United in search of a formula to match Barça’s brilliance
If Saturday night’s Champions League final confirmed anything – Barcelona’s European hegemony over the past decade excepted – it is that Louis van Gaal has plenty of work to do at Old Trafford this summer. Last season’s fourth place finish takes United back into the continent’s premier competition, but few will argue with the notion that the Dutchman’s side is far adrift of Europe’s best. Indeed, two years after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, United’s spending power must be unleashed once again if the Dutchman is to ensure his side is competitive at the top table. Transfers, however, are only part of the picture when it comes to matching Barcelona in the coming season.
The truth is that Van Gaal’s side has little chance of winning next season’s competition whatever the outlay this summer. Post-Ferguson, United’s collapse was so total that Van Gaal is, in effect, rebuilding a side from the ground up. While there is likely to be much debate next season about United’s potential to reach the 2016 final in Milan’s iconic Stadio Giuseppe Meazza the reality is, of course, very different.
Still, there is something to be learned from Barça’s approach. The Catalan outfit has built a decade of success on the triumvirate of La Masia, Lionel Messi and outrageous spending in the transfer market. United remains short in at least two of the three sectors.
While there is little United can do to match Messi’s individual brilliance, vice chairman Ed Woodward is set to open the club’s chequebook once again this summer. The club is playing catch up after years of Glazer family parsimony. The cost: Van Gaal will need every bit of the club’s financial muscle to bridge the gap both at domestic and European level. Indeed, the Dutchman may need five high-quality players this summer to mount a realistic domestic title bid.
Finally, in what may yet become the final leg of United’s troika of recovery, Van Gaal is likely to leverage United’s reserve and academy operation, although this is no short-term fix for the club’s ills. James Wilson, Tyler Blackett and Patrick McNair enjoyed some game time last season. Andreas Pereira will expect more opportunities in the months to come. Over the longer piece Brian McClair’s replacement as head of United’s academy – possibly Nicky Butt – will signal the direction in which Van Gaal would like to take the club’s youth system.
Back in the market Van Gaal remains in search of a central defender, right-back, defensive midfielder and striker. He may also need another winger in addition to Memphis Depay, while it is likely that United will replace Real Madrid-bound David de Gea this summer. Significant dead wood is set to be shed as well – it will balance what Robin van Persie this week predicted will be a “£200 million” spending spree. The club has already committed up to £30 million on Depay, while a clutch of other names are being considered.
Spending will not cure all ills, but it will go some way to answer the questions that remain about Van Gaal’s squad. De Gea’s departure is perhaps the most certain hole to patch. Elsewhere, it will border on negligent is Van Gaal is not pictured with a smiling new right-back come August. Antonio Valencia’s defensive naiveté and Rafael da Silva’s prolonged injury-absence ensures as much.
It is a similar, if not quite as desperate, story in the centre of defence where Jonny Evans suffered the worst campaign in a decade at the club, while Phil Jones and Chris Smalling remain intermittently injured or inconsistent. Smalling earned praise for an uptick in performances over the second half of the campaign, although he started just 21 of United’s 38 Premier League fixtures.
In midfield competition for, or a compliment to, Michael Carrick is desperately required. United’s results without the Englishman, who missed half the season through injury, were starkly less impressive. The Reds averaged 2.3 points per game with Carrick in this side and just 1.5 with the former Tottenham Hotspur man in the treatment room.
Then up front Van Gaal must consider whom, if anyone, replaces the ineffectual Radamel Falcao, while Van Persie is unlikely to begin the season at Old Trafford. Captain Wayne Rooney is assured of his place in the side, although he scored just 12 league goals last season. Wilson may enjoy more action next season, while a final decision is to be taken on Javier Hernandez’ future – if any – at Old Trafford.
Despite the obvious holes in Van Gaal’s squad the Dutchman is unlikely to spend anywhere near the “£200 million” forecast this summer nor, in probability, complete the refresh of United’s squad he seeks. Not least because the club is determined to wrap up spending before Van Gaal’s squad heads to the United States for a summer tour. It will take a level of focus not seen at Old Trafford since David Gill’s departure.
Pre-season training begins on 1 July, with the Premier League’s opening fixture five weeks later. It is a period of “preparation time” that Van Gaal is determined will set his side up for a more robust start to the new campaign than a year ago. The tour starts with a game against Club America in Seattle on 17 July and concludes with Van Gaal’s side meeting Paris Saint-Germain in Chicago less than two weeks later. In between the Reds face San Jose Earthquakes and Barcelona in a shorter summer tour than almost any in recent memory; an arrangement the Dutchman demanded.
Still, it is no easy task to find cohesion amid a potential influx of new players, although minds will focus around a hazardous European qualifier in mid-August. It means that Van Gaal’s outfit has little choice but to find results in the early part of the new season.
Much of that cohesion centres around United’s tactical approach. While there is much to be admired in tactical flexibility, United’s inconsistency last season cannot be wholey divorced from Van Gaal’s incessant tinkering. His side began the season using the three-man defence that served Netherlands so well at last summer’s World Cup. United ended the campaign in a more typically Dutch 4-3-3. In between Van Gaal used around a dozed different systems over 10 months.
Nor was there any truly consistent style. At times United sought to control possession at the expense of penetration; at others Van Gaal’s side was thrillingly open, but loose at the back. Neither brought the “balance” Van Gaal seeks. Still, it is likely United will line-up in something akin to a 4-3-3 next season, with Memphis deployed at inside-left and Rooney at ‘number nine’. It could well be the system around which United builds a title challenge.
There are plenty of other positions up for grabs though. Indeed, of the current squad, perhaps only four will definitely start the opening fixture of the season if fit: Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera, Carrick and Rooney. Angel di Maria, Juan Mata, Marouane Fellaini, Daley Blind and a new signing will compete for a permanent role in United’s midfield. Ashley Young’s progress over the past year may well be checked by Depay’s arrival, while Adnan Januzaj can only hope to force his way back into Van Gaal’s thinking over the summer.
None of these are concerns for European champions Barça. Nor, indeed, Premier League winners Chelsea. United has a very real gap in quality and consistency to bridge.