It was bound to happen. Even the staunchest José Mourinho defendant understood that the Portuguese manager comes with a guarantee of friction in the dressing room. Some supporters were surprised that it happened so soon. Don’t be. It works.
Chris Smalling, Luke Shaw, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderin, Henrikh Mkhitaryan: six players, almost £100 million in transfer fees, and one big falling out. For differing reasons each of the sextet could be headed out of the club, caught in José Mourinho’s demand for total commitment. Once again the Portuguese has demonstrated a single-minded drive to do things his way, one that will cost the club millions in depreciating player values. It had better be worth it.
11 February 2015. Manchester United beat Burnley with a 3-1 scoreline that flattered to deceive. It was a game in which Louis van Gaal deployed his captain, Wayne Rooney in a midfield holding role. Rooney featured in 14 games in midfield last season, with the Reds’ best striker largely wasted in the centre of the pitch.
Meanwhile, United’s midfield continued to rely heavily on Michael Carrick, a player only truly appreciated in the red of Manchester. Even approaching his mid-30s Carrick offers the ‘balance’ that Van Gaal craves; without the Englishman, United looked out of sorts for large parts of the season.
And yet United splurged over £150 million last summer, leaving aside the crucial purchase of a defensive midfielder, Daley Blind notwithstanding. In keeping with his predecessors Van Gaal chose not to augment Carrick’s presence – a predicament that has lingered since Roy Keane unceremoniously left the club in 2005. In fact, until Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin joined this summer, Owen Hargreaves was the only natural replacement for the Irishman acquired in nearly 10 years.
Last season Van Gaal’s methodology in selecting a midfield pair appeared to revolve around which players would best cope with the opposition. This policy of damage control worked effectively – to a point – due to the grit and determination of Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini, in particular. The pair embodied the manager’s determination to reach the Premier League top four regardless of United’s squad deficiencies.
Yet, this approach cannot continue if the title-winning days are to return to Old Trafford.
18 July 2015. United played Club America in Seattle, enjoying a 1-0 victory in the club’s first pre-season game of the 2015/16 campaign. Following the flurry of recent arrivals at Carrington anticipation for United’s return to action was high. While the Reds’ performance was far from perfect in the Pacific Northwest midfield was largely except from criticism. After all, the £40 million investment on Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin leaves Van Gaal with a midfield that can be compared to Europe’s élite; a mix of creativity and experience to be envied.
In Schneiderlin, the Reds have acquired a player who rectifies many deficiencies in midfield. The ex-Southampton man offers proven Premier League experience and excelled as the Saints finished a strong seventh last season. The French international adds much-needed steel to a midfield lacking bite, as was clear in a dominant display against Club America. In Schneiderlin’s first 45 minutes as a Red the Frenchman screened the defence well and swiftly snuffed out America attacks.
It is not just Schneiderlin’s defensive performance that impressed. Van Gaal repeatedly bemoaned United’s lack of height last season when it came to set pieces. If Schneiderlin’s towering header in the fifth minute is anything to go by there will be fewer complaints from the Dutchman this season. And with Schneiderlin’s peak years ahead of him the Frenchman could be a fixture in the United squad for seasons to come.
However strong Schneiderlin’s performance the limelight was stolen by Bastian Schweinsteiger in Seattle. The first German to play for United, Schweinsteiger’s capture may prove to be Ed Woodward’s finest piece of business. Not since Keane have United supporters enjoyed a domineering midfielder who dictates proceedings. In his first 45 minutes in a United shirt Schweinsteiger showed that he can do just that.
Primarily deployed alongside younger players in the second half, the former-Bayern Munich man brought a sense of calmness to the midfield, allowing Andreas Pereira to confidently play his own game. Not only is Schweinsteiger one of the most technically gifted players in Europe, but the World Cup winner also brings a significant amount of leadership to a United dressing room that lacked authority over the past two seasons.
While there are doubts over Schweinsteiger’s age and fitness, with the German international approaching his 31st birthday, there remains much to the midfielder’s game. Technically, the German captain will continue to improve with age, and if anyone can squeeze more from Schweinsteiger is it Van Gaal, the man who first converted the player from a winger to a holding midfield role during his time at the Allianz Arena.
Beyond the new signings the club is blessed with options in central midfield: Herrera, Fellaini, Blind, Carrick and Juan Mata. If Van Gaal, as it seems, deploys his preferred 4-3-3 system, the two new acquisitions will be a part of the midfield three. The intriguing question remains who will become the third player in the centre of the pitch.
After a tremendous first season at the club Herrera might expect to be in place to provide foil to the aptly nicknamed ‘Schmidfield’. The Spaniard brings energy and dynamism to midfield, although Van Gaal’s admiration for Carrick is clear. Indeed, the Dutchman has reassured Carrick of his importance to the team, according to Manchester Evening News, and the Englishman will remain vice-captain.
It is a reasonable position after the pivotal role Carrick played last season and the former Spurs man will almost certainly be part of the starting XI when fit. This potentially leaves Herrera and perhaps Mata with a diminished role. With Herrera proving his worth last season, and his compatriot impressing in pre-season, Van Gaal is left with a selection headache in midfield.
One player who might not provide competition in midfield is Blind, who started the games against Club America and San Jose Earthquakes in the centre of defence. He may continue to be deployed in the role for the rest of the season – Van Gaal suggested as much in his post-match press conference. Not least because of the Dutchman’s preference for a left-footed player in one of the centre back slots.
How Van Gaal solves this midfield puzzle, while keeping his clutch of stars happy, will be one of the most fascinating storylines in the coming season. The former-Ajax coach is ruthless enough to discard players who fail to meet expectations. Former protégés, Victor Valdes and Robin Van Persie offer proof enough this summer.
With United’s midfield resources now overloaded, there are many players with a point to prove. It’s a day supporters have been waiting for since the day Paul Scholes hung up his boots.
Three transfers concluded, how many more to come this summer? Manchester United’s confirmation that Germany captain Bastian Schweinsteiger is to join from Bayern Munich adds to a growing sense of momentum at Old Trafford. The player may be creeping towards his 30s, but Schweinsteiger is legitimately one of the world’s finest central midfielders – and his capture no less than a significant coup for Louis van Gaal. The acquisition is one more piece in what could be a very profitable summer for the club.
Indeed, if any doubts remain about Schweinsteiger’s suitability for United, then apprehension should be quelled by Jamie Carragher’s assertion that the 30-year-old is now “past his best.” There is nothing quite like the stench of Scouse desperation to validate United’s trajectory, even if the former Liverpool defender later claimed his comment was made in jest.
Schweinsteiger, who joins on a three-year deal worth more than £140,000-per-week, will add vast experience and big-game nous to Van Gaal’s team. And while the midfielder’s injury record is patchy since Pep Guardiola join the Bavarians in 2013, Schweinsteiger has played more than 70 games for club and country over the past two season. United’s latest acquisition is a short-term move, perhaps, but one for a player who should ensure Van Gaal’s midfield is competitive with almost any on the continent.
While the predictable partisan debate raged in social media in England, over in the Motherland the player’s colleagues were quick to praise the man who will lead his nation at Euro 2016. After making more than 500 appearances for the club, Bayern was seemingly willing to let the player dictate his own future.
“Bastian wants to do something new at the end of his career,” said Bayern Munich chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. “He asked that we meet his wishes. My colleagues at Manchester United have been in touch. We’ve reached an agreement over a transfer. It’s regrettable because Bastian meant a great deal to the club. He achieved great things.”
Meanwhile, Germany manager Joachim Löw, described United’s new acquisition as “an absolute leader and world class player who can put his stamp on any team.”
Schweinsteiger will be the first German to play for United’s first team when he makes his Old Trafford debut in August and will add genuine leadership and tactical nous to a team that has lacked both in recent campaigns. It is for good reason that Schweinsteiger was described as “the brain” of the national side by as Löw as Germany won the World Cup in Brazil last summer.
Indeed, the player was outstanding in the final against Argentina, moving former United midfielder Paul Scholes to label Schweinsteiger the outstanding contributor in the calendar year 2014.
“If I was to pick my standout it would have to be, in a World Cup year, a World Cup winner,” said Scholes last December. “If I had to pick my player of the year it would be Schweinsteiger.”
The World Cup proved to be the pinnacle of a career that began in Bayern’s youth team before a rapid ascent to Ottmar Hitzfeld’s squad. Hitzfeld granted the player a first team debut at the age of 18 in 2002. Schweinsteiger made early appearances for Der FCB in defence and on the wing before switching to central midfield where his range of effective passing found a good marriage with a high-energy game.
More than 20 club honours later and Schweinsteiger will add much to Van Gaal’s search for balance at United. Over the past year the Dutchman has weighed a career-long natural attacking tendency with what Van Gaal believes are serious weaknesses in his squad. If Schweinsteiger adds anything it may be to eradicated Van Gaal’s incessant tinkering, particularly with the shape of his side.
Van Gaal’s team is likely to be more settled in the coming months not least because the Dutchman is keen to address the club’s defensive weaknesses first; the Reds also having confirmed the addition of defender Matteo Darmian to the squad. Southampton’s Morgan Schneiderlin is still likely to join, with a top-class central defender also on the cards.
Beyond the initial intrigue Schweinsteiger’s impending arrival also poses questions. First, of how the player will to fit into United’s shape, and then of whom will make way for the German. While a more defensive-minded central midfield role might suit a player who will turn 31 in August, Van Gaal is also likely to be wary about rapidly losing Michael Carrick’s influence in the United side. Only a cursory glance at the data is required to understand Carrick’s value to United: the Reds picked up more than 2.3 points-per-game in the Premier League last season with the Geordie in the team, against just 1.5 without.
With Ander Herrera’s energy, quick-tempo passing and goals impressing towards the end of last season, it might well be Marouane Fellaini who is most at risk from the German’s arrival. Van Gaal’s desire to field, if not two defensive players in midfield then at least one and an all-rounder, points to a trio in the centre of the park comprising Carrick, Schweinsteiger and Herrera when Tottenham Hotspur visits Old Trafford on 8 August.
This requirement for balance, together with Carrick’s age and Schweinsteiger’s injury-record last season, means that a deal for Schneiderlin remains likely despite the German’s capture.
In fact additional defensive resources probably hold to key to unlocking United’s attacking freedom, with Van Gaal keen to resurrect a 4-3-3 shape that was commonly used towards the back-end of last season. Wayne Rooney, Angel Di Maria, Juan Mata, Ashley Young, Adnan Januzaj and new signing Memphis Depay offer Van Gaal abundant attacking options even if the Dutchman is currently light senior on strikers.
That challenge may well be resolved in the market, while United remains on the hunt for an experienced central defender and – probably – a goalkeeper to replace David de Gea. Either way, Van Gaal’s squad is rapidly nearing completion (above, right).
For the moment, however, the focus remains on Schweinsteiger – a player who could well provide the kind of high-quality if short-term spark that Robin van Persie once offered. The Dutch striker leaves United this summer having proven dubious value for a £24 million fee, but an outstanding capture nonetheless.
The smart money is on Schweinsteiger following a similar pattern.
World Cup (Germany) – 2014
Club World Cup – 2013
Champions League – 2013
Bundesliga – 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015
DFB Cup – 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2013, 2014
DFB League Cup – 2004, 2007
DFL Supercup – 2010, 2012
German Player of the Year – 2013