Lessons from last season
Manchester United were taught numerous lessons on the pitch last season, whether at the hands of neighbours City at the Etihad, arch rivals Liverpool at Old Trafford or even lowly Sunderland in the League Cup. Perhaps the most pertinent lesson to take from the annus horribilis would be not trusting an alarmingly under qualified manager to succeed one of the greatest bosses the sport has ever seen. It was a ridiculous decision to from Sir Alex Ferguson to award David Moyes the job; he was apparently “cut from the same cloth” but all he did was tear United’s title defence to shreds.
Moyes is a decent man but he was so terribly out of his depth he drowned amid expectation last season. Stating that the blood drained from his face when he was told he would succeed Ferguson hinted at the enormous pressure he felt under from day one.
Conversely, Louis van Gaal is football royalty; a league-winning manager across multiple countries and the respect he will command is clear. Witness the witless performances from Moyes’ United in matches against Fulham at home last season. Or Olympiakos away, Stoke away, West Brom and Newcastle at home. The list is an embarrassment. Van Gaal won’t stand for that and you sense the players will be jolted from their slumber thanks to his arrival. They need to be.
The manager, two new players and a new shirt sponsor worth around £47 million a year (although the latter doesn’t kick in until 2015/16).
Ultimately, though, not enough is new. The embarrassed, deposed champions are days away from trying to rectify last season’s wreckage but despite grandiose claims from executive vice chairman Ed Woodward that the club can break the world transfer record, incomings remain sought after but not secured.
Luke Shaw could end up becoming a bargain at £27m if United get enough years from him while Ander Herrera -another Moyes target - arrives 12 months after the scarcely believable Three Stooges debacle. Both have impressed in a strong pre-season for United, with the latter possessing the graft and guile this midfield so badly needs. He needs help, though. A central midfielder, perhaps two defenders and a wing-back remain necessities but Woodward and United have had a slow window. There’s still time, of course,but Woodward is under immense pressure to deliver.
It is difficult to imagine United having another season like last time out under Van Gaal. The “Iron Tulip” has already made his mark on the squad, with performances in pre-season suggesting they are adapting to his new 3-5-2 (or variations thereof) formation.
This is a man who once waltzed into FC Hollywood (aka Bayern Munich), dropped his trousers and pointed to his nether regions to show he had the, er, guts to make tough decisions. It’s easy to laud a manager through past stories but contemporary examples back up the point that Van Gaal could be United’s biggest strength.
Where Moyes claimed last season he was reluctant to substitute Robin van Persie because people would question him, Van Gaal removed the Dutchman during a World Cup knockout match and his replacement scored the winner to send Netherlands through at the expense of Mexico. While Moyes had dithered, Van Gaal was decisive.
Elsewhere, Juan Mata is a glorious footballer who will thrive in his preferred No. 10 position, Wayne Rooney appears leaner and eager to make an impact and Herrera has boosted a midfield in need of major work. Ironically, United’s weakness last season could end up becoming their biggest strength. The ignominy of finishing seventh means no European football this season but as Liverpool proved last term, that could allow the club to solely - and successfully - focus on domestic matters.
Again, just like last season and the five seasons before that, central midfield remains a glaring issue. The paucity of options for a club this size - and the systematic neglect of central midfield that includes Ferguson’s reign - means United are soft in the centre. Ferguson opting to use Park Ji-sung and Rafael in central midfield against Blackburn on New Year’s Eve 2011 instead of Paul Pogba continues to grate and look ridiculous. The Frenchman got fed up and left - how United could use him now.
Elsewhere, central defence has suddenly become an area of concern. Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra have all left this summer and if United want to play three at the back, they had better hope for more luck with injuries as Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans have all spent too long in the treatment room. Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra and Ryan Giggs made 2,097 appearances and won 80 medals at United - that’s a lot of experience to lose from the field.
Ferguson’s man-management was laudable to such an extent his tactical acumen was overlooked. Indeed, it became almost a cliché that he wasn’t too up on his tactics when in fact he had undoubted nous in this area. However, his ability there is not as strong as Van Gaal, whose surgical approach to setting his team out is impressive even in the embryonic stage of his reign.
Simply, he knows what he’s doing. Mata doesn’t have chalk on his boots like he did out wide, shunted to the sideline under Moyes. It’s the little things.
Van Gaal barely had his feet under the table at United this season before calling the bulldozers into the AON Training Complex to get some trees planted as it was “too windy” for his players to train. He flew scout Marcel Bout 3,700 miles just to watch Valencia as part of preparations for United’s friendly - the man’s attention to detail is impressive.
Anecdotes regarding the Dutchman and his suitability for the job are plenty, so let’s just leave it to the official Manchester United website, introducing the current manager and his predecessor, for a look at how things are better now.
David Moyes appointed: David, 50, has been the Everton managed since 2002, joining after a successful spell as manager of Preston North End.
Louis van Gaal appointed: Louis, 62, has managed at the top level of European football for over 20 years and in that time has won domestic titles and domestic cups in three countries, as well as the UEFA Champions League, the UEFA Cup, an Intercontinental Cup, two UEFA Super Cups and domestic Super Cups in Holland and Germany.
Juan Mata. The two-time Chelsea Player of the Year showed glimpses of his undoubted talent after joining in January and that was made all the more impressive by the fact he wasn’t even being used properly.
He will figure prominently this time around in a central position behind the striker(s), with his incisive passing and clever movement a critical focal point of the attack. It’s easy to say the likes of Rooney and Van Persie will be key too, but other mentions must go to Evans, a supremely talented defender who has impressed Van Gaal, and Herrera, who is really the only player of note in a desperate midfield.
The lack of European football will allow United to focus on the league but even with Van Gaal in charge, a title charge looks beyond this team at present. They need signings and if Woodward manages to seal a deal or two, perhaps a higher finish wouldn’t be out of the question.