Around three weeks ago, true to his eccentric reputation, Louis van Gaal stole the show at the Manchester United end of season awards with a drunken monologue described by Gary Neville as the “funniest twenty minutes of his life.” Amidst the slurring, the yelling and the occasional dictatorial hand gesture, van Gaal boldly declared that his team is “very close” to becoming a title-winning side once again.
Was it the booze talking? Rival fans and many reputable pundits have said so. But with another huge summer of spending seemingly on the horizon, a fresh mood of optimism has settled on Old Trafford and for many supporters a title challenge is much more realistic than the nay-sayers allow.
There is no question that on the pitch the team is in a much healthier position than this time last year. After all, the table doesn’t lie, and in both economic and symbolic terms there is a huge gulf between a fourth and seventh placed finish. In purely numerical terms, however, the money-throwing van Gaal regime has only been able to deliver six more points than the gloomy reign of tragic hero David Moyes.
A closer look at statistics doesn’t exactly reveal a mini-revolution under the Dutchman. In defence, a slight improvement was achieved with five less goals conceded compared to the previous season, however even with the dreamy firepower of Rooney, Van Persie, Falcao, Mata and Di Maria, the team managed an underwhelming return of 62 goals – six less than the previous seasons total. The side’s away form wasn’t exactly exemplary either.
But of course stats don’t tell the whole story. On course to regaining Champions League football status, United put an emphatic end to a run of awful derby results, and picked up hugely impressive victories at Anfield and The Emirates. This team may only be a six-point-improvement on last years, but under LVG they’ve gone toe-to-toe with the big boys on more than one occasion and landed crowd-pleasing, winning punches – something Moyes simply wasn’t unable to deliver.
United’s hopes of taking the likes of Chelsea and City to the wire over thirty-eight games next season could well hinge on the the movements of David de Gea. The PFA keeper of the season has rescued the side more points than his defenders would probably care to remember over the last two seasons however is said to be moving ever-closer to a move to Real Madrid. His fellow Spaniard and number two Victor Valdes is a gifted shot-stopper but is notoriously unreliable under the cross and unlikely to be trusted with the number one shirt.
Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris has been discussed as a potential replacement if de Gea were to return to his place of birth. The Frenchman could well be lured by the prospect of Champions League football and is certainly more than capable of excelling at that level. The destiny of de Gea is likely to be the saga of the summer. According to Guillem Balagué, Florentino Pérez believes he has his man. However, until an official announcement is made, the young Spaniard remains on United’s books.
If van Gaal manages to retain his freakish talents it would be the club’s most crucial business of the window for sure. United finished seventeen points behind Chelsea last season and without de Gea’s heroism the margin could have been a lot less flattering. Losing him would be a huge backwards stride and severely damaging to any title aspirations.
What of the incoming? Well, one can safely assume that there will be some additions given the behaviour of the club in the last summer window. But who fits the bill? And perhaps more importantly: what is the bill? What do United need to become a title-winning side?
Gareth Bale is a name that has appeared on the BBC Gossip Column on more than one occasion in recent weeks. The Welshman has yet to win the hearts of the Madrid fans and has come under fire for his insularity as well as on-the-pitch work ethic. Incidentally the ex-Tottenham man has scored thirty-nine in two seasons for Madrid including a goal in the 2014 Champions League final. It’s a tough gig at the Bernabéu. Of course, there’s no doubt that Bale would be a shirt-seller, but is he a necessity?
With Mata, Di Maria, Young, Rooney, Januzaj and now the highly-rated wonder-kid Memphis Depay all vying for places in the starting eleven, it is hard to provide a case for Bale as a round peg for a round hole – rather a shiny and expensive square peg for a round hole. The addition of Falcao last year inspired one of the finest fan-made footballing analogies in recent memory: “United signing Falcao is like buying a plasma screen TV for your conservatory when your conservatory roof has a hole in it.” The prospect of Bale joining United has a similar feel.
United’s more pressing issues relate to the defensive zones of the pitch. The Dutchman’s side didn’t concede a huge amount of goals last season however on many occasions were worryingly-generous in their awarding of chances to the opposition. Phil Jones hasn’t quite progressed at the rate demanded by his early promise while Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans continue to divide the opinion of fans. In defending aerial threats in particular this current side suffers from a fragility that must be addressed.
Is Hummels the man? The German international has been rumoured to be a target for the reds for some time now. Real’s impressive young centre back Raphaël Varane is another name that keeps on cropping up too. Blind and Rojo have enjoyed steady first seasons while in Blackett and McNair United have talents worth investing time in, but if this team is to have a serious chance of lifting the trophy next season then special attention must be paid to bolstering the backline.
If dea Gea was United’s most precious asset last season, then Michael Carrick wasn’t too far behind. Prior to his season-ending injury, United won an impressive 72.2% of matches with his experience in midfield, yet without him the win rate was at a concerning 35.2%. These stats reveal two things: 1) Carrick remains very effective and is still an underrated footballer and 2) United currently have nobody to step up to fill the Carrick void.
Blind is clearly a sound technician but often appears under-powered when up against more physical teams than he was used to in the Eredivisie. Dortmund’s Ilkay Gundagaon is said to potentially be on his way to Old Trafford after the exciting German refused to extend his contract at Dortmund and a player of his talent and attitude could well step up to the job.
Already being an established Premier League midfielder, Southampton rock Morgan Schneiderlin is another option for van Gaal. Southampton are likely to request a sizable fee for the French international, but United would be investing in a guy proven in his ability to dominate the middle of the park – the type of midfielder United have lacked ever since the departure of Keane.
Can Manchester United win the league next season? If shrewd spending takes precedence over huge spending and David de Gea remains at Old Trafford then there is no reason why not. However in a hugely competitive market the former will be a challenge and with Madrid sniffing the latter may well be increasingly-unrealistic.
Unless these stars align it is unlikely that the red side of Manchester will be celebrating a title win this time next season. However, with a handful of talents likely to be added and many lessons learned from the season before, expect van Gaal’s men to rack up an improved points total and perhaps even an assault on second place.