Individual failure at the World Cup was the greatest thing to happen to Manchester United this summer.
Amongst the constant banter regarding Arturo Vidal’s future, United was back to business at the Guinness International Champions Cup. The Red Devils were undefeated in four matches at the pre-season tournament, including victories over European champions Real Madrid and rivals Liverpool.
Silverware was a distant fantasy throughout David Moyes’ tenure, as the Scotsman only has a Community Shield triumph against Championship side Wigan last season, with United finishing in seventh place; a club low in the Premier League era. The World Cup didn’t provide a change of fortune for the United players, as only the likes of Javier Hernandez, Marouane Fellaini, and Adnan Januzaj –– with Hernandez and Januzaj playing a bit-part role in Brazil –– progressed past the group-stage.
Juan Mata and David de Gea were forced to watch Holland and Chile blitz Spain, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck couldn’t lift a youthful English side past Italy or Uruguay, Antonio Valencia’s Ecuador lacked quality on both ends, and neither Shinji Kagawa nor Nani could serve as a catalyst for their respected nations when it mattered. Then there was Robin van Persie, who vastly declined subsequent to Holland’s opening match, but captained a side that came within spot-kicks of returning to the World Cup final.
Holland left Brazil unbeaten, claiming victories against Spain, Chile and Brazil, and their success was down to Louis van Gaal’s tactical tinkering. Van Gaal, the antithesis of Moyes, didn’t receive time to reflect on a successful World Cup campaign, though, as he was handed the responsibility to make amends for United’s disappointing season.
And in little under a month we’re beginning to see United take shape.
The drive to impress van Gaal and win football games has been displayed in the discipline and work ethic both on and off the ball. In what was undoubtedly a forgettable spell at Old Trafford, the hunger that United lacked under Moyes was evident.
The contrast between Moyes and van Gaal is vast. From the experience at the highest level, to their football philosophy, and the level of confidence and arrogance that both men possess, van Gaal appears to be a significant upgrade. He’s won league titles in three different countries, and failing to feature in the World Cup final has left a fire under his belly to become a champion once again.
In fairness, preseason results are irrelevant; it’s an opportunity to see what combinations work, improve fitness, and assess the squad at your disposal. Still, the hunger, and increased signs of improvement –– although United couldn’t get any worse –– have given fans a sense of optimism as we approach opening weekend.
Majority of van Gaal’s success, however, was achieved in the previous millennium, where he was handed time and patience to instill his philosophy. Van Gaal may not receive that luxury at Old Trafford, so his intent on winning the fans over and claiming silverware –– regardless of its significance –– was integral.
The departures of veteran’s Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, and Patrice Evra marks the dawn of a new era at Old Trafford, and van Gaal’s preference to work with younger players should lead to a smoother transition. The days of the traditional 4-4-2, and United’s persistence to solely play down the wings under Moyes is of the past, as stylistically, van Gaal is administering a different approach that offers variety in attack.
By no means is van Gaal a tactical genius. Frankly, the Dutchman is similar to Jose Mourinho, as he ensures his players stick to their tasks with devastating efficiency. Van Gaal, though, may be methodical like his Portuguese rival, but he’ll provide United with flexibility. He’ll alter from a three-man to a four-man defence, as he prefers to have a spare man in defence to retain possession, but also withhold a numerical advantage out of possession.
While Moyes’ decisions were often peculiar and heavily questioned, van Gaal displayed his ability to alter games on the fly. A change to a 4-3-3 against Mexico led to Arjen Robben’s dominance, and the decision to call upon Tim Krul in a penalty shootout is one of the standout storylines at the World Cup.
Equally, apart from the personnel, there’s very little separating Holland’s approach at the World Cup to United’s displays in pre-season. The swift transitional attacks, high-pressing and defensive line, along with the man marking in midfield has been evident.
The young English duo of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones will get their chance to mature and prove their worth alongside one of United’s most consistent performers over the past few seasons in Jonny Evans.
Their athleticism will enable United to play a high-line –– an option that proved suicidal with Ferdinand and Vidic in the XI –– and although the risk of the opposition exploiting space behind the trio is likely, United’s chances of winning the ball in advanced positions will increase. Smalling’s performances in preseason, however, has forced van Gaal into the transfer market as he searches for a versatile centre-back, but stellar displays in Brazil from Dirk Kuyt and Ron Vlaar should serve as a sign of optimism for Red Devils fans.
The arrival of Ander Herrera provides United with the dynamism and penetration from central areas that they’ve severely lacked in recent years. Van Gaal also appears capable of resurrecting careers at the Theatre of Dreams. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia have solidified their roles as adequate replacements for Luke Shaw and Rafael at the wingback position, with the former scoring goals and creating quality chances on both flanks.
Equally, Darren Fletcher’s transition into a deep-lying passer led to a few man-of-the match performances that could see him feature sporadically this season if he can cope with the pace of a competitive match.
The highpoint from United’s tour across the United States was the production from the front three. Danny Welbeck’s tactical discipline remains one of the England international’s key traits, but Rooney and Mata –– players that have been chastised over their defensive work in big games –– were equally impressive in and out of possession.
Rooney’s tendency to impress when his position is under threat is unsurprising, but whether the 28-year-old and van Gaal can maintain a fruitful relationship, along with his maintaining his fitness levels throughout the season is up in the air.
Mata, on the other hand, is now playing in his preferred no.10 role in van Gaal’s 3-4-1-2. Not only does the Spaniard receive the space to offer creativity, but van Gaal’s direct style has seen Mata’s verticality reap rewards as he’s playing at the level that saw the 26-year-old transition into a world-class player at Chelsea.
If Mata, van Persie and Rooney can fire on all cylinders, and still have Welbeck, Javier Hernandez and the pace of Adnan Januzaj and Wilfried Zaha available, it’s evident that United’s strength lies in their attack.
Still, claiming the Premier League in the first season will be a stern challenge for van Gaal, considering the competition that awaits the Dutchman. Majority of the teams that finished ahead of the Red Devils have improved over the summer, while United have a month to sort out there issues in midfield and defence.
Ultimately, United lack the depth of Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City in midfield and defence. For instance, if Herrera were to get injured, Tom Cleverley or Marouane Fellaini –– conservative sideways passers –– would slot into midfield. Despite Fletcher’s impressive preseason, it’s key to note that he’s an unreliable option due to his health and fitness conditions.
Likewise, if Jones, Smalling or Evans were unavailable, van Gaal would be forced to turn to his academy players. This isn’t necessarily a bad option, but not an issue a Premier League title winner would be forced into.
This was never a job destined to be fixed in one season, and not only is a place in the top four an attainable goal, but it should also be deemed a success if they finish in a Champions League spot. United has a relatively manageable schedule until October, along with no European competition burden, so the possibility of replicating Liverpool’s success of last season isn’t too farfetched.
However, it would take something special to overtake the complete squads that Chelsea and Manchester City possess.
Considering the timing, van Gaal and United appear to be the perfect match, as the Red Devils aim to return amongst the Premier League’s elite sides.