There’s a lot to be said about Manchester United’s current plight. For all the so-called dominance on the pitch, results aren’t coming José Mourinho’s way. Increasingly the Europa League looks like United’s best route to Champions League football next season. In common with Thursday’s victory, United’s best results this season have come with Michael Carrick in the team. So how can Mourinho extract the most from his ageing midfielder?
When José Mourinho waltzed into Old Trafford eyes were quickly cast at the playing squad. Who would be retained; who would be shipped out? There were a few names that immediately stood out as destined for the chop, but after the Community Shield and first couple of Premier League fixtures a number of these unlikely lads have stepped up to prove their worth to the Portuguese manager. Some could become components in a potentially successful season.
Johan Cruyff is outspoken at the best of times, but when he does make a point, no matter how blunt, it’s worth taking note. The Dutch legend, who has enjoyed his fair share of run-ins with Louis van Gaal, described Daley Blind as “the only Dutch player left with a decent, proper pass that can create a goal.”
It is a backhanded compliment, reflecting Cruyff’s frustration with the quality of the current Dutch generation as much as it lauds Blind’s ability to pick a pass. Yet, it also neatly sums up the Manchester United utility man. Blind’s talent is there to be seen, but not to the point of unqualified praise. He’s capable of playing numerous positions, but can never quite hold down a specific position. Blind is the archetypal ‘jack of all trades, master of none’.
That’s an unfair summation of Blind’s abilities and, though he lacks pace, physicality and natural athleticism, he’s an intelligent footballer who’s technically gifted and tactically disciplined. Blind must have something about him if Van Gaal and Cruyff can share a similar view of the player.
In the summer there was talk about a bid for a top quality centre-back, with Mats Hummels or Aymeric Laporte regularly mentioned as potential Old Trafford recruits. Instead fans and pundits were treated to the sight of Blind lining up in the back four. Cue the predictable outrage, bafflement and panic.
“Blind as a left-sided centre-back is just football suicide,” ranted former Chelsea-player-turned pundit Craig Burley “He’s too weak, he’s got no positional sense, he’s not very strong in the tackle and will be outmuscled.”
Burley’s assessment was the very definition of hyperbolic, and if Blind’s performances are anything to go by, pretty wide of the mark too. Blind isn’t muscular, lacks pace and isn’t dominant aerially, but the Dutchman is a clever player who actually fits into Van Gaal’s philosophy seamlessly.
The snappily titled The Coaching Philosophies of Louis van Gaal and the Ajax Coaches, by Henny Kormelink and Tjeu Seeverens, sheds light into the mindset of the United’s manager. There are parallels with what Van Gaal did back then with the Amsterdam giants and what he’s trying to implement at Old Trafford. Right down to using Blind as a playmaker.
Kormelink and Seeverens highlight that centre-backs have “really become the playmakers” in the modern game, bearing in mind their book was published in 1997. Daley’s father Danny was crucial to how Van Gaal’s Ajax operated too, functioning as the creative source of the team’s attack as well as being able to defend.
The book’s analysis of how van Gaal views his defence is fascinating; the pair highlight that Dutch ‘trainer-coach’ doesn’t like to select ‘pure defenders’ as centre-backs. The ‘number four’ is tasked with making the play too. He must know when to move forward into midfield to start attacks and when make the key passes. When the opponent has the ball the same player must know when to press, when to sit in front of the defence, and how to keep the unit compact.
Chris Smalling is developing along those lines in taking giant leaps this season, but it is Blind who fits the bill as the playmaking centre-back. Kormelink’s and Seeverens’ insight puts the United manager’s decision in context – indeed it makes sense that Van Gaal would opt to play Blind at the back.
There’s also the homogeneity of 4-2-3-1 as the formation of choice in the Premier League to consider as well. With one striker facing two centre-backs there’s both the license and space for a footballing defender to be included in United’s line-up, and to use the ball intelligently, rather than deploying two pure stoppers who can defend, but give up possession cheaply.
To buck the trend Watford used two strikers at the weekend. Hence Van Gaal restored Phil Jones to the centre of defence, shifting Blind to left-back. The redeployment didn’t stop Blind from playing a fantastic ball over the top for Jesse Lingard to run on to.
Then there’s the ‘bus parking’ factor. With lesser teams inclined to sit back and defend against United the onus is on the Reds’ defenders to make the play, as the final third is always compact, with space for creative players at a premium. Jones may provide more defensive solidity against tougher opponents, but against teams looking to sit, Blind’s ability to pick a pass is crucial.
One consequence of Blind playing as part of a back four is that it encourages the Dutchman to play more forward passes. Last season the Dutchman, who was used as a defensive midfielder and left-back, made 1540 passes with 32.1 per cent going backwards and 67.9 per cent going forwards. Gary Neville was critical of Blind last term and accused the Dutchman of taking too few risks with his passing.
This season Blind has made 649 passes with 77.8 per cent going forward. Contrast that with Chris Smalling who has made 620 passes, but forward 70.3 per cent of the time. Smalling may be the defensive leader in that partnership, but Blind is the playmaking lynchpin. Blind’s crowning performance came against Liverpool where he scored a smartly worked free-kick, cleared two goal bound efforts off the line, and marshaled the back four to cap off a Neville-approved Man-of-the-Match display.
Blind’s intelligence, coupled with the benefit of having Morgan Schneiderlin as a screen has, for most part, negated the Dutchman’s weakness. It’s no coincidence that Blind was exposed in United’s most chastening defeat – the 3-0 setback against Arsenal – but as a result of Van Gaal’s ill-thought personnel choices and poor tactics rather than the Dutchman’s performance.
Of course, pace and power is Blind’s kryptonite. Against Swansea City the Dutchman was bullied by Bafetimbi Gomis and he, together with the rest of United’s backline, was ripped apart by the pacey Arsenal attack.
“Daley is a slow arse, but he has a brilliant ability to read the game. Those kinds of players always survive,” said Van Gaal in typically blunt fashion. “It isn’t about how much pace you have, but whether you have the ability to spot what is going to happen quicker”.
Blind’s lack of pace prevents him from being the very best, but his football brain and game intelligence ensures that he’ll rarely let anybody down, save for the odd comedy disallowed own goal in the league cup of course.
Blind is a survivor too. The 25-year-old was nearly sold by Ajax to Groningen having spent time on loan at the northern Netherlands side. He was the target of the Ajax fans’ ire at one time, but soon got them onside in winning the club’s Player of the Year trophy in the 2012/13 season. Blind secured the Dutch Player of the Year trophy a year later to cap a remarkable comeback.
He’s steelier than most pundits give him credit for too, despite looking like he belongs in a 1990s boy band. It has led to some big-name fans too, including Paul McGrath, who knows a good footballer when he sees one.
“You need someone who can take the ball down and go ‘no, I’m not just going to lash it forward or play it square,’ and Daley Blind is a beautiful footballer,” said McGrath. “I would love to have played with someone like that, with someone who’d pass it across to you and say ‘you deal with it now and if you need to give it back to me, give it back to me.’ Daley Blind is one of those and, I swear to Christ, he’s going to be a huge United player.”
That’s overstating Blind’s importance, but the Dutchman is a reliable component of Van Gaal’s reinvigorated United side.
It remains to be seen if Van Gaal’s successor will continue to use Blind as a central defender or revert to a more orthodox stopper. Whatever the Dutchman’s replacement does, he’d be wise not discount the merits of a man who can make Van Gaal and Cruyff see eye to eye. A rare quality.
In the meantime, Blind is playing his part in United’s chase for trophies. Goodness knows he needs the practice.
All data, Squawka.
Is it something in the water? The knee injury suffered by Daley Blind on international duty this week is the 39th such setback Manchester United’s squad has faced since Louis van Gaal officially took charge on 15 July. From Michael Carrick’s damaged ankle two days into pre-season, to David De Gea’s finger, popped out of position during Spain’s training session last week, it has been a campaign of injury misfortune and, perhaps, mismanagement.
Blind limped off 20 minutes of Netherland’s 6-0 victory over Latvia on Friday night, with Dutch coach Guus Hiddink claiming that the 24-year-old may have “twisted and ruptured” a medial ligament. It is an injury that could keep the £14 million signing on the sidelines for months not weeks if confirmed in the coming days. The former Ajax midfielder revealed little in the aftermath, although speculation is running from four weeks in the physio room to a premature end to the Dutchman’s season.
It is just one more stroke of bad luck in what is becoming a disastrous pattern for United.
United’s veteran coach could have done with far better luck this season – up to 10 Reds have been absent at any one time. Joining De Gea and Blind out of next weekend’s fixture with Arsenal will be Carrick – who has a “minor groin injury” – Marcos Rojo, Ashley Young, and Jesse Lingard. There is no guarantee that any of Jonny Evans, Phil Jones, Rafael da Silva or Radamel Falcao will be match fit by Saturday.
Carrick’s latest problem comes after a season of fitness problems for the Geordie, while De Gea will receive intensive treatment on a dislocated finger in a bid to negate the ‘worst case scenario’ of four weeks on the sidelines. Either way former Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdés, who is training with the club, is yet to be offered or accept a contract with United and cannot play at the Emirates.
The latest setback leaves Van Gaal with a choice between Tyler Blackett, Patrick McNair and Chris Smalling in the centre of defence in north London. There is little in the way of defensive midfield alternatives either. Indeed, United’s back five at the Emirates could well read: Anders Lindegaard, Antonio Valencia, Blackett, McNair and Luke Shaw.
In midfield United enjoys a raft of attacking talent, even if Van Gaal is yet to find the right balance between defensive shape and attacking fluidity. On Saturday the Reds may have little choice but to go for broke with Carrick and Blind out.
Further absences are hardly the news Van Gaal needs with United desperate to pick up some momentum after what has been anything but a consistent opening 11 Premier League games. It is fortunate, some might add, that neither Liverpool, Everton nor Tottenham Hotspur have been able to find a level of consistency either or United may have slipped behind in the quest for European qualification next season.
Damning the Gods of misfortune is only part of the story though. Of United’s 39 recorded injuries this season, around half have been impact-related, with another tranche of muscular, hamstring and ligament damage. It leaves an obvious question: whether Van Gaal’s intensive training methods have contributed to a packed medical centre at Carrington?
Rent-a-quote Dutch fitness trainer Raymond Verheijen was quick to blame his countryman for United’s early season injury list.
“Encouraging to see so many people noticing this year’s ‘pre-season incompetence’,” said the 42-year-old in August.
“Hopefully, one day players will be prepared professionally. LVG is tactically superior to most other coaches but planning and periodisation is not his strongest point. During the World Cup preparation, the Dutch players had to do frequent double sessions, so not surprisingly the muscle injuries accumulated. At United, in the first few weeks, LVG has applied the same approach and, as expected, with the same result.”
Many will dismiss the criticism – after all Verheijen is seldom reticent to berate the methods of others. Yet, Van Gaal moved to question his own approach in September, asking whether he needs to “evaluate how we train” in order to reduced the number of player absences. Whether Van Gaal identified a cause has not been further illuminated; neither, though, has a path to a fully fit squad.
Elsewhere the Dutchman has moved to strengthen United’s response. While the club has spent millions on high-tech medical equipment at Carrington, Van Gaal has already recalled United physios Rod Thornley and Tony Strudwick from part-time assignments with the English national team. The pair will end their involvement following Tuesday’s friendly with Scotland. Strudwick has worked with England since the World Cup, while the Scotland fixture will be Thornley’s 161st with the national team.
It is on the pitch, of course, where United needs a positive news story the most. On Saturday Van Gaal is faced with yet another decision: whether to persist with the 4-4-1-1 formation used to mixed affect in recent weeks, or to tinker once again with United’s tactical makeup.
Van Gaal may yet switch back to deploying three players in the centre of the park at Emirates, with no genuine defensive midfielder in United’s squad and an absence of in-form or experienced central defenders. Marouanne Fellaini, Ander Herrera and Angel Di Maria may comprise a new three, while Juan Mata, Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Adnan Januzaj may compete for three attacking roles.
Whatever the approach in north London the Dutchman will keenly watch the final round of international fixtures in the coming days. England, with Rooney in tow, faces Scotland in Glasgow, while Argentina – including Di Maria – takes on Portugal at Old Trafford. United can ill afford further unwelcome injury news.
Then there is the longer-term problem – to find a solution to pattern that, superficially at least, has been season-long.
Injury data from Physioroom.com