The acquisition had long been flagged, even if the timing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s re-signing took many by surprise. Still months away from full fitness and courted by clubs in Europe and the United States, the Swede will return to the Manchester United squad as a back-up and not the main man. That much is reflected in Ibrahimovic’s new wage, which is less than half the amount that he earned last season. Yet, while the striker will not face Leicester City at Old Trafford on Saturday, his presence is already felt.
It looked oh-so-promising for a couple of months, but Manchester United’s resurgence under José Mourinho has stalled. The Reds have taken just six points from 12 in the Premier League since the turn of the year, compared to a run of five consecutive victories to end 2016. United’s winning run was always going to end, but it is the performance dip and inability to capitalise on opponents dropping points that is causing most concern. Mourinho’s men are under intense pressure to buck this trend on Sunday at Leicester City.
Could it be the day that José Mourinho finally makes the big selection decision on everybody’s mind? The one involving captain Wayne Rooney and the bench. After all, Rooney’s performances this season, for the last three, have suggested a once great player on the wane. That burst of speed, surety of touch, and goalscoring prowess: all gone. His value to the team: vastly diminished.
For the third time in as many years Manchester United’s pre-season campaign has carried with it a renewed sense of optimism. In summer 2014, United sacked Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor, David Moyes, and replaced him with Dutch veteran Louis Van Gaal. Throughout that summer supporters were treated to some outstanding performances by Van Gaal’s Netherlands squad at the World Cup. It built hope for what was not to come.
Ahead of Leicester City’s visit to Old Trafford on Sunday parallels are unintentionally drawn between the clubs’ respective managers. Claudio Ranieri, the once famed ‘tinkerman’, was viewed by many pundits as a good coach, but perhaps not good enough to lead the very best. And yet, Ranieri is on the verge of winning his first ever top flight title. Ranieri’s charm, charisma and honesty has won over fans and pundits, with a commitment to team chemistry and a promise of creative freedom key factors in Leicester’s unlikely title charge.
It says something for Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United evolution that, while the club is one victory away from clear blue water at the summit of the Premier League, murmurs of discontent remain audible on the Stratford End. The Dutchman’s side is indisputably in with a shot at wining the league next May, but has become so soporific that it is, for want of a better description, alien to many supporters. Read More
In time Louis van Gaal will preside over far more important matches than Manchester United’s 5-3 defeat at Leicester City in September. There will, presumably, be title deciding games, trophies and glory along the way before the 62-year-old leaves Old Trafford – richer and more successful than when he started. That, at least, is the hope. But in the narrative of a campaign that is only moderately successful, and even less entertaining, the Reds’ defeat in the Midlands last year is central. So important, in fact, that it has driven Van Gaal’s strategy for months.
Nigel Pearson’s side thumped United 5-3 at the King Power Stadium after Van Gaal’s outfit had opened up a 3-1 lead. The defensive chaos that ensued, even before Tyler Blackett’s dismissal for a professional foul, has shaped the Dutchman’s thinking in the intervening months. No longer visible is the relatively free-flowing football of the late summer. Instead, United has retreated into a shell, keen to develop the security of a three-man defensive system rather than gamble on creating chances up front. It is for some just not the ‘United way’.
Van Gaal’s perspective is different of course. The Dutchman has spent a season searching for balance between the attacking and defensive sides of his squad’s game – hampered in no small part by a persistently high level of injury. Yet, even as absences have abated, the Dutchman has settled on a largely conservative game; one that has contributed to a run of just one defeat in 14 matches and the third best defensive record in the league. It is also a strategy that has brought little genuine entertainment along the way.
“It is true we have not been scoring enough goals, but there is a reason for that,” added Van Gaal.
“We have been playing teams who put 10 men behind the ball and make space very narrow. We are working to increase our ball speed, the speed of our passing, to try and counteract that.
“I thought we played a very cultured game against Southampton, we were the better team and created several chances, but we didn’t take them. Southampton had one chance and took it. That can be hard to take but that’s football.
“I know that goals are what the fans enjoy the most. We have a lot of attractive players in our squad but we have to score more goals.”
Leicester’s arrival on Saturday is a reminder of the campaign’s turning point and a test of Van Gaal’s thinking now that his squad is almost completely fit. Is the Dutchman prepared to throw his trust behind a back four and diamond midfield that has on occasion sparkled this season? Or even a more attacking mindset.
The Dutchman’s cause is not helped by a fresh injury to Michael Carrick – the Geordie set to miss a month with a muscle rupture. Carrick is the only absentee in Van Gaal’s squad though, with Ashley Young now back in training.
“We don’t have many injuries,” confirmed the Dutchman. “Ashley Young is coming back, but Michael Carrick has been injured now so he is out at the weekend. He can be important for the team but he is now injured. I think it shall take more than four weeks, so it is not a minor injury. I have to say that’s part of the job of a manager, especially this season at Manchester United, because we have suffered a lot of injuries.”
Elsewhere, Van Gaal set to restore Luke Shaw to left-back with Daley Blind moving into midfield alongside Marouane Fellaini and Angel Di Maria. Despite positive performances against Cambridge United in the FA Cup it is likely that Ander Herrera and Adnan Januzaj will remain on the bench for the Premier League campaign.
One man unlikely to feature is Darren Fletcher after he travelled to London this week to conclude a deal with West Ham United. Although named one of United’s vice captains this season, Fletcher has started just five games in all competitions. The last was a disastrous showing against Yeovil Town in the FA Cup third round.
Fletcher has been at the club for more than 15 years, appearing on 342 occasions and scoring 24 goals. Although struck with a serious bowel condition over the past three years, the Scot fought back from months out of the game to reestablish himself in the United first team squad over the past 18 months.
“He is now at West Ham so we have to wait and see,” added Van Gaal on Friday.
“He is an important guy in the dressing room. I like him as a person and as a human being so we shall miss him. But he hasn’t played so many times and that is always the main goal of a player. We have talked about that and he preferred to play. It is a loss and, for the club that buys him, he is another player with a lot of quality – as a midfielder, but also as a captain.”
Meanwhile, Pearson’s side arrives in the midst of a revival. After defeating United in September the Foxes went on a 13 match winless run. However, victories against Hull City and Aston Villa in the Premier League were followed by a 2-1 win at Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup last week. Leicester scored twice in the last 10 minutes to secure victory.
Matthew Upson is in line to make his Leicester début after recovering a broken foot, but Kasper Schmeichel and Chris Wood remain on the sidelines. Former United academy player Matty James is suspended, while Riyad Mahrez is on international duty with Algeria at the Africa Cup of Nations.
The recent uplift in confidence will do Pearson’s side good even if the Foxes remain bottom of the Premier League. Pearson is also keen to play down the impact of victory over United last autumn – a game that seemingly affected both sides more than it should have.
“We’ve spent so long putting that behind us. It’s long gone,” said the 51-year-old manager. “We’re looking at this game from the perspective of where we are now, and that’s it. We just want to concentrate on how we prepare for this game, knowing full well that a lot has changed since then.
“They’ve had a very good run of results, played different formations. It’s always a difficult place to go, but our players are looking forward to it and we need to look forward to games like this. Big stadiums, big teams.”
United’s manager has put little public store in Leicester’s victory at the King Power either, but there is little doubt that behind the scenes it resonated strongly with the Dutchman. Could a hefty win and a revival of the four man diamond midfield be a precursor to a dynamic season’s end? Perhaps, although the evidence of the past few weeks suggests caution lies ahead.
And even if Van Gaal is playing the long-game, seeking to ensure United’s challenge for European qualification remains on track, then short-term revenge will also be sweet over a side that produced one of the Dutchman’s more embarrassing moments this season.
Or, as midfielder Juan Mata wrote this week, last September’s match left United’s players “with a bad taste.”
“We want to change that and offer a good game to our crowd.”
United (4-3-1-2): De Gea; Valencia, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Fellaini, Blind, Di Maria; Rooney; Van Persie, Falcao
Leicester (4-4-2): Hamer; Simpson, Morgan, Moore, Knochesky; Vardy, Drinkwater, Cambiasson, Schlupp; Krameric, Ulloa
United: Valdes, Lindegaard, Rafael, Smalling, Evans, McNair, Blackett, Pereira, Herrera, Mata, Januzaj, Wilson
Leicester: Logan, Schwarzer, King, Knockaert, Wasilewski, Upson, Albrighton, Hammond, Nugent
United 59 – Draw 26 – Leicester 33
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistants: M Mullarkey, H Lennard
Fourth Official: T Harrington
United 2-1 Leicester
£1 bet club
United to win 2-1 @ 15/2
Running total: £(-)13
What a difference a week makes. So much of Manchester United’s recent Old Trafford’s experience has been grounded in negativity – the sum of six home defeats in the Premier League last season, adding to Swansea City’s win on the opening day of the new campaign. Yet, United may just have turned a corner after the Reds’ thumping victory over a listless Queens Park Rangers last weekend. This despite so many column inches devoted to the “crisis” at Old Trafford.
QPR might have hoped for better at Old Trafford having lost five in a row against United in Manchester. As it turned out, the west Londoners were little more than patsies for van Gaal’s expensively revamped United side – one that returned to the attacking intent of old in scoring four against the Hoops. New faces and, perhaps, a fresh start for Van Gaal’s side.
United’s once proud adventure had seemingly been forgotten after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in May 2013. Indeed, QPR’s cheap dismissal might just mean more than just a sound victory and three points; it was, perhaps, the true dawn of the post-Ferguson era after last season’s failed David Moyes experiment.
The weekend’s fixture with Leicester City will provide a sterner test of course. Yet, victory aside, Van Gaal will also be pleased with the speed of passing, creativity and flexibility his side found against QPR. Not least because his new players have largely settled into the team well.
Angel Di Maria’s man-of-the-match performance against the Londoners was a study in pace and subtly; the Argentinian both the team’s main creative force and the player most likely to inject a change of tempo. Meanwhile, Daley Blind revelled in a defensive midfield role in Van Gaal’s new-look 4-1-2-1-2 diamond formation. Marcos Rojo also enjoyed a productive outing at left-back.
Of United’s summer imports, only Radamel Falcao, who was deployed for little over half an hour as a substitute last weekend, and Luke Shaw, are yet to start a Premier League match.
Little wonder confidence is finally on the up as Van Gaal’s “philosophy” begins to pay dividends after a difficult start to the new campaign.
“QPR was great, it’s always great to play in a game where the team are going forward, playing flowing football and scoring goals,” said captain Wayne Rooney.
“It was an exciting day as there were a lot of new players making their debut for us. The performance did look impressive. We’re working hard in training and putting the hours in to make sure that we are playing well together when we go into games. When you look at the world-class players that we are bringing in it makes for exciting times for us all.”
The influx of new players, together with those returning from injury, leaves the Dutchman with greater resources than at any time in his short tenure. The squad may still be short a winger, world-class central midfielder and an experienced defender, but these gaps are likely to be filled in the coming windows.
In attacking positions Van Gaal now boasts a surfeit of talent, with Rooney, Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao seemingly competing for two positions. The trio completed United’s game against QPR, with Van Persie left, Falcao right and Rooney through the middle in an attacking 4-3-3 system, although in the short-term Van Gaal may retain the diamond midfield that started against QPR. Indeed, the Dutchman is certain that Van Persie, Falcao and Rooney can all feature in the same team, whatever the formation.
“Falcao is a very good striker, I already said that when he came here in his first press conference,” said Van Gaal.
“I like van Persie as well – he is also a very good striker. Then we have Wayne Rooney and Adnan Januzaj, and we also have James Wilson. We have five players for the two striker positions and I have to choose.”
Still, it is clear that the Dutchman is far from wedded to any one system this season. His side has also been deployed in 3-4-1-2 and 4-4-2 formations at times during the campaign. Whether uncertainty or tactical genius, the Dutchman appears comfortable asking his players to be flexible – a trend that may well continue on Sunday lunchtime.
“I started with another system because of the quality of the players,” explained Van Gaal. “Now we have bought quality players in and so you have to look at these qualities and then want to perform the philosophy that we have. Then you are coming out in this system, but that can change also. It is not a fixed solution.
“I have played that already in my first match at Ajax, where it was a law that we played 4-3-3. But I played 4-4-2 as trainer-coach of the second team because I saw it was more suitable for the quality of my players.”
In addition to finding a solution in attack, Van Gaal has decisions to make at the back with Chris Smalling and Shaw available after injury. The Dutch manager could hand a Premier League début to Shaw despite Marco Rojo’s positive performance against QPR, while Tyler Blackett and Johnny Evans are also competing for positions in a back four. Angel Di Maria, Ander Herrera and Blind should continue in midfield.
Meanwhile, Leicester City boss Nigel Pearson could include Kasper Schmeichel and former United player Matty James after the pair recovered from injury. Three additional former Reds – Tom Lawrence, Danny Simpson, Ritchie De Laet – could all be involved, although Nick Powell cannot play against his parent club.
Yet another former United player, Danny Drinkwater, will also feature, while Jack Barmby and Louis Rowley now play at Leicester, bringing to eight the number of ex-Reds at the King Power Stadium.
“Louis van Gaal has changed an awful lot there – and for the better it would seem from last weekend. It’s exciting as a fan,” Drinkwater told MUTV.
“I suppose Sunday’s going to be a bit mad for me being a United fan but I’m looking forward to it. Hopefully, my family will be supporting Leicester because of me but they’re United fans as well. I like the Reds to win wherever they go but not this time.”
“There’s a good balance in our squad and we’re all excited about the challenges this season. We’ve had a few tough games so far but we’ve more than put ourselves about. It’s about keeping that going and staying on track.”
For Van Gaal’s side Sunday’s match offers the chance of consolidation after a first victory of the season. Pearson’s side is unlikely to be as passive as the Hoops, but with United already seven points behind the leaders the Reds can afford little but another victory.
That United has emerged victorious in the past nine Premier League meetings with Leicester bodes well; confidence riding high once again is even better.
Leicester (4-4-2): Schmeichel; De Laet, Morgan, Moore, Konchesky; Mahrez, Cambiasso, Hammond, Schlupp; Nugent, Ulloa
United (4-1-2-1-2): de Gea; Rafael, Evans, Rojo, Shaw; Blind; Herrera, Di Maria; Rooney; Van Persie, Falcao
Leicester: Hamer, Wasilewski, King, Taylor-Fletcher, Wood, Albrighton, Knockaert, Vardy, Lawrence, Drinkwater, Simpson
United: Amos, Johnstone, Blackett, Thorpe, Vermiji, Januzaj, James, Anderson, Fletcher, Mata, Wilson
Leicester 32 – Draw 26 – United 59
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Assistants: S Beck, J Collin
Fourth Official: L Mason
Leicester 0-2 United
£1 bet club
0-2 @ 15/2
Running total: £(-)5