Europe awaits – now United must prepare

May 10, 2015 Tags: , Reads 21 comments
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Short of a 15 goal swing to Liverpool over the final two games of the campaign Manchester United’s return to Europe’s élite is all but confirmed, with Louis van Gaal’s side set to enter the Champions League at the play-off stage next August. After more than a year away from Europe’s premier competition it is a welcome return, although there is much to improve in the Dutchman’s squad if the Reds are to be competitive against the continent’s best.

Indeed, with a clutch of potentially difficult ties ahead there is still some work to do before Van Gaal’s side is in the Champions League group stage once again. Not least because United’s potential play-off opponents will be drawn from a list that – as it stands – includes Ajax, CSKA Moscow, Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen, Lazio, Besiktas and Sporting Lisbon, among others. No gimmes there, with Champions League format changes potentially making qualification more difficult.

Nor will Van Gaal enjoy significant “preparation time” ahead of the play-off, with the Premier League scheduled to start on 8 August and the European qualifiers set to be completed over two legs in the weeks of 18/19 and 25/26 August. United return from a short summer tour of the USA on 30 July.

The main concern lies elsewhere though: not in the play-off opponent nor the rapid-fire preparation for the new season, but whether Van Gaal will end the summer with a balanced squad ahead of the new campaign. Or whether, as in the past two summers, United’s hierarchy will engage in a desperate last-minute rush for players.

After all, the summer of 2013 left David Moyes’ cupboard barren before the new campaign had even started – in part due to the Scot’s dithering and in part because of Ed Woodward’s transfer market naïvety. It was a summer in which many words were written about United’s transfer market strategy; few of them positive, not least on these pages. The club’s propensity for generating farce bordered on amateurish tomfoolery and the summer ended with the capture of Belgian international Marouane Fellaini as its only prize.

Summer 2013 left United embarrassed by Thiago Alcântara’s inevitable decision to join Bayern Munch and humiliated by Cesc Fabregas’ manipulation of the club’s interest. Woodward’s dash home from Australia in mid-July brought little but ridicule, especially on transfer deadline day where United submitted bids for around half-a-dozen players. It was, in the end, six weeks of maladroit bumbling and not the triumphant return Woodward had sought.

Summer began, laughably, with Pep Guardiola’s brother negotiating the €20 million transfer of Thiago to Bayern Munich. How could it have ended any other way? It continued with United submitting a barely credible bid for Fabregas just 24 hours after his under-study’s arrival in southern Germany. United’s offer for the now Chelsea player amounted to just €26 million.

United followed a similarly bizarre strategy in pursuit of Leighton Baines, with Everton rejecting a £12 million offer in June and a follow-up bid of the same figure a month later. Shakespearean farce ensued with the failed pursuit of Ander Herrera, which eventually involved an army of lawyers, agents, middlemen and “impostors.” The tsunami of ridicule only increased with deadline day bids for Daniele De Rossi, Fábio Coentrão and Sami Khedira, among others.

By contrast last summer is largely remembered for United’s success in spending heavily – Woodward doing the sensible thing and farming out much of the work to preferred agents, including Jorge Mendes. And yet the window still concluded with another last-minute dash around the continent. Herrera was eventually signed on 26 June 2014, Luke Shaw on 27 June and Marcos Rojo signed with 12 days of the summer to go; three players joined in the final week of the window – some two weeks after season had begun. Angel di Maria arrived on 26 August 2014, Daley Blind on 30 August, and Radamel Falcao on 1 September

Not that United’s acquisition of Herrera and Shaw passed without scrutiny, the club having paid a significant premium on each to conclude the deals. Or, to paraphrase former United right-back Gary Neville’s critique of the time, Chelsea secured seasoned internationals Fabregas and Luis Fillipe for around £18 million less than the United pair. In retrospect neither di Maria nor Falcao’s acquisition has proven to be value-for-money.

Still, there were significant mitigating circumstances in United’s scattergun approach over the two summers past. Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, David Gill’s departure and the hiring-and-firing of Moyes, followed by Van Gaal’s arrival, each added to a sense of, if not chaos, then a lack of foresight. It is, of course, an excuse that no longer stacks up.

It is with a touch of surprise, therefore, that United supporters welcomed the signing of Dutch forward Memphis Depay for £25 million last week. The 21-year-old’s capture is an early sign that United’s summer activity may be more tightly planned than in the past. Or at least a touch accelerated.

“I had to handle it otherwise he would have signed for PSG,” admitted Van Gaal on Friday. “When you sign a player you disturb the focus of your present group of players. I don’t want to speak with players before the season has ended – I have also a feeling to my players. But now, because of the close relationship I have with PSV, I could handle it.”

United’s focus will next turn to the weaknesses in the Dutchman’s squad  that have left the Reds some 16 points behind Champions Chelsea with two games to go. Whatever David de Gea’s future at the club beyond this summer, Van Gaal will certainly want to build from the back. The Dutchman has little confidence in his options at right-back and an experienced addition in the centre of defence is almost certain. If reports ring true then the club is already in the advanced stages of planning deals for Southampton’s Nathaniel Clyne and Borussia Dortmund captain Mats Hummels.

There are also legitimate questions to be asked of Van Gaal’s options in central midfield, in wide areas and up-front. Indeed, the Dutchman spoke at length last week of the need to draft in a replacement for Michael Carrick, with the Englishman now 34 and injured as often as he has been available this season. In Carrick’s absence neither Blind nor Herrera have excelled in a defensive midfield role.

On the wing di Maria’s failure in his first season in Manchester, together with Adnan Januzaj’s long absence from the team, leaves Van Gaal short on numbers if not quality. Di Maria may yet leave the club in the summer, while the Belgian appears likely to spend next season on loan. Their future will factor into United’s summer spending. And while Ashley Young’s positive campaign earned the England international a new contract, his manager will surely be loathe to enter the new season with the callow Memphis as his only alternative.

Then in forward positions there is little for Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie or Falcao to celebrate as the season draws to a close. Rooney is heading for his worst season, in terms of total goals, since joining the club 11 years ago, while van Persie has scored just 10 in all competitions. Falcao’s four strikes have come at an estimated cost in wages and loan fees of more than £4 million per goal.

It is a strikeforce that on paper at should excel in European competition. The reality of form, age and injury, respectively, point to a very different story.

If that is another substantial summer shopping list then it is probably required if Van Gaal’s team is to make it out of the Champions League group stage next season. It is the minimum requirement.

The summer is likely to feature a complicated series of, ultimately, very expensive negotiations. That is the price to be paid if United is to return to both domestic and European preeminence. With the club seemingly prepared to spend the money the question remains as to how astutely it will be done.


simon stephens - May 10, 2015 Reply

This is very brilliant

denton davey - May 10, 2015 Reply

“There are also legitimate questions to be asked of Van Gaal’s options in central midfield, in wide areas and up-front.

So, what you are arguing is that IN ADDITION TO a parlous defence, the rest of the starting eleven is pretty lousy – except for the keeper who is seemingly on his way out-of-town.

If that’s a reasonable understanding of your argument then I concur. Indeed, considering how “unbalanced” with square-pegs/round holes, it’s very hard to complain too loudly about the incredibly-boring play that LvG has induced: he got them to fourth, NOW comes the hard part.

Looking at the starting-eleven is almost embarrassing as it’s littered with wanna-be’s like Young/Fellaini/Smalling and never-will-be’s like Evans and Valencia as well as a fair-few too-soon-to-tell guys like Jones/Shaw/McNair. In addition, the dying of the light is upon Carrick and RVP as well as closing-in on TheWayneBoy while the light never shone upon either Di Maria or Falcao.

The three-amigos – Mata/Herrera/DDG – are probably the core of next year’s UTD, assuming that DDG decides to cash the increasingly-desperate cheque that MUFC is willing to write to keep him in M/C against his lady-friend’s wishes.

Signing Depay is a step in the right direction – he’s young, strong, fast AND seems to be skilful. TheGunDog would be another good signing to upgrade the midfield and, perhaps, make a “double pivot” into a workable solution for the attacking-midfield BUT who will play the “BiscuitsRole” ? Can magic happen – a swap with PSG with Di Maria going there and Marco Verratti coming to OT ? Or is someone like Morgan Schneiderlin of Southampton the best that can be hoped for since Strootman seems to be well on his way to perma-crock status ?

And, really, what is going to be done with the #9 ? We all know that goals change games but who is going to be given the job of scoring those game-changing goals ? Can TheWayneBoy get the job and re-do his heroics of the post-Ronaldo years ? Surely, RvP and Falcao should be ushered out the door and let youth be served with Kid Wilson and, for me, the return of TheMexicutioner (aka Chicharito aka Javier Hernandez).

Most of you will, no doubt, disagree with some/all of my “analysis” but no one can reasonably claim that this assemblage of players look likely to be challenging for the EPL/CL without a drastic overhaul.

mongoletsi - May 11, 2015 Reply

I do disagree about Di Maria. He was pretty good in an unsettled team, then got injured.

We’ll hang on to him and he’ll be brilliant.

mongoletsi - May 11, 2015 Reply

Oh and yeah, RVP must go. Falcao… he keeps having moments of genuine class that stick in the mind, but did he need a good long run in the team, or is he simply here for a year of good money?

redzebs - May 11, 2015 Reply

You make a few valid points but your posts are hard to take seriously when you use phrases like TheWayneboy, I remember DannyTheLad before as well, blue moon and rawk readers must laugh their balls off when they read these posts ffs, its embarrassing,

Ps Hernandez is shit, please punt him on unless he wants to be a super sub the rest of his life and he’s not even that good at that anymore.

denton davey - May 11, 2015 Reply

Sorry to get on your nerves with monikers like “TheWayneBoy” or “DannyTheLad” but, really, are you that thin-skinned ? Or, have you forgotten that this footie-business is about entertainment ?

The Rookie - May 11, 2015 Reply

I would hold on to Smalling, I think he has done pretty well and has managed to stay health for a good run. at 25 I think he will still improve and I’d like to see him partner Hummels next year. Jones could be great but as we all know is too injury prone. I honestly don’t think he has the build for his style of play. I had hoped that perhaps he could play the defensive midfielder role one day, I was impressed with how he handled Ronaldo a few season back when Real M was here. I didn’t see the friendly against Italy but from what I understand he played there and was quite poor? Oh well, it was a long shot.

I think we are stuck with TheWayneBoy as no club will be interested in paying his wages at this point. Thanks Moyes.

The answer to me seems simple: we need to break up DDG and his girlfriend.

abdi - May 11, 2015 Reply

amazing article as always .

Subterranean Steve - May 11, 2015 Reply

It’s a bit of a worry that, with all the money spent on transfers over the last two seasons, the top three players in the current fans’ poll, De Gea, Young and Carrick are products of the Ferguson years.

denton davey - May 11, 2015 Reply

DDG is a no-brainer; MC16 is, too, but he’s losing his battle to stay fit as he gets older.

But what can one make of the infatuation with AshleyBloodyYoung ? He’s been ripping lousy right backs like Joel Ward to shreds – is that all there is ? ABY has much less “end product” than TheAngel who is widely regarded as a flop, who doesn’t want to be in M/C.

I was never a fan of Young – and, to be fair, he’s been OK this year but he’s only stood out because the alternatives in attack have been so poor and so fucking slow.

As far as your point about these three being “SAF signings” – who can argue with that ? But let’s not forget that CR7, Carlitos, Pogba, Pique, Evra, and Chicharito were all sales from SAF’s squad that was almost-imperious six/seven years ago.

Subterranean Steve - May 12, 2015 Reply


My point was directed at the relative lack of success of the new signings over the last two seasons, certainly as far as the fans’ poll is concerned. It was not meant as a big endorsement of De Gea, Young and Carrick.

Karan - May 11, 2015 Reply

The Champions League play-off pot is split into seeded and unseeded teams based on the UEFA club coefficients of the teams involved. I’m pretty sure United will come into the seeded pot along with Ajax, Leverkusen, Valencia, etc. United’s club coefficient is higher than that of the other clubs mentioned.

Given this, I’m pretty sure United will be avoiding the seeded teams.

Ed - May 11, 2015 Reply

This may come as a surprise but I do actually research these articles! There’s a change in the coming year, with two tracks – the “Champions” route -(for league champions, 5 teams from the play-off go into the group stage) and the “League” route (for non league champions, 5 teams from the play-off go into the group stage). United, in the “League” pool, will play one of the second/third/fourth placed teams in some of the top leagues (Or, if luckier, one of the winners from the third qualifying round). There’s no mention in the official documents from UEFA that the club coefficient will be taken into account for the draw in this play-off round.

So in United’s section of the play-off there will be:
2 third-placed teams from associations 4–5 (Italy, Portugal)
3 fourth-placed teams from associations 1–3 (Spain, (England), Germany)
5 winners from the third qualifying round (League Route)

redzebs - May 11, 2015 Reply

Very true ed and Id be hopeful for a few more signings in advance of the first leg, there are plenty of decent European sides that we could draw that could turn us over, that would be worse than finishing 5th, getting knocked out by a decent organised European ‘minnow’

Daniel Harris - May 11, 2015 Reply

Harsh on Shaw and Di Maria – value for money isn’t proved either way in one season.

denton davey - May 11, 2015 Reply

To the best of my limited knowledge, Luke Shaw was not a constant injury-prone player with Southampton – some of his problems seem to be due to bad luck (concussion on Saturday stands out in this regard and coming back too soon from leg-groin injuries hasn’t been good management).

TheAngel gave the most pitiful display of “crossing” I’ve ever seen when he came on against WBA; he might be a difference-maker but he’s not made much difference for most of the time he’s been at UTD. It’s not just been the after-math of his domestic trauma – after the break-in – but he’s not even flattered-to-deceive after hitting the ground running in the first ten matches. Did LvG say something unkind to him that undermined his “confidence” after the Leicester debacle ? Now, there are new rumours that Thomas Muller is unhappy with Pep – and talking up his respect for LvG. Can we swap Bayern’s problem with him for our problem with Di Maria ?

Coulson - May 11, 2015 Reply

please read and make Van Gaal read too. @ManUtd

SEUN - May 11, 2015 Reply

Think we need to give ADM another season. Has had to play within himself cuz of a mgr who had a preference for cautious football

Varun - May 11, 2015 Reply

remember how di maria started. Glimpse of what he can do in the league. But it’s the champions league against European teams….

Varun - May 11, 2015 Reply

will we see the best of him.

SEUN - May 11, 2015 Reply

The hope is the breaks are off next year when the team is more stable and ADM will shine on the other side of Depay.

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