Louis van Gaal’s "to-do list" upon his arrival at Manchester United is a lengthy one. In fact, he’s already been ticking off tasks over the course of the last month, despite only officially taking charge at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
He’s already found United’s next long-term left-back in Luke Shaw and gone some way to plugging the club’s gaping midfield hole with the signing of Ander Herrera.
But there is still much to be done. For starters, with the exit of both Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic over the summer, Van Gaal needs at least one new centre-back. Then there’s the issue of the future of fringe players like Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling and Shinji Kagawa.
Yet one task has been somewhat overlooked. Van Gaal needs a new winger, and he should do everything he can to sign Arjen Robben. United came close to signing the Dutchman a decade ago; now they should finally bring him to Old Trafford.
The peculiar anomaly when looking at United’s squad is that despite having a number of different options in the wide areas, the wings have become something of a wasteland at the Theatre of Dreams.
Plenty of money has been splashed on finding the next Ryan Giggs, as Sir Alex Ferguson billed Ashley Young, or the next Cristiano Ronaldo, the image Nani has based his entire career on. Yet United’s wings have never been in poorer shape.
With the Netherlands, Van Gaal used a fluid 3-5-2 formation, with flying full-backs Daley Blind and Dirk Kuyt (sometimes Daryl Janmaat) providing the width. But even then, Robben was on hand farther up the pitch to drive at the opposition, cutting inside at will from the touchline.
Every so often, Robben finds a groove whereby he becomes the most dangerous player in the world for 90 minutes, and he found that groove more than once at the World Cup. He is at the peak of his powers right now.
Van Gaal’s entire ideology is reliant on that cutting edge in the final third. Will Nani, Antonio Valencia, Young or Wilfried Zaha bring that next season? It’s a question that in itself illustrates the need for reform on the United wings.
United have been heavily linked with Real Madrid’s Angel Di Maria, as per Charles Reynolds of The Independent, who would certainly fit into Van Gaal’s philosophical model with his tireless worth ethic and pace on the counter.
However, Di Maria comes into this season on the back of an impressive year as a central midfielder at Real Madrid. Some claim, including Squawka's Jack Watson, he is European football’s most improved player over the past season, but that improvement has come in the middle of the pitch, not out on the wings.
From every perspective, Robben is perfect for Van Gaal’s Manchester United. He is the player who would confirm the club’s status as a European force again, assuming deals for other targets like Arturo Vidal and Mats Hummels can be reached.
The problem for United is that with Nani signing a five-year contract with the club last summer, and the ink barely dry on Antonio Valencia’s new three-year deal, improvement on the wings is somewhat incremental. How can United shift players that are so tightly tied to them?
United have to be encouraged by what they saw from Van Gaal at the World Cup. The 62-year-old took what was a largely inexperienced, unproven and young side and turned them into a coherent and exciting unit, making it all the way to the semi-finals.
But that side was still punctuated by genuinely world-class players in the form of Robin van Persie and Robben. And United are in desperate need of world-class players.
So how realistic would the prospect of signing Robben, arguably Bayern Munich’s best player, be for Van Gaal and Manchester United?
On the face of it, not very. In Pep Guardiola’s Bayern, Robben is his Lionel Messi. Within the tactical constraints of the "new Bayern Munich," the Dutchman is the one player afforded the freedom to break free of the shackles, giving the Bavarians the edge of unpredictability that all successful teams have. Why would Bayern let him leave?
Well, at 30 years old, he has just tipped into that period in a player’s career when their value starts to plummet. And then there’s the close understanding he seems to have with Van Gaal. Could the player himself force a move?
“I have a special bond with him,” Robben explained, as per Jeremy Wilson of The Telegraph, when asked about his relationship with Van Gaal. “He is the most important coach in my career. After the match he did ask me to come to Manchester.”
It must be noted that Robben made such comments with a playful smirk spread across his face, also clarifying that he is happy in Germany, but there is no doubting the connection he enjoys with Van Gaal. United might stand only a slim chance of signing Robben, but they should at least test Bayern Munich’s resolve. The reward outweighs the risk.
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