Over the course of the last week, we watched (somewhat jealously) our Premier League brethren compete in the Champions League and Europa League. On one hand, we wished Manchester United was right there with them. European nights, after all, can be some of the most special fixtures of the season. On the other hand, most supporters (myself included) had to have watched in joy as Liverpool lost on penalties while Arsenal and Manchester City were both dismantled at home rather easily.
“4-4-2 against Barcelona,” we thought? Surely, we would have not made the same mistake in Europe. In Arsenal’s case, we looked at a side that simply did not have the players to compete in the knockout round of a European Cup. At the heart of the matter, however, is a simple point: they qualified for Europe, and we did not. This begs the question, while our supporters are definitely ready for European football, is Manchester United?
First of all, we have to take a look at tactics. Louis van Gaal, though he still has the majority of support from supporters, has made questionable tactical decisions against Premier League opposition. Van Gaal stubbornly stuck to the 3-5-2 before transitioning to a diamond midfield after widespread dissent among the fans. Yet van Gaal has continued to tinker, sometimes playing with wingers, at other times playing a “long-ball United” style with Fellaini as a target man.
Now the Premier League is obviously a different beast than European competition. Van Gaal has, of course, succeeded in Europe, but it’s been several years now since the Dutchman has headed a side in Europe. Could the competition possibly have passed him by? Simple speculation. The fact remains, however, that if Van Gaal cannot settle on a Premier League style of play, he may in fact find it difficult to compete in Europe.
Secondly, there is the simple question of personnel. Without the coming upgrades in the summer, United are still a side rather lacking in crucial areas that are necessary for Europe. Up top, Robin van Persie and Falcao are not guaranteed to be back next season. Assuming we finish in the top four, that leaves Rooney as the only player with European experience in the strike-force. Could Chicharito be back next year if Real Madrid fail to make the loan deal permanent? If not, Van Gaal will likely bring someone in to partner with Rooney for the time being.
In midfield, Angel Di Maria possesses a wealth of European experience while Ashley Young has also appeared in the competition. Fellaini, of course, saw time in Europe during David Moyes’ one season reign, failing to impress. Daley Blind played in a World Cup so he has the guile to appear in Europe hypothetically. Angel Herrera has impressed this season in domestic competition but is untested in Europe. Potential signings like a Paul Pogba or Kevin Strootman would go a long way in making the midfield ready for European competition.
Then we come to the defense. Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, and Phil Jones all played in Europe under Sir Alex Ferguson, but the trio have disappointed this term and are not guaranteed a place in next season’s side. Luke Shaw is merely a youngster and requires some easing into Europe. A senior member like Patrice Evra could have gone a long way in grooming the English teenager. Marcos Rojo looks like a top-level center back and certainly possesses the temperament and strength for a European night. Although van Gaal may yet bring someone like Mats Hummels, a back line needs the opportunity to build chemistry. Little to no experience with a club can be a disaster in Europe.
Changes and big signings are needed if United are to be considered ready for European competition. Even then, the side will need the time to gel, and United fans may have to endure another couple of months of feeling out. Despite Van Gaal’s absence from Europe for several years, he still may yet retain the tactical know-how to compete, and beat, the giants like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, and Barcelona.
Is Manchester United ready for European football? Until the side is strengthened once more and the services of David De Gea are retained, we might not have the answer. The question is moot, of course, if United fail to finish in the top four, which is the immediate goal at the moment.
This article was researched and written by Nathan Kanuch. You can follow him on Twitter.