Am I saying Manchester United will win the 2015-2016 Barclays Premier League? No.
That question requires a whole different set of criteria and analysis; this article merely sets out to show that Manchester United’s roster is best equipped to be successful in the Champions League after Louis van Gaal’s July spending spree.
We have seen far too often, especially in England, that domestic success does not always translate to progression in the Champions League. Despite winning the league handily last season, Chelsea made it no farther than Arsenal and Manchester City (round of 16) in Europe. In both 2011-2012 and 2013-2014, when they won the Premier League, Manchester City had the least success of any English team in that year’s Champions League.
There are a few reasons why this phenomenon is true. Firstly, winning on a weekly basis against English sides, who often play a faster, more physical but less tactically and technically sophisticated style, is a far different challenge than beating the likes of Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, PSG, and others. In addition, winning games in the Premier League is mentally and physically draining, requiring impressive squad depth to allow for rotation in the post-New Year crunch weeks.
Chelsea showed that they are able to grind out wins in England, ruthlessly collecting points against smaller clubs and grinding out results (whether close wins or table-deciding draws) against their more immediate rivals. In the Champions League, however, Jose Mourinho’s pragmatic style failed in the face of an extremely talented and motivated PSG side, who bossed the West Londoners at Stamford Bridge despite being a man down. While the likes of Oscar, Cesc Fabregas, Nemanja Matic, Willian, and even Diego Costa were excellent domestically, their performances in the Champions League left much to be desired.
While it may be easy for Chelsea haters to say that it is a function of the Blues’ stars being overrated, the reason is that they were overworked, and badly. Matic and Fabregas played 3124 and 2890 league minutes respectively compared to 2460 by PSG counterpart Marco Verratti. Eden Hazard played 700 more league minutes than his Parisian counterpart, Edinson Cavani. Jose Mourinho’s squad had negligible depth, the primary reason behind their struggles to compete on all (four) fronts equally. When Mourinho finally rotated his squad against Bradford City in the FA Cup, his team’s limitations showed in an embarrassing 4-2 loss at home.
But not of all of the blame can be explained by fatigue, as Chelsea had over a week before their second leg clash against PSG. The Premier League trophy does not go the team who plays the most attractive football, as Arsene Wenger will vehemently attest to. While Chelsea was mesmerising at times this season, their impressive margin at the top of the table was due to a ruthless pragmatism that manifested itself on days like the 1-0 win over QPR at Loftus Road. The hosts had 15 shots to Chelsea’s 9, coming close to shocking the visitors until Fabregas unlocked QPR with a brilliant run, the only time Chelsea shifted the proverbial bus into drive. Negative tactics is a habit, and one Chelsea was not able to break in time for the European stage.
The Manchester United side that Louis van Gaal is assembling may not be best equipped to win the Premier League, lacking a bit of the grit and stability that Chelsea’s starting XI possesses, but it checks all of the boxes when Champions League matches come around. How so?
Firstly, this Red Devils team has depth to boot, and their transfer business may not even be completed. Besides striker, unless Van Gaal somehow decides to hold on to Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez, United have starting-quality backups at every position. From the wings (Depay, Young backing up Di Maria and Mata) to central midfield (Herrera, Schweinsteiger, Carrick, Fellaini, and Schneiderlin battling for just 3 spots) to full-back (Shaw and Darmian ahead of capable deputies Blind and Valencia), United is loaded.
Van Gaal has players with Champions League, World Cup, and domestic success under their belt riding shotgun. That may sound like a luxury, but it’s what allows teams to compete in, much less win, three games in a week as Champions League sides must do. Seriously, just think about it; United’s backup goalkeeper has won three Champions League trophies, six La Liga titles, and the World Cup. No other Premier League side comes close to matching the squad depth that Van Gaal possesses.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester City do not have many players with winning credentials on the European stage. Chelsea has 3 total Champions League trophies (one each for John Terry, Ramires, and Gary Cahill); Arsenal (Petr Cech) and Manchester City (Yaya Toure) have one each. Meanwhile, Manchester United boasts eight (8!) Champions League trophies between six players (Valdes x3, Di Maria, Mata, Rooney, Carrick, and Schweinsteiger). While Chelsea’s three winners all did it in the same year, for the same team, United’s champions have done it for five different clubs, giving Van Gaal an array of experiences and knowledge to select from.
Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger, Manuel Pellegrini, and Louis van Gaal have all taken steps to upgrade their personnel this summer, but only one, the veteran Dutchman, has his team poised to reverse the recent trend of English failure in Europe’s premier club competition.