguayan bagged 16 goals in Ligue 1 and 28 in all competitions this season. He checks all the boxes for “a 20 goals-a-year striker” Van Gaal was quoted he is missing in his team this season. He is very strong physically so a move to the more physical Premier League would not present much of a problem for the Uruguayan. However whether PSG will truly be willing to sell (perhaps to fund a move for Palermo’s Paulo Dybala) is another question.
Other names Manchester United can turn to are Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuain and Burnley’s Danny Ings. While Higuain is an experienced goalscorer, Ings is a young Englishman who has impressed in his first season in the Premier League. Unfortunately Ings’ goals were not enough to keep Burnley in the top division and it is unlikely that a player of his talent will be “wasted” in the Championship next season.
Higuain and Cavani lead the way with 16 goals each in their respective leagues. Higuain also managed 8 assists, 0.28 on average compared to Cavani’s 1. The pair have an equal shot accuracy at 58%, higher than both Rooney and Ings. Higuain also unleashes the most shots of all with 3.82 per 90 minutes, slightly more than Cavani who has 3.71, Ings has 2.81 and Rooney averages 2.49. Cavani has the higher pass completion at 82% which is only bettered by Rooney’s 85%. Ings leads the way with successful take-ons at 1.71, Higuain manages 1.03 and Cavani has a low average of 0.51, showing his domains are clearly elsewhere. Ings also has the highest take-on successful rates with 51.63%, Cavani is further behind with 31.11% and Higuain has 29.41%. Surprisingly, Cavani wins the fewest aerial duels with his physique with only 0.33 at a rate of 29.03%. Higuain has 0.79 at 27.06% and Ings has one 0.69 duels per game with a rate of 21.36%.
Best Option: Ilkay Gundogan
Other option(s): Kevin Strootman, Miralem Pjanic, Koke
With the ageing Michael Carrick proving to be the player who keeps the balance for Manchester United, Van Gaal will surely turn to a young central midfielder who can bring balance to the team, without Wayne Rooney having to shift to midfield first. It will also be interesting to see what will happen with Angel Di Maria who was sublime at the start of the season but has only been at the periphery of things since New Year’s Day, barely making the starting 11. Whether he is still in Van Gaal’s plans or will be allowed to leave this summer is one question that United will need answering. If the Argentine does not fit into the United’s boss’ plans, it is a shame wasting a player of his talents on the bench.
The name most often reported to be on his way to Manchester has been another Borussia Dortmund star Ilkay Gundogan. The Red Devils have been interested in the German international in past seasons, however his back injury saw him out for a full season and interfered with any transfer. Last season, Gundogan only agreed to a one year extension on his contract, which shows a clear intention of leaving for pastures new this summer. Ed Woodward also has other options in Roma duo Kevin Strootman and Miralem Pjanic and Atletico Madrid’s Koke.
Strootman would have probably been a Red Devil last summer if it wasn’t for his serious knee injury that ended his season and put him out for most of the current campaign as well. The Dutchman is yet to make a proper recovery and at the moment would represent a big risk for Manchester United to invest into. His Roma teammate Pjanic is another story, with the Bosnian playing a huge part in the club’s resurgence and return to the Champions League. Atletico Madrid’s Koke should be another midfielder of interest to the Reds as he combines high work rate with being good defensively and also being comfortable on the ball while organising the Rojiblancos offensive play.
In his last full season before injury, it was Strootman who struck the most goals per 90 minutes at 0.22. This season, Pjanic has scored as many as the Dutchman has a year ago (5), however he has played more minutes. The Bosnian then shows how he excels as a creator with 0.34 assists, Koke has 0.33. Pjanic also created more chances (2.46) than the Spaniard (2.03) and has registered more key passes (2.12) than Strootman (1.84) and Koke have (1.70) as well as maintaining the highest pass completion with 90%. Gundogan leads with take-ons as he has completed on average 1.62 take-ons with a high success rate of 60.78%. The German has also won 0.94 duels, as much as Strootman last season, although the Dutchman has a bigger success rate of 56.76% while Gundogan’s is similar to the one of Koke as both have won slightly over 41% of their duels.
Best option: Nathaniel Clyne
Other option(s): Lukasz Piszczek
Antonio Valencia has made the right-back and right wing-back position his own under Louis Van Gaal, who clearly does not show trust in Rafael who occupied the right-back position under Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes. However Valencia is by trade a midfielder, and it would come as a surprise if Van Gaal did not reinforce on the position either with a backup for Valencia or a proper right back.
Nathaniel Clyne’s emergence at Southampton has been one of the reasons the Saints boast the second best defensive record in England. The Englishman is also pushing for a place in the National team line-up. As a young right-back, Clyne is full of energy and has great pace which he uses to the best effect when supporting his team offensively. The other option is yet another Dortmund player Lukasz Piszczek. The Pole has plenty of experience and is as much an offensive contribution as Clyne.
Statistically, Piszczek creates more chances (0.77) and has more key passes (0.71) than Clyne, who boasts a 79% passing accuracy compared to the Pole’s 72%. Piszczek has made more interceptions (2.03) than Clyne (1.85), however the Englishman has made more blocks (0.18) and clearances (2.88) than the Dortmund man. Piszczek then leads the way with aerial duels won having come on top in 2.42 per game with a rate of 69.8%. On the other hand, Clyne has only won 0.36 duels at a rate of 31.58%.
Expect a busy transfer window at Old Trafford as Louis Van Gaal will be preparing himself and his team for a title charge and will also look for a successful campaign on the club’s return to the Champions League. While there is no guarantee the above mentioned names will feature in a Manchester United kit next season, these are the key positions Van Gaal will most likely look to strengthen. One player who I think Manchester United don’t especially need is Paul Pogba, at least not unless they sell Herrera and Di Maria. Pogba is a sensational talent and a physical presence in the middle of a park, but with a 6 foot 4 inches Belgian, a physical presence is not quite what the team needs. They need a box to box midfielder who will do a lot of running like Arturo Vidal who would have been the perfect signing some two seasons ago. Much will also depend on which of the current players will be shown the door at the end of the season. For now, here is my call for how Manchester United would lineup next season should they get all the aforementioned signings (with Victor Valdes as second keeper).