Optimism is in the air around Old Trafford once again this summer. After a terrible 2013-14 campaign that saw the 20-time champions of England finish outside the top three in the Premier League for the first time in their history, the appointment of Louis van Gaal has put confidence back in the fans.
Louis van Gaal impressed with a young Netherlands side of whom many play outside of the top five European leagues at this summer’s World Cup. The Dutch manager led his nation to a third place finish after losing to Argentina in the semi-finals on penalties.
The Netherlands only conceded four goals in their seven matches at this summer’s tournament and none in their final 372 minutes of action.
Their back three was made up of Aston Villa’s Ron Vlaar and Feyenoord pair Bruno Martin’s Indi and Stefan de Vrij. The latter two both aged 22 and with 16 and 12 caps respectively at the start of the tournament.
Manchester United’s own defence currently consists of Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling following the departures of the experienced Nemanja Vidić and Rio Ferdinand at the end of last season.
Very little should be taken from pre-season but one thing that can be for United is that they have used the 3-4-1-2 formation in all three of their matches over in the USA – the same formation van Gaal used successfully during the World Cup.
Jones, Evans and Smalling have played the majority of these games in defence, whilst 20-year old youth academy product Tyler Blackett has seen some game time too. Blackett was on loan at both Blackpool and Birmingham City in the Championship last season – playing the majority of games at left-back and a couple of games in the centre, making 13 appearances combined.
Manager van Gaal has said he will not rush into making any transfers whilst he analyses the talent he currently has at the squad. United have let Stefan de Vrij sign for Lazio after being strongly linked to the centre-back this summer. If the papers are anything to go by they continue to pursuit Mats Hummels. Personally, I cannot see the 2014 World Cup winner leaving Borussia Dortmund for Manchester United this summer, and he won’t be leaving the club before his team’s first home game of the season that’s for sure.
Borussia Dortmund start their season at home to Bayer 04 Leverkusen on Saturday 23 August when Hummels along with teammates Kevin Großkreutz, Erik Durm and Roman Weidenfeller can receive their heroes welcome for bringing the World Cup back to Germany this summer.
Youngster Michael Keane is the only other centre-back option available to van Gaal, so you have to believe they will sign at least one more this summer.
Luke Shaw and Ashley Young are the two options at left wingback in this formation. Adnan Januzaj could potentially play there or centre midfield. As he was part of the Belgium squad that reached the quarter-finals in Brazil this summer, he is not with the United squad currently.
Antonio Valencia has been playing right wingback whilst Nani has seen some game time too. Rafael could also play that role but he is currently out injured.
Ander Herrera has been signed to play in the centre of midfield as the player who dictates the play for Manchester United. He’ll link the defence to the attack. The question is who will play alongside the arrival for Athletic Bilbao?
Darren Fletcher has started two of United’s three games in the USA. Michael Carrick is currently sidelined for a few months, Marouane Fellaini is not considered suitable for this role. Tom Cleverley not a good enough defensive midfielder. This is one position I believe United will need to invest in unless Fletcher gets back to his best and can remain healthy all season.
Going forward is where Manchester United can look strong. Juan Mata has been playing in the role behind the two strikers. Wayne Rooney could also drop into this position and Shinji Kagawa is also available.
The two strikers have mainly been Rooney and Danny Welbeck on tour as Robin van Persie has not travelled. They also have Javier Hernández. I’m not a fan of Welbeck, but the Red Devils otherwise have three goalscorers on their books.
So here’s what I believe to be the strongest line-up currently for Manchester United in Louis van Gaal’s formation:
I think this team is a bit behind both Chelsea and Manchester City in terms of talent, but no European games this season should really help Manchester United to at least break back into the top four.
They have a good tactician in van Gaal although it must be noted that his side largely struggled against the three top tactical managers in the World Cup – they left it late to come-from-behind to beat Mexico and drew 0-0 with Costa Rica; two nations they were expected to beat, and many thought they’d win comfortably. They then had just one shot on target in 120 minutes versus Argentina, so it will be interested to see how the Dutch manager fares against the top tacticians in the league.
Arsenal have more depth this season and a lot of attacking talent so it should be an interesting battle between the two sides, in terms of their head-to-head matches and league battle.
Tottenham Hotspur should not be ruled out having hired a tactical coach of their own and investing heavily last season. Last season’s runners-up Liverpool have taken a backwards step so far this summer and although there were 20 points between them last season, I can see United finishing higher.
Manchester United are an attractive 1.55 to finish in the top four with Betfair currently before any more signings are made.