Tour poses new questions as the season looms

July 30, 2015 Tags: , Opinion 7 comments
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In truth it has proven to be a mixed pre-season in the United States, although the manager departed the continent with an air of calm satisfaction. “Preparation time,” as Louis van Gaal call it, is traditional as a period of focus on fitness and match “rhythm” – not necessarily results. For Manchester United, with three victories and Thursday’s defeat to Paris Saint-Germain, there has been a touch of success in both this summer.

Thursday’s insipid defeat was perhaps the lowest point on tour, although not for all the obvious reasons. Defeat to the French side in the build-up to the opening Premier League fixture against Tottenham Hotpsur will bother the Dutchman little. The uninspiring nature of United’s capitulation might, although the veteran coach declared himself to be “really satisfied about the performance.”

The coach’s assessment was perhaps a little generous, albeit at a time when the Dutchman is keen to build on the positives from the past fortnight. “We lose, but maybe that is also good because last year we won everything and then we lost the first match in the Premier League,” admitted Van Gaa.

Truth be told, last week’s victory over Barcelona in Santa Clara aside, much of United’s football on tour has been of the plodding variety that dominated last autumn and winter, in a formation that Van Gaal is – at least in his own words – unlikely to used in the months ahead.

In victory over Club America in Seattle Van Gaal used 22 players – a side each half – seeking to build “rhythm” over understanding and attacking flow. It showed, with only Memphis Depay, Andrea Pereira and Matteo Darmian catching the eye. More, perhaps, for the novelty than the raw performance.

Meanwhile, 900 miles south in San Jose, United’s victory over the Earthquakes brought visceral criticism from the manager, especially of his younger players, of which a number have enjoyed minutes on this tour. It was a touch strident from the Dutch man if a point that worked in United’s favour during an at times exciting victory over European champions Barcelona. Three goals against Luis Enrique’s undercooked side were reward for a vibrant attacking display, but there should be plenty of warning in the three occasions on which the Catalans hit the woodwork.

If United’s attacking play, PSG excepted, has sometimes been dynamic, with Memphis and Juan Mata striking up a solid relationship in particular, then defensively and tactically the Reds remain a work in progress. In truth, United’s defensive performances as a unit have not been good in the States. Whatever moves United may still make in the market this summer, Van Gaal will focus on organisation back at Carrington over the next 10 days.

United’s coach will certainly seek to eliminate the “personal errors,” made against PSG. “You cannot fight against personal errors when you are playing at the top level,” he added.

Individually, Luke Shaw and Darmian have impressed, while Daley Blind’s four-game spell at centre-back offered a touch of class in distribution from the back. It is, however, dangerously worrying evidence that United has given up on acquiring the high-class experienced defender required.

Phil Jones will be fortunate indeed if he remains ahead of Chris Smalling come the season’s start, although Van Gaal has left the door open for the malfunctioning former Blackburn Rovers player. “I think I shall play Shaw with Darmian, and with Daley Blind,” offered the 62-year-old. “The right central position I have to consider.” Indeed, he must.

Tactically, Van Gaal deployed two defensive midfielders in all four fixtures, meaning that United has often struggled to drive enough bodies into attacking zones. This is not helped by Bastian Scheweinsteiger’s obvious lack of match sharpness nor Morgan Schneiderlin’s bedding in process. It is also not the formation many expected Van Gaal to field.

Whether Van Gaal lines up in a more conventional Dutch 4-3-3 against Spurs depends in part on Schweinsteiger’s ability to drive forward from midfield; and that formation is, it seems, also the only hope Ander Herrera still holds of forcing his way back into the team. United’s best player over the final three months of last season is once again back in the cold.

Indeed, Herrera’s exclusion from the startling line-up on tour might be taken as sign of Van Gaal’s potential caution in the weeks ahead. After all, his favoured central midfielders – Schweinsteiger, Schneiderlin and Michael Carrick – each hold a more defensive mindset than the Spaniard.

When pressed in the aftermath of United’s final tour match Van Gaal admitted that his team will “more or less” field a 4-3-3 in the coming campaign. Then again, the Dutchman made the same point on more than one occasion this summer. He used the formation not once on tour.

Taken at his word Van Gaal may have already settled on nine of his starting team against Tottenham: David de Gea, Darmian, Blind, Shaw, Schneiderlin, Mata, Ashley Young, Memphis and Wayne Rooney. Two from Carrick, Schweinsteiger, Smalling and Jones will complete a side that can be deployed in the shape promised, with Memphis on United’s left, or in the system used on tour, with three in support of Rooney.

Whatever the tactical questions, Van Gaal’s squad also has the air of being incomplete. Not least because De Gea and Angel di Maria’s futures are still to be decided. The Argentinian is likely to join PSG once the formalities of transfer negotiations are complete, while De Gea may yet be forced to play out the final year of his contract with United. De Gea has, by all accounts, remained solidly professional, albeit the Spaniard’s mistake, leading to a PSG goal on Thursday, might hint at a lack of focus.

Losing De Gea at this stage would mark a significant blow to United’s hopes of building a Premier League title challenge. By contrast, few at Old Trafford will miss Di Maria, with the winger believed to be camped out in his homeland awaiting word from Paris. Di Maria’s exit, together with Pedro’s probable arrival, may well be the last attacking changes of the summer.

Still, away from the squad, the tour has predominantly been of Van Gaal’s conception in microscopic detail – and to his liking. From the shortened programme, with fewer commercial responsibilities, to a focus on the training ground at the expense of additional pre-season games – all of the Dutchman’s making. It is also Van Gaal’s decision to spend the final 10 days’ build-up focused on training, with only behind-closed-doors games in preparation.

“I have to say I have seen a lot of very good things from my team. So in the pre-season it is more about the performance than the result. I was rather satisfied,” concludes the Dutchman.

United is certainly in superior shape than at this stage last season – and the squad is almost fully fit. Supporters remain optimistic with good reason. After all, four of United’s five summer acquisitions have performed solidly on tour and the fifth – Sergio Romero – will see only minimal action over the next year.

That last nagging doubt, over United’s defensive frailties, could yet be patched up in a transfer market that has a month to run. That, or Van Gaal will earn his keep on the training ground. It is his preferred habitat.


Jonathan S Novy - July 31, 2015 Reply

Herrera should be a automatic selection. I simply can’t figure out what Van Gaal is thinking about.

Subterranean Steve - July 31, 2015 Reply

For so much of last season, United displayed a wobbly backline, a pedestrian midfield lacking thrust and pace, and up front, little sign of a world class finisher.

With Phil Jones looking like the new Jonny Evans, Ander Herrera seemingly back down the pecking order, and Wayne Rooney managing one goal in pre-season, how much has really changed?

Lucas - July 31, 2015 Reply

My two cents –
1. If De Gea leaves, can we replace him effectively? No. He will be a big loss and considering he earned us between 10 and 15 points last season, irrespective of whom we sign to replace him, we will be out of the title fight (especially if we don’t sign a world-class defender. I say we keep him, and tell him he can leave for free next season.

2. Will be sign a world-class defender? No, according to reports. We may yet sign Otamendi, but it looks rather bleak at the back for us. Jones consistently proves why he is not good enough, and Blind at LCB is a disaster waiting to happen considering most teams in the Premier League will play on the counterattack against us.

3. Will we make a marquee signing? LvG wants a world-class creative player and Ed wants to make a statement, although, with Real and Bayern not willing to sell Ronaldo/Bale/Muller and Reus committing to Dortmund, I can’t see that happening.

4. Will LvG ever play players in their natural positions? Ideally, on the US tour, LvG should have tried Depay on the left wing, Herrera behind Rooney, and Mata on the right, or a 4-3-3 with Carrick/Basti, Schneiderlin and Herrera forming a formidable midfield three. But, we struggled because our 2 DMs were often stuck in our half, and not one was able to get into the opposition box to support our strikers. Young is a one-trick pony on the left, and Depay who scored over 20 goals from the left wing last season did not do as well as a number 10. Ultimately, too much possession, too little to show for it. Much like last season.

5. Will we challenge for the title? Perhaps, but that depends on a few factors – keeping De Gea tops that list. Signing a world-class defender is next. And most importantly, playing 4-3-3 with Herrera supporting our attackers from midfield at every opportunity. Against PSG, every time we put a ball into their box, it was just Rooney and Depay/Mata there. They should be getting support from our central midfielders also.


denton davey - July 31, 2015 Reply

“1. If De Gea leaves, can we replace him effectively? No. He will be a big loss and considering he earned us between 10 and 15 points last season, irrespective of whom we sign to replace him, we will be out of the title fight.”

I am struck by this line of reasoning, mostly because it seems to me to over-inflate DDG’s value and importance. Sure, he made brilliant saves but most keepers do that – it’s just that one tends to overlook the other ones.

But, more significantly – what was again apparent in the PSG match – the first goal was, in my opinion, almost-completely the result of DDG’s inability to command the back line. His hesitancy created complete confusion among the other two defenders, resulting in a chaotic situation and an opposition goal.

Compare this with Sam Johnstone’s (Sam Johnstone !) willingness to act as a sweeper in order to compensate for the high-line played by the central defenders. In LvG’s “system” the keeper needs to be more aware and more pro-active than DDG. Since the manager is going nowhere – and it seems that the keeper’s mind is already in Madrid – I’m not convinced by the suggestion that DDG’s presence is as important as suggested.

DayusDred. - July 31, 2015 Reply

How the season will go depends largely on how long LVG will take to experiment. Last year it took him more than 3/4 of the season to abandon the ill fated 3 5 2 even when it was obvious it wasn’t working. Here he goes again trying to play Depay behind Rooney when this guy has played all his life as a wide player. He claims he will play 433 yet on tour he played 4231 in all the matches. I just hope he wouldn’t waste valuable time like he did last seanson becuase there will be no excuses this time around

The Rookie - August 1, 2015 Reply

I am overall happy with the preseason performances.

exciting to see Memphis play, he clearly has bags of talent. Darmian got better each match. Blind did Ok at CB, but that certainly can’t be the long term solution. Schneiderlin likes a sliding tackle. Januzaj got a goal. I could see Pereira starting a few matches this season. Shaw is going to be great.

PSG parked the bus/played on the break, as will many of the clubs we play this season, and we couldn’t break them down. Hopefully the lads were just tired, although it looked quite a bit like the lack of creative attacking we saw last season.

I don’t think we need a ‘galctico’ star signing, but rather getting the best out our creative players. Hope fully our stronger defensive midfield, with Shaw and Darmian pushing forward on the flanks, will allow that.

Really excited for the new season!

Fusilli Jerry - August 2, 2015 Reply

That fleeting moment last season when United were good – starting with Spurs away, ending with Chelsea away – Herrera and Mata were the absolute heart of it. They showed fantastic understanding and ability to do something utterly beyond the line-ups van Gaal had sent out previously. “Vertical passing” was how the gentleman diplomat Mata had it.

Both team and formation should be built around them: 4-2-3-1: Herrera alongside Schneiderlin, Depay on the left, Pedro on the right, Mata in his proper position off Rooney.

I don’t expect van Gaal to get this right. I do expect supporter tolerance of van Gaal’s stupid mistakes to be different this season. Who is more important to United’s prospects of becoming United again: Herrera and Mata, or the man who thought Angel di Maria would work ?

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