Van Gaal spotlight shields struggling stars
No matter how fans receive the news, Louis van Gaal is often the headline. Twitter, Facebook, the Internet; the Dutchman fills plenty of column inches. And whether it’s a focus on the process, philosophy or the recent bizarre remarks about keeping his players “horny,” Van Gaal is bursting with quotes. The downside is the same regurgitated stories, recycled and reworded with a new angle to keep the speculation-driven media happy. Meanwhile, the headlines shift fans’ minds off the players, who for much of the season have failed their manager and club.
Squad reconstruction has done Van Gaal’s players no favours, with a club policy driven by commercialism. Meanwhile, the manager spoke of his preference for a small squad at the start of the season and it has backfired, with depth poor and departing players not adequately replaced. The departures of Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez and others were justified last summer, but the decision not to replace them is a major factor in the team’s poor form this season. Overtraining is often cited as the main reason behind the current injury crisis.
There is upside: the startling number of players that have come through the academy and been thrust into the first team. Guillermo Varela, Donald Love, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson – who has been a revelation – Will Keane and Joe Riley have all been called upon at one time or another, with Jesse Lingard a bona-fide first team player amidst the severe injury crisis that has hit Old Trafford in 2016. Marcus Rashford has now scored four times in two games as a starter.
Yet, there is also a serious amount of pressure on young players to sustain the club’s challenge – points dropped because of inexperience and inconsistency is the unfortunate downside of a reliance on youth.
Younger players have plenty of time to gain experience, but their more senior are those who have been found wanting. In defeats to teams such as Middlesbrough in the Capital One Cup, cellar-dwellers Bournemouth, Norwich City and Sunderland, it was first team stars who were found wanting. After all, an injury crisis asks for senior members to stand tall – and too few have done that.
The result is clear – the closer the season moves on towards the summer, the more the focus will turn to failing players. Anthony Martial, David De Gea – whose future may still lie in Madrid – Chris Smalling, Morgan Schneiderlin and, perhaps, Luke Shaw will be able to sleep soundly. That quintet’s future is mostly secure, whether Van Gaal finds a way to survive in his job or not. But all signs point to the Dutchman being shown the door at season’s end, and there’s little doubt that a number of players will quickly follow him out the door.
José Mourinho, Ryan Giggs, or an as yet unnamed candidate, will almost certainly take control in the summer – and once again there will be a busy transfer period to follow. Yet, it is simply not realistic to expect yet another full clear-out with so much expenditure already undertaken; whoever gets the role is not going to buy a new first team. After all, no club can expect to undertake that sort of turnover every summer and become a Premier League contender.
Plenty will not rest easy as the summer approaches, including Phil Jones. Another season has passed the Englishman by – one in which he turned 24. He is unlikely to enjoy his 25th birthday in Manchester. The main question surrounding the ex-Blackburn Rovers player is just how much has he improved in the five years he has been at the club? Not much. And with 32 injuries suffered during his time at the club it is clear where the blame for the lack of progress lies.
The central defender has never started more than 26 games in a Premier League campaign, and averages just 21.5 starts in the league per season since signing in 2011. With only six in this season so far, despite the team’s incredibly poor depth in his position of choice, Jones is running out of chances at the club.
Last summer Jones signed a contract extension through to 2019, but it is unlikely to protect him, helping only to secure his employers a better fee – if anyone will stump up. And while United fans feel an affection for the club’s English players, it is surely time to let Jones go.
Antonio Valencia may already be closer to the exit than his teammate. Recovering from a broken foot that has kept the Ecuadorian on the sidelines since November, and turning 31 at the start of next season, Valencia is a long way from the player that racked up four goals and 13 assists in 27 appearances in 2011/12. The Ecuadorian once carved out a reputation as one of the best wingers in the division – it’s now a ridiculous assertion. In fact it’s now a miracle if Valencia’s crossing beats the first defender and he shapes up as a prime candidate for a cheap sale to a lesser club.
Elsewhere, the forever underrated Michael Carrick presents a different case to Valencia and Jones. Out of contract in the summer, and not short of suitors, the Englishman is starting to feel the effects of niggling injuries that have hampered his past two seasons. There’s interest from the USA, China and domestic rivals, and with United’s experienced midfielder turning 35 in July, now might be the time to try his luck abroad. It’s becoming more likely that scenario becomes reality regardless of managerial changes.
Also in midfield, Marouane Fellaini’s future has felt sealed for a while. The symbol of post-Ferguson United, the Belgian has become Old Trafford’s principle whipping boy. He represents both the failed David Moyes and Van Gaal eras, and his departure might offer closure on three disastrous years. Fellaini was very close to a move away, on loan, last summer; this one is likely to bring something more permanent.
Jones, Valencia, Carrick and Fellaini are by no means the only players likely to see an Old Trafford exit in the summer, but the rest have probably made a better case for patience. Either way, another summer of transition awaits. Few are guaranteed to make the cut.