Manchester United: Back in the top four but still a long way from first

Louis van Gaal

It is a testament to how difficult last season was that I am so conflicted about Manchester United finishing fourth. Yes, it feels great to have Champions League football back, but watching Chelsea win the league completely unopposed, especially with the attacking talent in the United squad, hurt. You can find a full season review here; Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four, but with the exception of that run of wins against Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Manchester City, this has been a tough season. The club is still rebuilding under Louis van Gaal but there is a lot of work to be done and a few things still standing in the way.

Tactical Rigidity

Louis van Gaal left the World Cup with a third place medal and the kind of title you feel he might enjoy much more: tactical genius. He took an unbalanced team much further than people expected and showed great flexibility and pragmatism. He changed his entire system just before the World Cup when Kevin Strootman got injured, and got the whole world talking when he substituted his goalkeeper before a penalty shootout.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t really worked out that way at Old Trafford. Yes, he has chopped and changed systems until he found the 4-3-3 that worked so well for a while but that felt more like indecision than tactical flexibility. This was especially true with our attacking players. To have got so little out of what was on paper such a powerful strike force, is a worry, as was the reliance on Marouane Fellaini.

When desperate for a goal, United ended games with Fellaini upfront, with strikers in midfield behind him. Van Gaal saw that sending it long to Fellaini worked a few times, so that was the fall back. I would have much rather seen Fellaini come off for Angel Di Maria, move Juan Mata into central midfield alongside Ander Herrera and really go for it playing football that United fans know and love. There have also been several occasions when Van Gaal has sacrificed a player that wasn’t fully fit, even if it was detrimental to the team’s performance.

The best example of this was against Chelsea in April. Luke Shaw, recently back from injury, was causing Ivanovic serious trouble, getting in behind him and playing really well. In the 80th minute, Shaw was pulled off for Tyler Blackett, who is a great young prospect at centre back, but certainly not a flying left-back. That substitution pretty much killed off any chance we had in getting back into the game. This was Van Gaal’s first season in the Premier League, so I can forgive him for being a bit cautious and sticking with what works, but I would also have liked to see him make more of an impact when it wasn’t working.

Hopefully, with a year under his belt and a full squad of players that he trusts, that rigidity may disappear. I certainly hope so.

Bringing In The Best

Memphis Depay is a great signing and the perfect start to one of the biggest transfer windows in Manchester United’s history. The club has to bring in the players that Van Gaal wants and crucially, his number one choices. Unfortunately, and I know this won’t sit comfortably with United fans, the club is probably the fifth choice for where the very best players want to go. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Chelsea (because they are in London) are all more appealing. So unless Van Gaal and Ed Woodward can work some serious magic, there is a very small chance someone as good as Paul Pogba will end up at Old Trafford. I’m sure the club are already working very hard on bringing in new players, but with both Real and Bayern needing to strengthen, United may miss out on the very best and I think we are in need of some serious quality across the park.

The Goalkeeper

One place we do have serious quality, is in goal. But let’s face it, if David De Gea was staying, we would have signed by now so it’s time so start planning for life without him. Ideally, we would rely a lot less on our keeper next season, but you need an incredible keeper like De Gea to win trophies. Watching Victor Valdes against Hull was like watching De Gea two years ago. Fantastic reflex saves, but nervous when coming for crosses. Any defence with Phil Jones and Chris Smalling needs a calming influence behind it, and the club have to get this decision right.

There has been a lot of talk about Hugo Lloris but I would have a go for Marc-André ter Stegen from Barcelona. He may be winning a UEFA Champions League trophy very soon but he is still currently only Barcelona’s cup goalkeeper. Perhaps the offer of being number one may tempt him. So, like I said, a lot of work to be done. I really believe that when Van Gaal is surrounded by the players he wants, we will see the best of him and hopefully, of United.

It’s going to be an interesting summer.

This article was researched and written by Patrick McCaul. You can follow him on Twitter.

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