Although Manchester United haven’t quite made the same impression as their cross city rivals have in the opening weeks of the new season, they are both level on points with no goals conceded. After the abysmal start Manchester United had last season, the majority of the clubs’ fans would have bitten your hand off if you offered them two unconvincing 1-0 wins to start the season. Six points from their opening fixtures is a noticeable improvement on last season’s opening day home defeat to Swansea and an away draw to Sunderland. Only two goals scored highlights that United’s concerns up top haven’t really been dealt with yet. What is most surprising however is that they have kept two clean sheets without their first choice goalkeeper and without any additions to their, what most believe to be, incredibly suspect back line. What has played the biggest role in this turnaround from last season’s terrible start? There are a few influences worth discussion, starting with the man in charge.
The Louis Van Gaal effect
Does two uninspiring 1-0 wins not just scream what Louis Van Gaal is all about. It is well documented that his style football is not the most eye-catchingly exciting brand that is going. There is a reason why Van Gaal and Johan Cryuff have had such open disagreements on the way the game should be played. It is because Van Gaal’s pragmatic philosophy flies in the face of the type of beautiful game Cryuff believes should be played. Manchester United fans were aware of this when Van Gaal was set to replace David Moyes at the club. It may not be pretty, but he is here to do a job and steady the ship. It was painful to watch United for most of last season. There was no urgency to their play and they look bereft of any creative spark. Most worrying was the fact most believed their defence not to be strong enough to mitigate for the limited number of chances the side would create. If you want to play that type of football, you need to make sure you have a defence ready to concede no goals so that your 1 goal of the game is enough for 3 points. The back 3 didn’t work because the personnel playing in it didn’t look comfortable. The back four was unsteady because there seemed to be no leader among them, no consistency in selection and a winger playing at right-back.
However, now United are 2 for 2 to start the season with no goals conceded and only 2 scored. Does this mean that Louis Van Gaal’s system is finally flowing through the clubs’ veins. They have had over a year now to adapt to the type of footballing ethos Louis Van Gaal wants; and are now at the point when it has been embedded in the players and they are fully understanding of their duties? It could easily be the case. Any team that can afford to play without their first choice keeper and Daley Blind at centre-back yet concede no goals in the Premier League is obviously implementing their game plan to near perfection. Has the professor turned this into his Manchester United team now, rid them of the days of expansive, relentless attacking football and turned them into an organised, slow paced, hard to break down machine? Rumour has it that Van Gaal will not seek to sign another centre-back after missing out on Ramos, and that highlights his belief in the system that he is willing to continue forward with the players at his disposal defensively. This could be the case, but there are other factors worth consideration.
The Morgan Schneiderlin Factor
Of all the players brought in during Manchester United’s summer spending many believed Morgan Schneiderlin to be the best addition to the squad. He had cemented his reputation as one of the best at what he does in the league during his years at Southampton and it was inevitable one of the countries top sides would eventually come calling. His energy and commitment in midfield helps him act as one of the best screens for the defence in the division, something United had been calling out for since their defence had been exposed as their weak spot. In their opening couple of games Manchester United have completed 40 interceptions and Morgan Schneiderlin was directly responsible for just under a quarter of them (8).
His ability to read the game and cut out key passes from the opposition’s midfield was a major part of what made Southampton so hard to break down. For comparison, look at the start to the season Southampton have had without him. The Saints have only managed 1 point and a heavy home defeat to Everton, something that was unheard of last season. So far this season Southampton have managed 47 interceptions while only 3 of those were completed by Schneiderlin’s old midfield partner Victor Wanyama. They miss the Frenchman’s presence in the midfield. But their loss is Manchester United’s gain. His defensive efficiency helps to complement the type of system Van Gaal wants to see from his team. His tackling and intercepting breaks up any opposition’s momentum in possession allowing United to get hold of the ball and stifle the game, killing any positive tempo for their opponents and allowing United to attempt to slowly and methodically wear them out.
The importance of Schneiderlin’s addition can’t be understated. But, there is a man who has been at the club for a few years already that has started to make good on his potential.
The rebirth of Chris Smalling
Manchester United fans thought they had purchased the next Rio Ferdinand and John Terry when they brought in Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. Their potential seemed endless after impressive performances at such young ages. However, it started to look like that wasn’t going to be the case as neither player seemed to mature as they stopped being considered young talents. Chris Smalling however looks like he is starting to come good on his potential when United need him the most. Last season, after a stupid sending off in a tight Manchester derby, it seemed like Chris Smalling had put the final nail in his coffin at Manchester United. Fans were angry with the lack of maturity he showed and it seemed to reaffirm ideas that Smalling was not good enough to lead the United back line. Since his return from that suspension the former Fulham player has done everything to change those supporters’ minds. He was a completely different player from Christmas onward at United. While their performances weren’t always brilliant, Chris Smalling made sure that he staked his claim to the first choice centre-back spot. Soon the chat amongst supporters changed from; “we need two new centre-backs” to “we need another centre-back to partner Smalling”.
What is most refreshing for Manchester United supporters is that Smalling appears to have continued that form into the new season. He was immense against Tottenham on the opening day and again lead the back line to a clean sheet on a tough away day at Villa Park. Of the 68 clearances Manchester United have completed in their first two fixtures, Chris Smalling was responsible for 17 of them. Add that stat to his 6 interceptions in those two games and the fact that he has won 67% of the tackles he has attempted, while also winning 63% of his headed duels. It is the type of form that United fans will want to see Smalling carry throughout the season. It is almost as if he is trying to put everyone at ease about the fact Daley Blind is playing next to him by being awesome on his own. These are performances that would lead Manchester United fans to truly believe that they are a Smalling partner away from a title challenge. But, it seems to be the type of form that leads Louis Van Gaal to believe they don’t need to sign another defender. The signing of Darmian has given a balance to the back line as they now have two young and exciting full-backs. The return of Marcos Rojo will probably see him slot in next to Smalling and the hope would be the two of them could create a great partnership that will allow United to march forward for the rest of the season.
Ultimately, it is most likely the case that all three of these factors have played a massive part in Manchester United’s start to the season. There is nothing for United fans to get carried away with yet. The club are going to be challenged throughout the season and their style will probably mean that when they win it won’t be impressive and when they get beat it will look dreadful. But, what is certain is that the return to form of Chris Smalling, the signing of Morgan Schneiderlin and the understanding of Louis Van Gaal’s system has put Manchester United on much a better footing to compete this season than they were last year.