10 Changes Louis Van Gaal Must Make at Manchester United
Whilst Louis van Gaal’s attention must surely be dominated by his current job, in his quiet moments he is already perhaps considering the changes he needs to make at Manchester United.
In order to allow him to free up his time to think about the Netherlands team, here is a handy list of 10 adjustments he will need to make when he arrives at Old Trafford. You're welcome, Louis!
Manchester United’s central midfield problems have been around so long we have reached the point where folk musicians will write ballads about them.
"They tried to replace the force of Roy Keane, they gave Michael Carrick the No. 16…"
Either way, addressing the issue remains critical. David Moyes attempted to address it by signing Marouane Fellaini, but it is fair to say the problem remains.
United lack a destroyer in the centre of the park, but they also lack goals and creativity from their deeper lying players. Carrick registered one goal and no assists in the 2013/14 league season.
Van Gaal’s first task should be to strengthen the ranks in midfield.
Find a Defense for the Future
Now that Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand have left, Van Gaal will have to discover how much faith he can put in two of the triumvirate of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans. All three have had injury troubles in the past few seasons and finding a settled pairing will be crucial.
And speaking of injury troubles, it is vital that Van Gaal finds better cover for Rafael at right-back than either Smalling or Jones, neither of whom excel away from the centre of defense.
At left-back, this is likely to be Patrice Evra’s last season with the club. The goalkeeper is looking like the only settled position of the defensive unit, and Van Gaal will have to establish his back four quickly and efficiently for his United to succeed.
This one is less of a challenge for Van Gaal, a manager with a history of revolutionising the tactical systems of the clubs he takes charge of.
Whilst he has experimented with 3-5-2 for Holland and played 4-2-3-1 at Bayern, he is mostly synonymous with 4-3-3.
Moyes’ 4-4-2 is not likely to be on show under Van Gaal, and nor should it, given it did not get anything close to the best out of United’s players.
Moyes’ placing of Wayne Rooney continues even with the Scot far away from Old Trafford, per Oliver Holt in the Mirror. Little more need be said about Moyes' apparently blind loyalty to "Wayne," as he never fails to call him.
Suffice it to say, in spite of the infamously lucrative contract, Van Gaal should ensure Rooney’s place in the pecking order is earned on merit rather than reputation.
Rendering Rooney effectively un-droppable may have kept the striker out of Chelsea’s clutches, but there is a cost beyond just the financial implications of having a player whose performance levels are not key to determining where and when he plays.
In building a true meritocracy at United, Van Gaal will earn both the respect of the fans and success. He must be prepared to play Rooney based on the team's best interests, rather than Rooney's.
Put Football First
United are, of course, a club with significant commercial considerations.
Sponsored to the hilt, with official partners in a variety of industries, the commercial side of things crosses a line from distasteful to non-commercially minded fans, to actively harmful to the team when it comes to pre-season.
Last season saw a tour of Australia and the Far-East, and the season before saw a long tour of the United States, which will be repeated this year.
In February, Jamie Jackson of the Guardian reported that United could be planning to replace revenue lost from their absence from European competition with a series of lucrative friendlies.
Van Gaal should ensure that footballing success is prized above revenue generation.
Restore Faith in the Ability to Win Games Late on
Gary Neville, speaking on Sky Sports in the aftermath of Moyes’ sacking in April said it was the players’ lack of confidence which had cost Moyes his job (h/t the Mirror)
That lack of belief was almost palpable amongst fans in the ground, and those following along on social-media. "Can Manchester United score, they always score" felt a world apart from a United side who barely managed a comeback win all season.
Engendering the belief that not giving up is part of the United way will be a key task for Van Gaal.
Address the Apparent Culture of Complacency
Complacency is not a quality that was associated with Sir Alex Ferguson’s United sides. One of his most remarkable achievements was to ensure that champions almost always remained hungry for more success the following season.
Players like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes were indoctrinated into the belief that success was to be enjoyed fleetingly, before work began anew. Last season several analysts noticed that United appeared to be showing signs of complacency.
It is vital that this is removed from the squad, and that the hunger to win once again comes to the fore.
End the Misuse of Mata and Kagawa
Moyes’ use of creative players was amongst the most frustrating aspects of his time in charge. Shinji Kagawa and Juan Mata were both used away from their favoured positions, but more crucial than that, they were used outside of their favoured roles in those positions.
Both Kagawa and Mata can play from wide positions when they are given the freedom to roam. This was well evidenced by United’s victory over West Ham back in March when Moyes moved away from his commitment to a fixed 4-4-2.
However, this kind of performance did not happen often enough under Moyes and finding a way to get the best out of some of United’s finest players is crucial to Van Gaal's potential success.
Get the Best out of the Wingers, or Get Some New Ones
And speaking of getting the best out of players, Van Gaal’s system should allow United’s wingers to flourish. However, there are significant issues to be addressed.
United’s wingers either have problems with their fundamental quality, their consistency, or both. In the season just gone, one which saw a heavy reliance on wing play, their output was well below the level expected of a player at the highest level.
In the league, Antonio Valencia managed two goals and three assists in 29 games, Ashley Young two goals and one assist in 20 games, and Nani produced neither a goal nor an assist in his 11 games.
A dismal return from the wide men, then, and one Van Gaal will have to seek to improve upon. Whether an improvement in form and confidence will see a sharp improvement in results, or whether new players will need to be brought in remains to be seen.
Bring Back the Swagger
This is an inherently subjective point, but last season, one of the things that seemed most missing from United’s play was a sense of swagger.
United at their best under Ferguson were a team that played with the courage of their convictions. Of course, results were sometimes ground out, but the iconic moments of the Ferguson era were generally brought about by United finding the best in themselves.
Think of Eric Cantona’s cocksure posture, Roy Keane’s blend of silk and sharpened steel and Paul Scholes’ sublime passing. More recently, Cristiano Ronaldo’s outlandish free-kicks, Robin van Persie’s goal of the season against Aston Villa in 2012/13 and Danny Welbeck’s goal in the Bernabeu.
The quality exists in the squad. With the right additions Van Gaal could have United firing again. Whether trophies follow or not (and they often do), playing with style and swagger is surely the United way.
All stats from ESPN FC, unless otherwise stated.
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