Van Gaal could go with the defence he has

August 23, 2015 Tags: , Reads 18 comments

Two months into the summer 2015 transfer window and Louis Van Gaal has certainly strengthened Manchester United’s squad with a quintet of acquisitions. Matteo Darmian is a huge upgrade over Antonio Valencia at right-back and Memphis Depay adds flair and a sense of unpredictability to United’s forward line. Morgan Schneiderlin and the star of United’s transfer window, Bastian Schweinsteiger, provide the Reds with a midfield duo capable of holding its own against high-class opponents.

In defence there is reason to think Van Gaal might just stick with what he now has. Van Gaal’s philosophy revolves around balance being omnipresent in the starting eleven. There is a strong argument that the purchase of a central defender is essential if the Dutchman is to achieve that goal. After all, since the departure of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, United has often lacked a commanding defender to bring calm to the apparent chaos. Yet, Van Gaal showed faith with the options he had last season, providing each defender with a chance to stake his claim. It has paid some dividend.

After being sent off against Manchester City in November Chris Smalling was United’s most impressive centre-back. Smalling’s determined performances were augmented by some crucial goals, including a thunderous header against City to complete his redemption. Especially towards the latter end of the season, Smalling was transformed into a defensive leader, and has carried on this impressive form into the new season.

The former Fulham man was central to victories over Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa. Smalling’s positioning has been exceptional, allowing him to neutralize Harry Kane on the opening day and Villa’s Rudy Gested. The England international’s passing is also more assured than a year ago, although it remains a cause for concern against an opposition that presses. If Smalling continues this rate of development he could fulfil the potential Sir Alex Ferguson predicted five years ago.

Meanwhile, Van Gaal has transformed Daley Blind into a central defender this season, with the Dutch international providing balance on the left. Blind doesn’t boast pace, power or height, but has looked assured in the new role. Blind adds intelligence to the backline and his ability to bring the ball out from the back has instigated several United attacks. The former Ajax player has also formed a good understanding with Smalling.

Still, Blind has been caught out a few times in dangerous areas – alarming considering the Dutchman doesn’t have the recovery pace to make up for shortcomings. It is an observation that means Marcos Rojo could well replace Blind in the starting eleven when fit.

Rojo showed flashes of quality last season and his aggression reminds supporters of the Serbian rock, Vidic. The Argentine’s reading of the game and his passing range must improve if he is to succeed at United though, while Rojo ‘s positional ill-discipline left more than one gap at the back last season. Nevertheless, the former Sporting man has real character and his robust tackling was a strong feature.

Rojo is perhaps the most suitable partner for Smalling and averages a similar number of tackles and interceptions per game. Rojo also boasts an impressive number of clearances.

Phil Jones has always held the potential to be a force for the Reds, but injury problems consistently ruin any momentum. Jones’ injuries persisted last season, with the former Blackburn Rovers man taking part in just 22 games. In keeping with the pattern Jones’ has missed the opening three weeks of this season. He was a member of the starting eleven during United’s best period of football from March to April, where the Reds’ defence conceded just four goals, forming a resolute partnership with Smalling.

Jones started pre-season brightly, although disappointed against PSG in the final tour game. His positional awareness remains a real weakness at times, most notably allowing a Zlatan Ibrahamovic space to slot a home for PSG. It points to a pivotal season, with a high probability of it being his last chance in Manchester.

Jonny Evans, by contrast, is near an Old Trafford exit. Evans’ alarming regression since Ferguson’s retirement continued in 2014/15. The Irishman is an excellent reader of the game, but is bereft of confidence and looks frightened of the ball. It seems unlikely that he will ever recapture his place at United and a move away from the Old Trafford spotlight seems highly likely for the former academy player.

Meanwhile, youth players Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett were thrown into the team last season as injuries took hold. McNair was a surprise starter against Everton in November and barely put a foot wrong in the months to come. He handled the physical presence of Romelu Lukaku, efficiently nullifying the Belgian’s impact.  McNair’s reading is impressive, although lapses in concentration caused mistimed tackles and unnecessary fouls at times. McNair has some work to do if he is to become a fixture in the United first team, but the Irishman isn’t fazed by the standard in the Premier League.

Blackett, meanwhile, showed promise on the left side of defence, although all momentum was lost after being part of the United horror show at Leicester City. Despite being frozen out of the first team as the season wore on, the Manchester native looked calm and assured when given the opportunity. Blackett is the type of ball playing defender that Van Gaal typically adores. After signing new contracts at the club, big things are expected of both the youngsters in the coming years.

Improvement to individuals suggests that, unless a truly world-class defender becomes available, Van Gaal will stick with what he has. After all, there has been a stark improvement United’s defending this season. The individuals have progressed and the understanding between them has created a strong unit after a full pre-season under the Dutchman.


Terence Martin - August 23, 2015 Reply

if we resolve the gk dept. id be happy as is but realistically we need a forward.

The Daily Blind - August 23, 2015 Reply

need a settled defence, to chop and change needlessly would cause havoc. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it #mufc

The Daily Blind - August 23, 2015 Reply

@sugarmancunian need a settled defence, to chop and change needlessly would cause havoc. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it #mufc

Denton Davey - August 23, 2015 Reply

“Blind doesn’t boast pace, power or height, but has looked assured in the new role. Blind adds intelligence to the backline and his ability to bring the ball out from the back has instigated several United attacks.”

DaleyB is a stop-gap; and a very good one – I’d like to see UTD go for Aymeric Laporte from Athletic Club (Bilbao). RockyRojo provides quality depth – and might be a better solution than DaleyB although the latter’s role in the stingy defence can’t be gainsaid. Otherwise, I take the point that “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”.

That being said, if there is “only” enough money to fund the acquisition of one super-star forward then it seems obvious from the early matches that that’s where the priority lies.

Vir Chiniwala - August 24, 2015 Reply


Yes Blind does seem a stop-gap however, he has played extremely well in the opening weeks of the season and could keep his place there. Unless a world-class defender is made available this window, there would be no need to spend a fortune to bring in another defender.

Laporte recently signed a new contract and his buyout clause is 36.5m. Athletic are notorious for not negotiating for anything below the clause. Would be a gamble to spend so much on an extremely promising player but who is still not yet at the world-class level.

Denton Davey - August 24, 2015 Reply

I don’t think that money is an issue; the club’s ownership/management seems to have given LvG a carte blanche. Besides, if SAF was willing to spunk 29 million quid on Rio then if – IF ??? – Laporte has that kind of up-side then it would be money-well-spent.

The first season was all about turning-around-the-Titanic, achieving 4th place and CL footie. That job is done.

The second season is putting his imprint on the team’s play AND its personnel which is a work-in-progress at the moment. The defence has been “more-or-less”sorted and Aymeric Laporte would be the left-sided central defender who would add “balance”.

However, the attack is still disjointed. As we saw with Falcao and Di Maria, purchasing high quality attackers is a big problem – first, there aren’t very many of them; second, some don’t fit in with new club/surroundings; and, third, there’s the-elephant-in-the-room: TheWayneBoy.

Finally, there’s the issue of how LvG wants the team to play – possession or fast-break ? So far, it’s been too-soon-to-tell. If – IF ???? – another attacking player is signed before this transfer window closes then his identity will tell us a lot about what to expect going forwards. Getting a classic #9 like Robert Lewandowski or Karim Benzema would suggest that a possession-based game is on-the-cards; on the other hand, getting someone like Thomas Muller would suggest that a more open, faster style of attack is likely to be LvG’s aim.

I’d prefer a return to the “whirligig” style of Rooney/Ronaldo/Tevez (c. 2007/8) and, for that to happen, then breaking-the-bank for Gareth Bale or Thomas Muller seems a not unreasonable target. But, of course, not necessarily a “gettable” target – at any price.

Subterranean Steve - August 25, 2015 Reply

Dimitar Berbatov is looking for a club.

Opti - August 24, 2015 Reply

Get Stones from Everton… the end.

Subterranean Steve - August 24, 2015 Reply

After three League games with not a goal conceded and Jones, Rojo and possibly de Gea soon to be available.van Gaal might just settle for his current defensive personnel, at least for this transfer window.

The pressing issue is, as it was for much of last season, is in the goal-scoring department.

Vir Chiniwala - August 24, 2015 Reply


Yes, in all likelihood, Van Gaal will probably keep his current defensive unit for this season.

LVG is insistent that they don’t need a forward but they definitely need a new attacking player to add some flair and pace to the forward line. Pedro would have been ideal but we all know how that went.

Subterranean Steve - August 25, 2015 Reply

Whilst a new classy striker would great to have, the squad does contain plenty of flair and pace in attack with the likes of Januzaj, Memphis, Pereira, Mata, Herrera, Wilson and Lingard.

The problem is not the ability of the players but the team selection and tactics of the manager. Flair equals unpredictability and risk-taking, and that goes against van Gaal’s obsession with possession.

Unbelievable Jeff - August 25, 2015 Reply

Couldn’t agree more. It’s less the players that are the issue and more the manager shackling them. I’m sure if you asked them on the quiet they’d all want to play a more expansive game. But they can’t/are not allowed to.

Once LvG realises (will he ever/it’s obvious to everyone else) and lets the handbrake off we have more of a chance of seeing the football we all want and expect because we’ve got the players to do it.

Terry Berelowitz - August 24, 2015 Reply


NazManUnited - August 24, 2015 Reply

@sugarmancunian The defence has stabilised & will improve, Rojo & Jones will return strong But Big clubs will rip it to shreds

Nigel - August 25, 2015 Reply

Firstly, let me say thanks to the author for a truly balanced and informative article. After reading it and the ensuing comments I had an epiphany of biblical proportions. What if LvG is right? What if he is building a world-beater team? What if his ‘philosophy’ is correct? I have been really missing the swashbuckling United of old but its been 16 years since we triumphed in Europe. And for that matter, English teams, with the exception of a blip when Chelsea won, have been woeful in Europe. Is it the “English” style of play that’s hurting the English teams in Europe? Could LvG be onto something in changing United’s style of play? We’ll just have to wait and see…

Denton Davey - August 26, 2015 Reply

“its been 16 years since we triumphed in Europe.”

Revisionism of the most short-sighted variety – you forgot that TheLads won the CL in 2008 and then were in the finals in two of the next three years. That, I would suggest, is pretty much the epitome of “triump in Europe”.

Subterranean Steve - August 26, 2015 Reply

‘what ifs’ and myths.

Subterranean Steve - August 26, 2015 Reply

As a club manager van Gaal has managed to win ONE European trophy in the last SIXTEEN years.

Hardly the record of a manager on the cusp of world domination.

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