Preview of the Premier League season, with transfer news and tactical predictions!
In his second Premier League season preview Alex Keble analyses Man United, and highlights why Louis van Gaal’s team should be considered favourites for the title…
After a season of endless tactical tweaks and wildly inconsistent form, Manchester United’s transition season felt strangely satisfying. At times ruthlessly organised and at others lost in the wilderness, Louis van Gaal’s preference for meticulously composed tactical fluidity was incongruous with the mishmash of ageing, 90s-specialised players at his disposal.
The palpable tension gradually eroded van Gaal’s idealism, and as his careful sculpting of a fresh tactical model was finally crushed and hurled at the wall in Fergie-esque frenzy, United ended the season in ferocious, Fellaini-centric attacking football.
But the foundations for an aesthetically perfected Dutch philosophy were quietly laid in those early months, and a frantic spending spree on tactically intelligent, positionally fluid players has swept aside memories of a fricative first season in England. Twelve months on from his appointment, van Gaal is in exactly the position he wanted to be.
Strengths in 2014/15
Both a blessing and a curse, United’s tactical versatility certainly helped them clutch a top four finish despite unresolvable tensions plaguing their foundations. The primary reason for this was van Gaal’s superb defensive coaching; whatever the latest attacking strategy scrawled hastily on the dressing room wall, the overall shape – compact, united, drifting across as one – was cemented in November and remained relatively stable throughout.
Van Gaal used a rotational policy – in formation, personnel, and player position – to help illuminate which United players were capable of adapting to the transitional fluidity and swarming total football that he wishes to cultivate. In Andre Herrera, Wayne Rooney, Antonio Valencia, and Ashley Young he revealed hidden depths of tactical intelligence that will prove invaluable next season.
Many questioned his preference for players like Young and Valencia, but as his signings last summer – Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, and Herrera – showed, his philosophy requires great tactical intelligence and the ability to play in numerous positions, functioning selflessly as part of a constantly shape-shifting unit. It was no surprise to see more rigidly defined players like Robin van Persie and Adnan Januzaj regularly shunned.
United’s key strength last season was the investigatory depth of their manager and the extent to which, both tactically and technically, he now fully recognises the strengths and weaknesses of his team, and possesses a clear vision for next season.
Weaknesses in 2014/15
The greatest weakness at Old Trafford was the complete abandonment of van Gaal’s philosophy as the campaign progressed, with the final few months exactly mimicking the attacking strategies of the Ferguson era. With direct, long balls out to pacey wingers, Wayne Rooney up front, and a strong central midfielder (Fellaini) linking up with a passer (Carrick), the modernisation of Manchester United disappeared.
However, this admittance of tactical defeat was largely an acceptance of the stubbornness of the players he inherited and the necessity of Champions’ League qualification. This brand of football will not be tolerated in 2015/16.
Their woes up front – where RVP and Falcao looked desperately unfit – were exacerbated by an overall lack of versatility in wide areas. No United winger/wide forward seemed capable of adding goals, bursting into the box, or linking creatively with the lone striker. However, we can expect Angel Di Maria to improve significantly in this role.
Transfers: Completed deals and Future targets
Van Gaal’s business has been swift and assured, with a wonderful array of versatile talent signed to fill the gaps that made his fluid tactical philosophy unattainable last season. Morgan Schneiderlin is seen as a long-term replacement for 34-year-old Michael Carrick, and his stronger defensive work should stabilise a midfield that was occasionally flimsy (such as in the 3-0 defeat to a gritty, battling Everton side led by James McCarthy).
The capture of Bastian Schweinsteiger is the acquisition that could lead United to glory. A sweeping central midfielder whose vertical slaloms help sew the lines together, the German’s seamless interplay and constant movement could be the catalyst, the beating heart, of the van Gaal vision. Blind was often asked to fill this role last season, but lacked the energy, forward-moving confidence, and boisterous strength that Schweinsteiger will inject.
Memphis Depay, like all of the new signings, is capable of player in a number of positions, works tirelessly for the team, and understands the importance of positional fluency; his versatile approach to wing-play will dramatically improve their goalscoring threat and create the buzzing rotational bamboozling van Gaal is aiming for.
Their summer will not be considered a success until a world-class centre-back – capable of organising both a two and three man defence – joins, a striker is signed, and the goalkeeper situation is sorted. With Sergio Ramos and a “surprise” striker still a possibility, van Gaal has little to worry about.
The tactical oddity and bemusing inconsistency of last season is highly unlikely to trouble Man United in 2015/16. The foundations have been implemented expertly over the past twelve months, and a significant turnover in playing staff has helped eradicate the inflexible players that necessitated the strangely anti-van Gaal tactics of the Spring. After a full summer working with his players, expect them to hit the ground running. Back Man United to beat Spurs by two goals at 15/4.
With world-class talent spread densely through a large squad of versatile, energetic, tactically intelligent players, van Gaal’s squad is nearing perfect. One or two more signings and the Premier League title will be theirs to lose. Back Man United to win the league at 19/4.
Alex Keble – @alexkeble