Manchester United’s 2013/2014 season was the worst in the history of the Premier League. A seventh place finish and no UEFA Champions League football cost ‘The Chosen One’ David Moyes his job. Moving on from this quickly as I’m sure you don’t want to hear too much about that like myself. United went for an experienced and proven manager in Louis van Gaal.
Even with his record and ability I found his performance in the transfer market a little strange over the summer. There were calls for United to sign a top class defender to replace the departing Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, which never happened. It felt as if the defensive portion of the squad had been neglected for ‘luxury’ players. This brings me to the second point of my article. United’s best players this season were at the club before the any transfers had been made during the summer.
Van Gaal’s summer deals have on the whole found it difficult to break in to the side and hold down a regular first team place. So what lessons can the club learn moving forward to this summer’s window from a largely underwhelming one last year?
I thought a good place to start this analysis would be to put together a team of the year for United. This is totally my opinion but based largely on the side Van Gaal played in the second half of the season.
As you can see in my team I have only selected two of the signings from last summer in Ander Herrera and Daley Blind. This means that Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao did not make the team. This reflects the struggle each player has gone through this season. However, we have players making the team such as Chris Smalling, Juan Mata, Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young in the team that had question marks over them before the season began.
Di Maria who was not only the biggest signing of the window he was also the new British record in terms of fee paid. After a great performance at the end of Madrid’s season that saw him be the ‘star man’ in the Champions League final and help Real Madrid lift the trophy for the tenth time. Then he went on to shine in the World Cup in Brazil. All looked well when Di Maria scored on his home debut and then when he scored one of the goals of the season with that chip against Leicester.
However, he only started 24 games in all competitions scoring four goals. This not what was expected when United splashed the clash to get one of the best players in World football. Issues off the pitch as well as a couple of injury problems have effected his first season at Old Trafford but a player that has achieved so much and played on the biggest of stages I would back Di Maria to bounce back next season and prove his value for money.
Another factor in the lack of first team opportunities for Di Maria was the fantastic form of the players Van Gaal deployed on the wings. Juan Mata on the right had found it difficult to find his place in the side since arriving at Old Trafford.
When Van Gaal started to play him on the right side of midfield great things started happening down that wing. Mata’s skill and vision was made obviously visible with country mate Herrera playing in central midfield. As well as this he had the athletic Valencia behind him pushing forward from right back that offered pace and strength down that wing. This became clear when they combined to win a thrilling game at Anfield. Mata managed nine goals this season from midfield, something that United have needed for a while.
While Mata had created a fruitful combination on the right the left-wing caused havoc in another big game for the Red Devils this season. Tottenham at home United claimed the three points after the combination between Young, Fellaini and Blind (who was playing at left back) had proven too much for Spurs.
Young’s resurrection this season has been nothing less than a miracle. When Van Gaal came to the club it looked he was on his way out. After hard work and forming a strong bond with the new manager he has performed as well as he ever has in the red shirt of United. Young has stated that Van Gaal has made him enjoy his football again. While Young only scored two times this season he has produced five assists. He has been a constant threat running at full backs and whipping in dangerous balls into the box.
Another player who has excelled when looking to be on their way out would be Fellaini. He has produced some very valuable performances when the team has needed him goals against Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion stand out for me. His presence in the air has caused problems for many defences in the Premier League. He made 19 starts this season in the League scoring six goals. Fellaini has always had a temper on him and this was displayed in the final game of the season. His horror tackles versus Hull City saw him see red. This is a negative when considering him as a long-term United player.
Fellaini’s midfield partner Ander Herrera has been in majestic form this season. His has formed a good understanding with Mata and they link up so well together on the pitch. He has also been able to scored a number of goals pushing forward from central midfield. He has scored eight goals in 22 starts for United in his debut season. From my point of view Herrera has been by far the best addition to the squad.
The pressure to bring in big name stars in my opinion was very much evident when United decided to take Falcao on loan. His reputation and track record are fantastic but he was coming off a terrible injury and was lacking match practise. While his skill is unquestionable the timing of the deal was horrific from the Red Devils and in my eyes was a sign of desperation. Falcao ended his loan spell recording 4 goals for United and we have decided not to take Falcao on permanently.
The defensive signings United made have not really worked out. They invested in youth with the big money signing of Luke Shaw. I personally think that this is a good bit of business and Shaw will become a great player at the club. It has been unfortunate that Shaw has had an injury hit season. I also did not understand why United did not try everything they could to keep Patrice Evra. He signed a new contract then he signed for Juventus. Evra would have been a fantastic role model for the hot prospect.
In Shaw’s absence another new signing has impressed at left back. Daley Blind has played there a number of times and performed very well. While it is not his natural position his intelligence and reading of the game has served him well. He is a good squad player who can play in a number of positions but as a first team regular I have my doubts.
A player who has also played at left back is Marcos Rojo. He is by trade a centre back who played well for Argentina during the World Cup. He has struggled to nail down a first team position in the centre of the defence. I do believe United signed him for his ability of the field but I do think his relationship with Di Maria was a factor in bringing him to the club.
While I feel United dropped the ball with the defensive transfers they made another player who has been struggling for form really stepped up and showed his worth. Chris Smalling was a signed by United with the idea he would develop. Up until this season I would say he has not progressed as the club would have liked. This season he has stepped up when the team has needed him. The highlight for me regarding Smalling this season has been the Arsenal game in which Smalling captained the side. Smalling has also signed a new long-term contract which will set him up to be a valuable member of the squad for years to come.
The signings made last summer have not found it easy at Old Trafford in their debut seasons. Herrera has stood up and showed the fans what he can do. Blind looked solid in numerous positions but did not shine. The rest have found it difficult to get into the side regularly. This has been down to the performances Van Gaal has been able to get out of players that have underachieved at United. So perhaps splashing cash on more big signings is not the answer? Maybe Van Gaal should work with the players he has and get the best out of those. Saying this the squad does need strengthening in key areas but spending big money on big names is not always the best way to improve the side.
This article was researched and written by Alan Brown. You can follow him on Twitter.