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.