A lot has changed at Manchester United in the last two and a half years. Since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, Old Trafford has welcomed two new managers, turned over a huge quantity of players and a seen a new style of play implemented by Dutch boss Louis van Gaal.
Now in his second season in charge, the ex-Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager is in full control of his squad. With some of the deepest pockets in football, he has already spent around £250 million on fresh talent in attempting to turn United from the meek, miserable, seventh-place finishers that David Moyes had created and turn them back into title contenders.
On a purely statistical level, van Gaal has done exactly what was asked of him. The Red Devils finished fourth last season, and Champions League football has returned to Old Trafford after its Moyes-induced sabbatical. This campaign, United are right in the mix, sitting just three points behind surprise leaders Leicester City. It may be a step down from Ferguson’s runaway Premier League campaigns, but there still looks to be very little to complain about from a fan’s perspective.
However, despite Manchester United’s upturn in fortune under van Gaal, there is still a significant level of grumbling coming from the stands. The team is not the free flowing side of old, but a resolute, organised, and frankly boring outfit. Whilst van Gaal has commendably transformed a leaky defence into a solid, almost impenetrable rock, United’s attack has become turgid and lifeless, devoid of any imagination of how to crack open an opposition defence. This is not how a side with such an embarrassment of attacking riches should be playing.
The problem with van Gaal is there is a complete lack of risk-taking in the side. Manchester United are set up to avoid losing rather than to attempt to win a game. This would be understandable if they didn’t have the attacking talent to open teams up, but the fact is they do, they are merely being stifled.
A prime example of van Gaal’s lack of adventure is his refusal to play Ander Herrera. Signed last summer from Athletic Club, Herrera is the type of player Manchester United need, but their Dutch manager fails to utilise. The Spanish midfielder doesn’t fit in with van Gaal’s style due to his risk taking tendencies, something which his manager is totally averse to. Herrera doesn’t always pick the easy pass, instead probing by attempting incisive balls. They do not always come off, but his attempts to unlock defences often unsettle opposition defences, which is something Morgan Schneiderlin’s sideways passing simply does not do.
Herrera would certainly add a creative spark to United’s midfield, but in theory, they have enough talent in their attacking line up to blow teams away without his help. Juan Mata is one of the best playmakers in the Premier League, who excels when given a license to roam in behind the striker as he did at Chelsea. Now, he mainly stays on the right wing, always having to make sure his full back isn’t at risk of a counter attack.
The same can be said of Antony Martial. In his first handful of games following his transfer from Monaco, the 19-year-old was terrorising defences with his pace and power. Since acclimatising to van Gaal’s tactics, Martial’s impact has become much more limited, sticking to their rigid formation much more. Playing Martial in United’s slow, dull style could be considered akin to buying a Lamborghini, but not driving it more than 20 miles per hour. His strengths are being ignored by van Gaal’s style.
Due to the nature of van Gaal’s tactics, United are failing to take advantage of their superior squad when they come up against stingy opponents. In their last six home games, they have only managed three goals, with two wins and four goalless draws. They are clearly not making the most of the talent they possess.
However, despite their boring nature, van Gaal must be applauded for turning Manchester United into the strongest defensive team in the league. Chris Smalling has been transformed into a fine central defender, and the signing of Schneiderlin has shored up their midfield. They may not be winning as much as they should be, but they are also unbeaten at home this season, and just twice away. It is impossible to argue that this doesn’t stand them in good stead for a title challenge.
Manchester United are certainly in the title hunt under Louis van Gaal’s organised style, but due to their lack of flair, the manager remains under pressure. For a side with the talent and pedigree of Manchester United, they have the ability to be at least a little more attacking, without compromising their defensive organisation. Van Gaal has stabilised United, but to take them further, he must unleash the talent at his disposal. The goals it adds could be the difference between a title parade and another Champions League qualifier next season.
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