Louis van Gaal’s first season at Manchester United has been fun to watch from a neutral point of view. Big signings failing to make an impact, players who were once thrown on the scrap-heap coming back to prove their worth, a philosophical battle between 3-5-2 and 4-3-3…we’ve seen it all. Here to give us a United perspective on the whole season, is Ken Frampton. Follow Ken on Twitter at @kframpton
The 2014/15 campaign for Manchester United has been one of frustration, elation and almost every other emotion in between. But, with one match remaining, the club have attained their stated goal of Champion’s League qualification – albeit the dangerous kind with an August playoff to be negotiated before entry to the group stage.
It’s also safe to say that the new regime of Louis van Gaal still has some serious work to do if United are to return to the top of the European heap – or even the English one. Chelsea won the league at a canter, and the current MUFC squad lacks in depth, quality and the ability to stay healthy.
Another extraordinarily busy summer in the transfer market lies ahead. Let’s hope for key business to be done early [like the Memphis Depay deal] and to bring more proven quality. But first, let’s review…
As the World Cup wrapped up in mid-July, Reds were buzzing at the prospect of Netherlands boss Louis van Gaal taking over for the disastrously out of his depth figure of David Moyes. Here was a manager with a proper pedigree who would not ‘aspire to be like City’ one day.
The pre-season tour of the USA showed us some new players, a new formation and a bunch of wins – including one over Real Madrid before a massive crowd in Michigan, and best yet, a victory in the final over Liverpool. Sadly, injuries and a squad struggling to adapt to new tactics led to brutal results in August – including a loss in the Premier League opener against Swansea City and complete embarrassment as United crashed out of the League Cup in their first test, a 4-0 reverse to MK Dons.
As summer turned to fall, things were still a struggle as Red Devils continued to fill the physio room. The bright spot in the autumn was that United appeared to be regaining their Old Trafford swagger [including a draw with Chelsea and triumph over Arsenal], something that was missing under Moyes.
Any optimism generated by the surge in home form was quashed by an absolute collapse away to Leicester City and a loss in the away portion of the Manchester derby. But a season-high, eleven-match unbeaten run would begin soon afterwards. In fact, the winter months proved to be the most promising for the side. Key players got fit, and a change in formation also seemed to give the team more confidence. From December through February, United only lost twice in 18 league and FA Cup matches.
As spring crept in, so did optimism about the club’s direction and performances. It was looking likely that the stated goal of Champion’s League qualification was within our grasp, and the possibility of a first trophy of the Van Gaal era loomed in the shape of an FA Cup showdown at home to Arsenal.
But fans plan and Arsene Wenger laughs. The Gunners ousted MUFC from the competition we’ve won 11 times previously, and in bittersweet fashion, the elimination came at the hands of local lad and Van Gaal castaway, Danny Welbeck.
There would be no trophies again this season.
United reeled off four wins on the spin to seal their participation in UEFA’s showcase tournament. There were some must-win games in this stretch, and the team showed character to see off Spurs, Liverpool at Anfield, Aston Villa and Manchester City in what had to be the performance of the season.
Performances slipped again in the absence of the metronomic Michael Carrick, a player who the team seemingly can’t play well without. A fact that makes it all too clear that another truckload of cash must be spent if we hope to challenge for the title again any time soon. There is undoubted quality in the team, but more depth is required – as well as players who are better suited to the way the gaffer wants to play.
Van Gaal has both impressed and baffled this season. I do feel that he has the character and sheer bull-headedness required for the job and that he will lay the foundation for the club’s next era of success.
He also seems to understand the importance of the academy setup, although some of the kids have been forced through too early due to the ridiculous injury record we’ve had.
I’m also hoping that the first Premier League season has seen him take some lessons on board about how the league is won and that he continues to masterfully work the media and the supporters.
I’d give LVG a B+ for the term.
In goal, David de Gea has been an absolute gem again this season. He has earned his move to Real Madrid if that’s what he wants – but I don’t know any Reds who want him to go. Should he leave, my thought would be to let Victor Valdes have his chance. We’ve been connected with Hugo Lloris and Petr Cech [among others], but I believe Valdes was signed for this eventuality and has Van Gaal’s trust. Plus, I’d rather see the money spent elsewhere.
A- for the goalkeepers.
At the back, we are bordering on shambolic. The red flag was waved when Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra were all allowed to leave and no one was signed. If it weren’t for Dave, we would have conceded many more goals.
The only member of this defensive corps that has managed 30+ matches is Antonio Valencia – and he’s not any better than a stand-in full back. The only proper right back we have is Rafael, who is certain to depart. This area needs attention.
Chris Smalling is the only of the centre halves to have taken advantage of the added responsibility this season, while Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo all missed major time through injury. Evans and Jones should be worried about their United futures, because a world-class centre half like Mats Hummels has got to be added.
Speaking of injury-prone… Luke Shaw. Left back was supposed to have been taken care of, but with Shaw, Rojo and sometimes Daley Blind all injured I saw far more Ashley Young at full back than should ever happen.
B- for the defenders, and they have De Gea to thank that is wasn’t a C.
The midfield is another area where only world-class additions will do. I thought we had one when we added Angel di Maria, too. But the Argentine only showed glimpses this season, as if like LVG coached the good out of him with his tactical rigidity. I think he’ll be much improved next time around.
Conversely, Van Gaal finally coached some good into Marouane Fellaini who became the focal point of our attack in the back half of the season. I’d prefer him to be ‘Plan B’ coming off the bench, myself, but as a coach you have to use the tools given.
Michael Carrick absolutely starred in the holding midfield role, and the club were at their best when he played. Stand-ins like Daley Blind and Wayne Rooney are simply not able to control tempo or possession in the same manner as the vice-captain. Carrick is pushing 34 however, so if Blind is not the long-term solution this position may be added to the shopping list.
Juan Mata and Ander Herrera showed some great chemistry once they were finally paired up. It’s nice to see some goal threat from midfield again. Another player of similar quality would provide nice depth in what has been a problem area since Paul Scholes retired [the first time].
Central midfield gets a B+
Out wide, Ashley Young became a Van Gaal favourite and made Adnan Januzaj ride the pine. Bad news for both – Memphis Depay is signed up and is an upgrade in quality.
Di Maria should reclaim the right-side berth if we can sign a proper full back. He’s done everything asked, but Antonio Valencia is no more than a squad player for me – he can provide cover.
I’m looking for Di Maria and Depay to terrorize defenses next term, and young Adnan to go out on loan. Young has more than earned a chance to stay though and can provide those great crosses as needed from the bench.
Wide midfielders earn a B
Rooney! Van Persie! Falcao! What an array of attacking talent! The goals will be fired in from all over… At least that’s what we thought before Rooney had to drop into midfield, RVP continued to decline and Falcao did whatever it is he does.
This team needs a 20-goal striker, and that player is not currently on the books. Rooney’s only done it twice in his United career, Van Persie looks miles away from his 26-goal output in his first season and Falcao is likely to not get another chance.
Hell, Charlie Austin scored 17 for QPR and Harry Kane is on 20 for Spurs. I’m not saying I want United to sign either – but where would we have finished with more goals from the strike force? Expect a new striker to be wearing that #9 shirt soon.
Strikers get a C+
So there you have it. I’d say most Reds are feeling pretty upbeat as the summer transfer market gets closer. The only real stains are that I think the FA Cup was there for the winning and that we didn’t see more from Di Maria and Falcao.
I don’t see a title challenge coming next season but I don’t think we’ll be 15 points off the pace, either. Realistically I’d like to be there or thereabouts in the race for the Premiership and make at least the quarter-final stage in Europe. Because win, lose or draw – there’s nothing on earth like being a Red!