“Success,” claimed Manchester United captain Wayne Rooney – an assessment is already a debate among United’s legion support. After all, the key performance metric has been achieved: United will qualify for the Champions League, bar for any slip in a mid-August play-off against what is likely to be a tough opponent. Yet, Louis van Gaal’s side has earned the second lowest points total of any United side in the past 25 years, while being dumped out of the Capital One Cup by League One Milton Keynes Dons. United’s passage to the FA Cup quarter-final and eventual limp home defeat to Arsenal was hardly inspiring stuff either.
Indeed, any debate around the merits of United’s season rests on the nuance of relative versus absolute performance. The Reds’ performances have been superior to almost anything during the failed David Moyes experiment; a freak-show so grotesque almost no manager could fail to improve United’s situation. This is also a side that has achieved just six more points a year hence. It says something for United’s trajectory that the relative performance feels more positive than just two Premier League wins extra.
Inevitably the campaign’s narrative is wrapped up in the impact of Van Gaal’s arrival, although the Dutchman’s quirks have also been masked by the influx of genuine, if expensive, talent that has not always performed to the levels expected at Old Trafford. No longer is under-investment a charge that can be levelled at United’s hierarchy, even if the root of the team’s regression over the past 24 months surely lies in years of austerity instilled by the Glazer family, and supported by Sir Alex Ferguson.
It is just two years since United gloriously lifted the Premier League trophy in Ferguson’s last campaign, but the squad now bares little resemblance to the shell the Scot left for Moyes. Van Gaal’s acquisitions last summer have undoubtedly boosted the squad’s quality from a year ago even if few of the new players can claim unmitigated success. After all, £150 million spent is scant reward for just six extra points even if comparing performances across seasons is a challenging errand.
In the end this has been a season when Van Gaal righted a listing ship and little more. In absolute terms few at Old Trafford should celebrate becoming England’s fourth best side. It’s just not United. Much more is expected when the new campaign kicks off next August. 6/10
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Louis van Gaal
There is an aura about Van Gaal that affords the Dutchman greater leeway than many coaches could expect. Moyes might well look at the inconsistencies of Van Gaal’s team, together with the huge amount of money spent last summer, and wonder what might have been. After all, Van Gaal’s team has only occasionally excelled this season, albeit in games including fixtures against Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Manchester City when it really counted during the spring.
There is also much to be frustrated with as well. Van Gaal’s constant tinkering with personnel and systems has probably hindered not helped his side. There will be a time when tactical flexibility is a huge boon for United; during a period of rebuilding it looked very much like Van Gaal simply couldn’t make his mind up. Then there is the in-game management that has often left much to be desired and the, as yet unexplained, decision both to retain Rooney no matter how poor the captain’s performances. Meanwhile Van Gaal benched Adnan Januzaj and Angel di Maria for large parts of the season. Surely a coach of Van Gaal’s standing could draw more from that duo?
The positives outweigh any criticism though. Van Gaal’s aura counts for much more than a superficial observation about the Dutchman’s charisma. Here is a man that a squad can rally around and for whom many of the continent’s best players will want to play. The Dutchman may well spend no more time at United than the three years on his contract, but there is at least some belief he hold’s a real plan for success. 6.5/10
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David de Gea
Rant’s Player of the Year in 2013/14 holds on to the (not in the least bit) coveted trophy. No surprises there; De Gea is United’s only genuinely world-class performer over the past 10 months. Save for a small group of indifferent performances during the beginning and end of the campaign, De Gea has been near immaculate this season. Performances against Everton, Liverpool, Crystal Palace and others have probably netted United an extra 10 points beyond the total that might have been gained if the side had included a lesser ‘keeper. Such as shame that the Spaniard is almost certain to return to Madrid this summer. United is poorer for it. 9/10 – Rant’s Player of the Year.
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There is plenty of hope that the former Southampton full-back will prove an astute purchase, if one that cost United an eye-watering £30 million for a teenager defender. Shaw’s raw ingredients are strong: pace, a natural attacking instinct and solid defensive nous. It is, then, such as shame that the youngster’s body has let him down this season. Van Gaal points to burnout, which may well be a factor after Shaw played most of Soton’s games last season and travelled with the England squad to Brazil. He is not a player with a long history of injury so the hope is for a stark improvement over the next 12 months. 6/10
Rafael da Silva
The past seven years should really should have been so much better for Rafael. The diminutive Brazilian was supposed to have matured into an international class full-back by now. There has always been much to admire: pace, natural attacking instincts and genuine tenacity in the tackle. On paper the 24-year-old should offer much in an attacking Van Gaal team. Yet, once again, Rafael’s propensity for injury and inconsistency have come to the fore. There were a clutch of stand-out performances in the autumn, but these will be forgotten from a player who is so rarely fit and, ultimately, Van Gaal could not trust. 3/10
The Ecuadorian has been a disappointment as a right-winger for much of the past four years. In that assessment it is perhaps odd that Valencia has taken, albeit with mixed results, to a permanent defensive role. He has many attributes at full-back – pace and athleticism is a boon, while Valencia rarely gives the ball away, which Van Gaal appreciates. The former Wigan Athletic player’s defensive instincts remain a concern though and Valencia’s propensity to wander out of position has cost United this season. It has been a solid campaign, but little more. 6/10
There is just a touch of regret in looking back on the Argentinian’s season. In one sense Rojo has surprised with his quality on the ball, determination and defensive leadership. In another, injuries have disrupted a debut campaign to much frustration. Rojo started just 19 of United’s 28 Premier League matches. It’s not enough for a player who could well be a fixture in the side for years to come. Fitness and United’s summer acquisition strategy will determine whether that forecast comes true or not. For the moment Rojo deserves credit for impressing when fit this season. 7/10
There were questions about just how far Evans could go at United a year ago. There is little doubt that the Northern Irishman has regressed over the past two seasons. The trouble with Evans is that a mistake always appears imminent and, at 27, the defender is no longer the inexperienced kid returning from a loan spell at Sunderland full of hope. There’s no brook with the player’s effort or attitude. Yet, there has always been the nagging feeling that he was never quite good enough to represent United. After a season in which injury, poor form and an unfortunate suspension have hit the player hard, a move might well revitalise his career. So long Johnny. 3/10
Jones has enjoyed a season of some progress at Old Trafford after being restored to the heart of United’s defence. It is a step forward, although injuries have again restricted the former Blackburn Rovers defender to less than 30 games for the club. This is simply not good enough. At times Jones has become the defensive leader many hoped for in the departures of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. Yet, there is also the nagging feeling that Jones has progressed too little after five years with the club. Once again we lament fitness for robbing United of the consistent application of talent, albeit one that is still a little too raw for the palette. 7/10
Smalling’s career is, said Rant one year ago, a “at a cross-roads.” Form, fitness and consistency had always plagued the former Fulham defender. Moyes’ decision to field Smalling at right-back did not help. Nor did the brain-dead red card against City at the Etihad earlier this season; it was a mistake that might well have broken lesser men. Yet, Smalling has emerged as one of United’s successes this season. If not the best outfield player’s during the campaign then close to it. Post-City Smalling has been a model of consistency in central defence. Should the 25-year-old progress at the same rate from next August then United will have, at last, found Vidic’s natural successor. 8/10
There is credit due to Van Gaal for offering McNair a chance and even more to the player for demonstrating a rare maturity in a defender so young. McNair has played 18 times for United this season; far more than expected of a player who was not a regular fixture in United’s under-21 side. The club’s likely acquisition of an experienced central defender will push McNair down Van Gaal’s preferred list, although a loan away from the club should suit all parties. Van Gaal might well have uncovered a gem for the long-term. 6/10
Blackett enjoyed an unexpected rise to the first team before Christmas, although has rarely featured in the subsequent months. United’s probable purchase of an international-standard experienced central defender in the summer is likely to cut Blackett’s chances further. Still, it has been something of a breakthrough campaign, with a series of largely composed performances. There have been mistakes too – something that will be eradicated with experience. Blackett’s United future is not guaranteed, with a loan away next season a beneficial move. 5/10
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Angel Di Maria
Remember the excitement? Nearly £60 million spent on a truly world-class star; Europe’s leading assist-maker in 2013/14 and the Man of the Match in Real Madrid’s La Decima Champions League final victory. The season started well for Di Maria too. There were stunning performances to go with that magical goal against Leicester City. It lasted not long enough. The Argentinian’s form wavered and a house break-in seemingly robbed the player of his spirit as well as his possessions. The challenge isn’t physical so much as mental and a level of adaptation to Van Gaal’s ‘philosophy’ is required. While Di Maria is United’s leading assists-maker this season a renewed sense of focus on his performances next season is required of truly wonderful talent. 5/10
Once the poster child for United’s midfield failings, Young has enjoyed a season of progression at Old Trafford. The former Aston Villa player has never been of the requisite quality and the question has often been asked about his value with more than £5 million a season paid in wages. Yet, there has been a level of consistency to admire over the past 10 months, even if that has brought just five assists and two goals. Young remains mediocre by almost any data point of relevance, yet he has also moved from being a player that earned only rejection at United to being a very solid Premier League performer and a good squad player next season. 7/10
There was little the Belgian could do about United’s astonishingly haphazard acquisition two summers ago, nor the offensively large fee. It is to Fellaini’s credit that the midfielder has recovered from last season’s epic failure to become a significant part of Van Gaal’s squad. Six goals have proven useful as has, at times, the opportunity for Untied to enact a ‘plan B’. Still, performances towards the latter end of the campaign have been far more reminiscent of those under Moyes and the former Evertonian is yet to register an assist this season. It will surprise if Fellaini remains as big a factor next year, with Van Gaal seeking to challenge on all fronts. 6/10
Carrick has recovered from his worst campaign in four years last season under Moyes only to suffer injury for almost half of the current campaign. When fit the Geordie remains a calming and influential force, both his terms of United’s defensive nous and attacking verve. Carrick’s passing remains outstanding and his defensive coverage all the more impressive for the failure of others in his role over the season. Still, Carrick is approaching the autumn of a very successful career. Van Gaal needs a replacement this summer for all Carrick’s enduring quality. 7/10
It seemed, at first, as if United’s £30 million acquisition could do little right. Van Gaal benched the former Athletic Bilbao midfielder for significant periods during the late summer and autumn. It proved a frustrating time for player and supporters alike. Still, Herrera has emerged from a tough start to the campaign to become United’s best midfielder – a player whose ability to quickly play neat and penetrative passes has proven critical in securing a Champions League spot. Goals have come too and perhaps the greatest praise on offer is that Herrera has actually improved on the player United acquired for a not insubstantial sum. 8/10
United’s opportunistic acquisition of Mata in January 2014 has only intermittently looked good business. After all, Mata’s performances remain inconsistent and there is a tendency to for the player drop out of view during the biggest games. Mata is not aided by Van Gaal’s decision to deploy the Spaniard as a “false winger” – a role that Mata has enjoyed if only for the freedom that it proffers the player to move inside. He is a number 10 waiting to escape and still United’s most creative player. That said Mata has offered a decent number of goals and assists this season – and there will always be that double at Anfield. 7/10
Blind is a player that divides opinion, although not about the Dutchman’s good looks or fine hair. It says much that the Dutchman’s greatest achievement is to reinforce the impression that Carrick is indispensable. Blind’s best performances have come at left-back, yet the former Ajax player was largely acquired for a defensive midfield role. In this position Blind’s lack of pace and dubious defensive coverage have too often been exposed. In defence Blind enjoyed a fine spell at full-back, but with Shaw likely to enjoy a full summer of recuperation, the Dutchman could find that the bench is an unhappy location for much of next season. 6/10
There are few bigger disappointments this year than Januzaj’s regression. This is, after all, the “boy who can do anything.” Those twinkle toes, classy distribution and eye for a goal have been missing too often. There is so much talent in the Belgian’s dancing feet that United has lost a significant attacking force in Januzaj’s absence. In part, Van Gaal simply doesn’t trust the youngster yet; in part the player has failed to adapt to new methods. Mostly the Januzaj simply didn’t fit in his manager’s system. In the 4-3-3 formation Van Gaal is planning for next season Januzaj might flourish, but with confidence shot a move away on a season’s loan could be a sensible path forward for all. 3/10
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Robin van Persie
Well, we’ll always have 2013! Van Persie’s second disappointing campaign in succession should spell the end for the Dutchman at United. Something turned sour for Van Persie under Moyes. It is a problem that has not been fully rectified. Although where Van Persie simply did not take to Moyes, injuries an age have become far more of a factor over the past season. Van Persie’s £24 million fee may not turn out to be great value as United will recoup only a fraction of the fee should Van Gaal push out his countryman this summer, but it feels like the right time to let him go. The striker has spent too few minutes on the pitch this season and too many in the treatment room. When Van Persie has played too much of the old pace and movement have ebbed away. It is the cruel passage of time. 4/10
The Colombian joined with much fanfare on deadline-day last summer, with United paying a £6 million loan fee to Monaco and picking up the tab on Falcao’s £265,000-per-week wages. It has proven to be a huge investment for very little return. The striker has scored just four goals in 29 appearances across all competitions this season, while spending much of the campaign on the bench. There is no doubting Falcao’s commitment or workrate, but that extra explosive sharpness has, sadly, gone. In the end the cruciate knee injury suffered in January 2014 has fundamentally changed Falcao for the worse. It is has, in truth, been hard to watch Falcao’s descent from one of the world’s truly élite strikers to a man struggling to make any impact at all. 3/10
Rooney spent much of last season being fêted by Moyes. This has been a campaign in which Rooney has enjoyed the “special priviliges” of club captaincy. Yet, the number of strong performances this season have numbered very few. The return on huge wages and sycophantic fawning too little. Rooney has, after all, scored fewer goals this season than during any over the past decade at United. That stat is skewed by some 14 games played in midfield over the season – a clutch of performances that were among the worst of any United midfielder. Up front, the old dynamism is all too rare, despite Gary Neville’s widely shared praise of the forward’s tactical discipline. That point is still under debate – as is Rooney’s enduring value to United. It has, in truth, been a mediocre campaign set against even more mediocre performances from attacking colleagues. 6/10
The striker has featured in 16 games – 12 as sub – scoring two goals for Van Gaal’s side this season. It has not quite been the breakthrough campaign for which many hoped. Wilson’s immediate United future probably depends on whether Van Persie remains at United next season and whether the club chooses to spend on a new forward this summer. A loan away is possible even if Van Gaal was reluctant to sanction it this season. Still, there is also a sense in which Van Gaal is looking for Wilson to kick on next season. 5/10
* ratings given to players who have made 10 appearances or more in all competitions