Following every win that Manchester United recorded during their stay in the United States I was incredibly quick to remind myself that it was merely just a bit of ‘pre-season flak’ and that it meant absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. The only thing that matters about pre-season is that pre-season doesn’t matter.
That being said, it’s becoming increasingly challenging to ignore the clubs current predicament purely because it is such juxtaposition to last year’s events. 5 games, 5 wins, 16 goals scored and only 4 conceded makes for really pleasant reading. Even more so when you match that up against the clubs pre-season under David Moyes; 7 games, 2 wins, 2 draws and 3 lost, scoring 16 in the process but conceding 13. Manchester United seem to be turning a slight corner already; they are playing under a proven system and a philosophy, the belief in what is being taught is significantly higher than the regime they were previously forced to follow. Due to this confidence starts to be creeping back into the Manchester United squad ever so slowly. Should Swansea turn out to be a formality the confidence will further heighten and last seasons trauma will begin to feel like an insignificant bad dream. Despite the 100% record so far, there are still things to critique and analyse. So what exactly can we take from the past 5 games?
Another central defender is needed
With the new 3-4-1-2 system in place, more emphasis is placed on the technical side of being a centre back. The days of launching the ball into the stands is over for the likes of Evans, Smalling and Jones if they want a future under Louis van Gaal. 3 defenders spread across the back line instead of 4 means that if the ball is handled with composure it can make its way to the attacking third more efficiently.
That being said, if it isn’t handled with enough composure then problems begin to unfold. Although he is a wonderful defender Phil Jones doesn’t quite possess that equilibrium to be the main man who dictates proceedings from the back. Rio Ferdinand in his hay-day would have been an ideal candidate for that role, but unfortunately he’s no longer competent to play at a top club due to his fading strength and pace. Playing against teams that press high up the pitch will turn out to be very challenging for Phil Jones.
Having already conceded 3 penalties, the demand for an experienced defender who is firstly familiar to the system operating under Louis van Gaal, secondly able to stay on his feet and read situations capably, but lastly and somewhat most importantly is able to bring calmness and composure to Manchester United’s defensive line is a essential if Manchester United are going to launch any sort of title bid.
Fullbacks can provide width when necessary
The persistent use of wingers last season was potentially the biggest tactical blunder made by the Manchester United coaching staff during David Moyes’ unsuccessful reign. It resulted in a lot of unsuccessful crosses and balls that were originally intended for a winger from the centre aimlessly drifting off the pitch or being intercepted. It heaped more pressure on the fullbacks and meant possession was squandered all too often.
So plaudits must go to Louis van Gaal for changing the way the team operated. The focus on intricate one touch passing in the final third has been there for all to see during Manchester United’s pre-season, Louis van Gaal must have squirmed in his seat when he saw 81 crosses against Fulham merit no reward whatsoever and decided that width will come only when an opposition defence is playing very narrow or when one touch passing and movement isn’t having its desired effect.
In pre-season, we saw width mainly being exploited from counterattacks. This is done through the endeavours of Valencia and Shaw; who tend to bomb down the flank when the opposition is very much on the back foot and short in numbers in defence. More commonly you would see them making efforts to get the ball into the feet of Manchester United’s attacking players in the final third as opposed to lumping it onto their head
Ashley Young may have a use after all
I felt a bit sorry for Ashley Young towards the end of last season, a player who gives absolutely everything whenever he gets the chance was undoubtedly heading out the door. His handling of the ball was inconsistent and his crosses were wayward (to put it nicely) under David Moyes, but you couldn’t fault his work rate at all.
Under Louis van Gaal however, he seems to have rediscovered some form. By being used as a wingback Young has the opportunity to utilise his excellent stamina and work rate to a fuller extent, his defensive game will require some work when it comes to the technical side of things but his commitment to the cause has meant that Louis van Gaal may actually elect to pick Young for the Swansea game over Shaw due to his superior energy levels. On top of that, Young is going through a significant advance in confidence, which is invariably benefitting the attacking side of his game. Remember when he first joined and some people said he was the best crosser of the ball to play for Manchester United since David Beckham? His performance against Liverpool certainly evoked memories of those days to an extent.
Herrera is an incredibly important player
The performances of Ander Herrera during pre-season have been really encouraging. Although he hasn’t come under the astringent test of the relentless pace that the Premier League provides, he looks very comfortable in a United shirt. His forward thinking mentality is refreshing, his passing accuracy and timing is very impressive and his touch on the ball is typically Spanish. In other words, it’s very good indeed.
Playing alongside Fletcher helps Herrera and playing alongside Herrera helps Fletcher; the stability and pragmatic approach displayed by the experienced Scot means Herrera has the license to focus more on contributing to attacks rather than worrying about leaving the defence too exposed. Fletcher benefits from Herrera’s presence due to the fact that the Spaniard’s supreme technical ability sucks in more players and allows him an extended period of time to make decisions and move the ball forward. Herrera plays a very important part in making Louis van Gaal’s quick one-touch interplay tactics materialise.
The general consensus is that the Manchester United of old is making its long awaited return, but it’s important to recognise that adapting to an entirely new philosophy and formation takes some time and patience. The first few months of the Van Gaal era may not be as rosy as some are anticipating. That being said, there is a rediscovered hope and optimism amongst the club and I for one cannot wait to get back to Old Trafford next Saturday, bring on Swansea.