United in search of a formula to match Barça’s brilliance

June 9, 2015 Tags: , , Reads 17 comments
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If Saturday night’s Champions League final confirmed anything – Barcelona’s European hegemony over the past decade excepted – it is that Louis van Gaal has plenty of work to do at Old Trafford this summer. Last season’s fourth place finish takes United back into the continent’s premier competition, but few will argue with the notion that the Dutchman’s side is far adrift of Europe’s best. Indeed, two years after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, United’s spending power must be unleashed once again if the Dutchman is to ensure his side is competitive at the top table. Transfers, however, are only part of the picture when it comes to matching Barcelona in the coming season.

The truth is that Van Gaal’s side has little chance of winning next season’s competition whatever the outlay this summer. Post-Ferguson, United’s collapse was so total that Van Gaal is, in effect, rebuilding a side from the ground up. While there is likely to be much debate next season about United’s potential to reach the 2016 final in Milan’s iconic Stadio Giuseppe Meazza the reality is, of course, very different.

Still, there is something to be learned from Barça’s approach. The Catalan outfit has built a decade of success on the triumvirate of La Masia, Lionel Messi and outrageous spending in the transfer market. United remains short in at least two of the three sectors.

While there is little United can do to match Messi’s individual brilliance, vice chairman Ed Woodward is set to open the club’s chequebook once again this summer. The club is playing catch up after years of Glazer family parsimony. The cost: Van Gaal will need every bit of the club’s financial muscle to bridge the gap both at domestic and European level. Indeed, the Dutchman may need five high-quality players this summer to mount a realistic domestic title bid.

Finally, in what may yet become the final leg of United’s troika of recovery, Van Gaal is likely to leverage United’s reserve and academy operation, although this is no short-term fix for the club’s ills. James Wilson, Tyler Blackett and Patrick McNair enjoyed some game time last season. Andreas Pereira will expect more opportunities in the months to come. Over the longer piece Brian McClair’s replacement as head of United’s academy  – possibly Nicky Butt – will signal the direction in which Van Gaal would like to take the club’s youth system. 

Back in the market Van Gaal remains in search of  a central defender, right-back, defensive midfielder and striker. He may also need another winger in addition to Memphis Depay, while it is likely that United will replace Real Madrid-bound David de Gea this summer. Significant dead wood is set to be shed as well – it will balance what Robin van Persie this week predicted will be a “£200 million” spending spree. The club has already committed up to £30 million on Depay, while a clutch of other names are being considered.

Spending will not cure all ills, but it will go some way to answer the questions that remain about Van Gaal’s squad. De Gea’s departure is perhaps the most certain hole to patch. Elsewhere, it will border on negligent is Van Gaal is not pictured with a smiling new right-back come August. Antonio Valencia’s defensive naiveté and Rafael da Silva’s prolonged injury-absence ensures as much.

It is a similar, if not quite as desperate, story in the centre of defence where Jonny Evans suffered the worst campaign in a decade at the club, while Phil Jones and Chris Smalling remain intermittently injured or inconsistent. Smalling earned praise for an uptick in performances over the second half of the campaign, although he started just 21 of United’s 38 Premier League fixtures.

In midfield competition for, or a compliment to, Michael Carrick is desperately required. United’s results without the Englishman, who missed half the season through injury, were starkly less impressive. The Reds averaged 2.3 points per game with Carrick in this side and just 1.5 with the former Tottenham Hotspur man in the treatment room.

Then up front Van Gaal must consider whom, if anyone, replaces the ineffectual Radamel Falcao, while Van Persie is unlikely to begin the season at Old Trafford. Captain Wayne Rooney is assured of his place in the side, although he scored just 12 league goals last season. Wilson may enjoy more action next season, while a final decision is to be taken on Javier Hernandez’ future – if any – at Old Trafford.

Despite the obvious holes in Van Gaal’s squad the Dutchman is unlikely to spend anywhere near the “£200 million” forecast this summer nor, in probability, complete the refresh of United’s squad he seeks. Not least because the club is determined to wrap up spending before Van Gaal’s squad heads to the United States for a summer tour. It will take a level of focus not seen at Old Trafford since David Gill’s departure.

Pre-season training begins on 1 July, with the Premier League’s opening fixture five weeks later. It is a period of “preparation time” that Van Gaal is determined will set his side up for a more robust start to the new campaign than a year ago. The tour starts with a game against Club America in Seattle on 17 July and concludes with Van Gaal’s side meeting Paris Saint-Germain in Chicago less than two weeks later. In between the Reds face San Jose Earthquakes and Barcelona in a shorter summer tour than almost any in recent memory; an arrangement the Dutchman demanded.

Still, it is no easy task to find cohesion amid a potential influx of new players, although minds will focus around a hazardous European qualifier in mid-August. It means that Van Gaal’s outfit has little choice but to find results in the early part of the new season.

Much of that cohesion centres around United’s tactical approach. While there is much to be admired in tactical flexibility, United’s inconsistency last season cannot be wholey divorced from Van Gaal’s incessant tinkering. His side began the season using the three-man defence that served Netherlands so well at last summer’s World Cup. United ended the campaign in a more typically Dutch 4-3-3. In between Van Gaal used around a dozed different systems over 10 months.

Nor was there any truly consistent style. At times United sought to control possession at the expense of penetration; at others Van Gaal’s side was thrillingly open, but loose at the back. Neither brought the “balance” Van Gaal seeks. Still, it is likely United will line-up in something akin to a 4-3-3 next season, with Memphis deployed at inside-left and Rooney at ‘number nine’. It could well be the system around which United builds a title challenge.

There are plenty of other positions up for grabs though. Indeed, of the current squad, perhaps only four will definitely start the opening fixture of the season if fit: Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera, Carrick and Rooney. Angel di Maria, Juan Mata, Marouane Fellaini, Daley Blind and a new signing will compete for a permanent role in United’s midfield. Ashley Young’s progress over the past year may well be checked by Depay’s arrival, while Adnan Januzaj can only hope to force his way back into Van Gaal’s thinking over the summer.

None of these are concerns for European champions Barça. Nor, indeed, Premier League winners Chelsea. United has a very real gap in quality and consistency to bridge.


Gary Matthews - June 9, 2015 Reply

I thought the formula was X + Messi = win.

edwin farrugia - June 9, 2015 Reply

at the minute
we don’t have players let alone formula .I wonder how far are Manchester utd away from Barca ?

Denton Davey - June 9, 2015 Reply

“United’s inconsistency last season cannot be wholey divorced from Van Gaal’s incessant tinkering”

Last year was, without-a-doubt, a transition and in negotiating that shift LvG also had to contend with a very desperate injury situation in the second quarter of the season. Still, he was able to drag an ill-assorted group of players into fourth place and that, in-and-of-itself, was something to be admired – he turned around a Titanic when he got sight of the ice-berg.

In a very sense, that was the easy part. Creating a challenger with the remnants of that ill-assorted group of players is going to demand more chopping-and-changing – can anyone see a championship-challenge with the likes of Valencia/Young/Fellaini being regulars ?

It would be great if MC16 could somehow discover a fountain-of-youth and lose ten years and a nasty predilection to injury and if RvP could also imbibe some of that stuff BUT it ain’t going to happen – or, to be more realistic, it’s unlikely that these two can reverse their decline. AND what can one imagine is going to happen with the BermudaTriangle – keeper/two central defenders – which is a far, far cry from the EPL-dominance of Edwin/Rio/Vidic ?

So, right now, what we have is the legendary camel – a horse designed by a committee.

Will Taylor - June 9, 2015 Reply

interesting read regarding utds summer transfer needs

Alex - June 10, 2015 Reply

Manutd should think of building something similar to Bayern Munich and not Barcelona because there can’t be another messi but they can get good wingers and solid midfielder that can help the club back to wining way. At least five right players are needed now.

ForeverRed - June 10, 2015 Reply

A lot of work to do in 4 weeks for sure. After Depay, I was hopeful we’d follow up with a couple more quick signings; alas it has not yet transpired. And why is De Gea not announcing his decision, one way or another?

I’m still quietly seething at the state Fergie and the board left us in 2 years ago (and I’m talking about the long term health of the squad, not the veneer that was the title win). With a modicum of succession planning and a relatively modest additional outlay on a top quality player each season from around 2011 we’d have nowhere near the rebuilding job we’re now having to do. Such a missed opportunity.

Subterranean Steve - June 10, 2015 Reply

Cast your mind back to August last year when van Gaal had at his disposal arguably one of the strongest groups of attacking players at any club in the Premier League: van Persie, Rooney, Welbeck, Di Maria, Mata, Januzaj, Hernandez, Falcao and Kagawa. Strikers, wingers, playmakers, United had the lot (and I’m not even mentioning Denton Davey’s unholy trinity). Of course the transfer revolving doors were in operation with players coming and going, but van Gaal had the choice of all of them. Those players would not have been classed as Ferguson deadwood, more likely the nucleus of a strong United attack.

Fast forward to the present and what sort of attacking players are United in the market for? It appears a pacey winger who can take on fullbacks, a striker or two who can get fifteen or more goals a season, and a creative talent capable of unlocking those pesky defences at places like Hull, Burnley and Cambridge. Oddly enough, King Louis had all of those back in August.

More fresh blood and big money signings are fine, just as long as the manager is capable of getting the best out of the talent at his disposal.

ForeverRed - June 11, 2015 Reply

You make a very valid point Subterranean Steve. We’ve certainly not extracted the kind of return investment you’d expect from all these attacking players.

This said, It does feel that we’ve had a rather shotgun approach to signings in the recent past, rather than a well planned evolution of the squad. Multiple players for the same positions and gaping holes elsewhere (maybe the ‘imbalance’ LVG refers to). This has resulted in not having places for many of the attacking players or else playing them out of position. It hasn’t been helped by LVG for much if he season persisting with players who are out of form, past it, or have special privileges, thus preventing others playing in their preferred positions on merit. Either way, I agree it is a conundrum that neither Moyres or Van Gaal have been able to solve to date.

Issakk - June 23, 2015 Reply

There lies in some comments above reasons why I think there is a huge split over LVG.

Also some of the apprehension towards him even with supporters of him like myself.

LVG is a coach- The Game plan rules performances. ” Do what/how I say and we will win”
SAF is a manager – Man management rules performances. ” Go out there and perform,” Intensity, “Take him on” etc.

SAF style of 4-4-1-1 With Di Maria on the left for example, ” Get it wide and cross it ” would probably have got us very close to if not a trophy but its not longer sustainable at CL level.

Once LVG has the players and style to his liking, We will be a very difficult team to beat at any level.

The best teams rarely change their style home or away. For us to be able to play the same at Watford as we would at Barca is going to take a couple of years at least.

I still believe we will end up seeing those 14/15 pre-season performances as our everyday once he’s finished with us.

Whether he gets the time from the board or the patience from the fans and media is a different story.

Unbelievable Jeff - June 10, 2015 Reply

I’m not sure whether I expected too much, or I was spoilt by Depay, but I’d envisaged us striking particularly early in the transfer market this summer with 2 or 3 signings almost as soon as the season ended. I realise this may have been a touch optimistic on my part but as each day ticks by, and other teams do good, sensible business (namely Juve and Barca.. oh the irony), my cheeks are beginning to twitch somewhat.

Granted, there’s a good few weeks to go til the summer tour but we have a significant amount of ground to make up so the earlier we strike the better.

Pull your fingers out Ed/LvG!

Opti - June 10, 2015 Reply

A couple comments:
1) Surprised no mention was made of World Cup hang-over. This is specifically true for LvG, Di Maria, Rooney, and RvP. I expect all three to step it up next year… not quite the “fountain of youth” effect but still should allow RvP to re-find his world-class form of two years ago (<== class is permanent.. blablabla).

2) I am not so sure David de Gea will leave this summer. It smells alot like Ronaldo's scenario after our 2008 triumph in Moscow. Wanted to leave, madrid wanted to buy, but Ronaldo signed up for a 5 year contract to maximize his ROI. De Gea will do the same — I am quite certain of that… Glazers are many things, but not money fools. I expect a contract renewal from De Gea shortly and Madrid paying 60m for the keeper come next summer.

3) I also had hoped for more signings by now… Just saw Juventus pull off Dyabala and Khedira, both of whom were quality players linked with United. I expect signings to be done before July 1st since LvG complained about the late start last year….

Come on you Red Devils!

ForeverRed - June 11, 2015 Reply

Opti – not sure we can hide behind the World Cup hangover excuse. Don’t all the top teams by definition have numerous players going the distance in these summer competitions? Has this knocked the other European elite teams out of their stride to the extent Utd have stuttered this season?

Opti - June 11, 2015 Reply

That’s a valid point, but look at Messi’s first half of this season: injured and poor form. Look at AdM (2nd place) and RvP (3rd place) in the world cup vs. this season — night and day. Rooney was poor too this season (by his standard). Also, consider that LvG arrived very late in the summer due to the World Cup.

In addition, the top 6-8 teams in the Premier League were poor by European standards and in terms of league points totals (i.e. 70 pts for 4th place was not possible in the last 3 years) — I’d argue top teams performed worse this year, rather than bottom teams becoming stronger. The other top leagues in Europe (France, Italy, Spain, and Germany) suffer from 1-2 teams in each league that monopolize resources and talent, which permits them to focus effort on the Champions League.
France = PSG (getting stronger still)
Italy = Juventus (growing stronger still)
Spain = RM, Barca (resource monopoly through TV deals)
Germany = Bayern (buy opposing team’s talents)

Therefore, I expect much better from Premier League teams next season and especially United now that they have a summer to focus and organize themselves properly, manage the player health carefully, and sign needed and capable players.

Julian - June 10, 2015 Reply

Very good summation. It seems it will take every bit of LvGs 3 season tenure to create a genuine championship challenging team. Next season will be another one of transition. At best 3rd or 2nd in the league plus, maybe, a cup. If things go really well maybe the championship in 2016-17 and a side which LvGs successor (almost certainly Ryan Giggs) can then take into the ECL with real expectation in 2017-18. If that becomes reality then LvG will have done his job

NazManUnited - June 10, 2015 Reply

Spend spend spend but shrewdly & wisely to buy a team with one philosophy! Mix & Match a star from here & there won’t work!

denton davey - June 12, 2015 Reply

Yeah, the incessant spending – as opposed to building-through-the-ranks – does leave a bad taste. It’s hard to build any kind of kinship with a team made up of mercenaries. This year’s team will be an assortment of guys who play for the money, not the shirt/badge.

Barcelona won the CL again this season not only because they have the best players but also a long-term policy of selective recruitment so that there was a core-group which had been together for five/six years. I’m not being ‘sentimental” about this because having so much turnover almost ensures that it will be a massive job to build any kind of espirit-de-corps which is a far cry to what UTD fans have been used to when – as recently as 2013 – SAF was able to mix-and-match from a group that had been together for years.

This scenario makes the silly-season and the forthcoming regular-season fascinating to watch. If LvG can somehow bring an almost completely new team together then it will be a quite-incredible feat of managing. Wishing for the best but fearing for something less is where I’m at nowadays.

Dayus D red - June 14, 2015 Reply

Good article but my only concern is your failure to cite the number of injuries that plague the team throughout the season. Over 40 something, the highest of any team in league. There were times we had no recognised CD, CM and FB available, which forced the coach to play players out of position. Coming fourth may not good enough for us now but am sure if it was offered us at the begining of the season, a lot of us would have gladly taken it. Building of a team requires a delicate balance of paying good money for proven players and home grown talent. Buying players in itself doesn’t guarranty sucess as we experienced with Falcao and ADM. If united had refused to sign any of these player while available, we will all be here saying we lost the league because of that. The same people that are advocating for home grown will turn around to say they are not good enough. The Barca team that won the last CL has only 4 players from the famous lamasia, Messi, Pique, inesta and Besquet. The rest they paid good money for, compared to the past two when they had 8 players. This is to say Lamasia is not quite producing as it used to. Barca can never repeats the class of 2006 as United will never replicate the class of ’92. It happens once in a while.

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