Premier League 2015-16 preview No 2: Manchester United
Predicted position: Second
Last season’s position: Fourth
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 5-1
On Louis van Gaal’s second summer tour as Manchester United manager “process” jostled with “philosophy” as the go-to term. The David de Gea saga, Memphis Depay requiring time to settle, the proposed new 4-3-3 shape: these and other issues were all explained away by the Dutchman’s prime P words.
He might have used two other words which have become as significant: “No excuses.” This is the culture Van Gaal has created for his players and this is now his own stark reality.
As practically possible as it can be after a year in charge, the club is how the manager would want it.
Van Gaal’s total spend on strengthening the squad stands at £230m in 12 months. This has brought in 11 players while 17 senior ones have been pruned. Last year’s close-season trip to America irritated Van Gaal due to the incessant flying required to visit five states. This time travel was curtailed, his wish acceded to. The club had two week-long training bases, in Seattle and San Jose, the areas where three of the four matches were staged. So intent was the manager on the players following their bespoke regime that the club flew into Chicago late on the Tuesday evening before Wednesday’s final game, against Paris Saint-Germain at Soldier Field.
All of this adds up to the Dutchman having it his way. Now the task is to deliver. The message from the board is that no precise targets are set for Van Gaal in the coming campaign. Despite him stating a top-four finish was the requirement all that was needed in his first year was to turn the listing United tanker. The Glazers, who own United, wanted the disaster of the David Moyes term fixed and the club back pointing the right way. The message from up high remains the same; Van Gaal is to continue the momentum he has sparked.
But make no mistake – the trajectory has to be skywards, back to the rarefied air where Chelsea reside as the best club in England. Come title-showdown time in April and May United have to be a serious rival to José Mourinho’s team and have to show they can mix it again with the continental heavyweights.
If the club do not claim a 21st league crown or fail to make the business end of the Champions League, Van Gaal will not be sacked. He could, though, if United fail to contend for the Premier League, fail to enter the Champions League group stage via mid-August’s final knockout round and fail to claim a domestic cup.
Perhaps the most telling offering from Van Gaal when speaking at the team hotel in San Jose after the 3-1 defeat of Barcelona was the insistence that the creative force of his squad remains weak.
The manager was not being cruel when he stated Ashley Young is “no Neymar”. This was simply the illumination of a troubling fact: the dearth in class between individual players and between the overall XIs of United and Barça (and the other European giants). A glance at Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, the winners of the last three European Cups, plus Chelsea shows each possess at least one world-beating attacking footballer. United have none. David de Gea is elite class but he is a goalkeeper and could still leave for Real.
There may be an argument for Wayne Rooney. He, though, is a high-end Premier League operator who falls into the “on-his-day” band of performer in the Champions League. There is a struggle to recall a major European night when the captain has shone when required against one of the big teams. Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez, Neymar, Andrés Iniesta, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Thomas Müller, Arjen Robben and Eden Hazard: all have entries on the CV that prove they can destroy an opposition when it matters.
This is the challenge Van Gaal faces. The 63-year-old continues to reference last season’s 1-0 defeat at Chelsea. This remains the “near-perfect” game. Everything was how it should have been except the score, he says. The problem here is that the score is football’s bottom line.
Hazard was the man who lit up Stamford Bridge with a 38th-minute moment of magic. In arguing United were close to perfection on that April afternoon Van Gaal actually underlines the point he makes about searing attackers. The breakaway goal Hazard scored bewitched United’s defence and moved Van Gaal to bewail (yet again) in San Jose how Chelsea had only one chance. But that opportunity was taken by the world-class talent who is Hazard and Mourinho’s men stymied any United threat to Chelsea’s claiming of the championship.
In all of this Van Gaal seems to infer that with no more additions between now and September 1, when the transfer window closes, United will struggle to compete for the Premier League and Champions League. Yet there is a suspicion he may be dampening expectation, certainly with regard to the title. Last year’s 17-point gap to Chelsea is a country-wide distance to close. There is a “could have, should have” element to Van Gaal’s view of the game at the Bridge. But he has a point when claiming if United had defeated Chelsea there would have been “another spirit”. If so, the subsequent Everton and West Bromwich Albion outings would not have been defeats too. These three defeats on the bounce were United’s poorest run and contributed to that yawning 17-point deficit.
To fill the attack gap Van Gaal continues to pursue Barça’s Pedro. But the expected departure of Ángel di María to Paris Saint-Germain is a head-scratcher. Here is a player who can illuminate the grand stage, as the Argentinian did when turning the 2014 Champions League final Real Madrid’s way. He appears exactly the type of performer Van Gaal likes. The manager wanted Di María to stay but has been powerless to stop him going, apparently. Yet Real Madrid have told Sergio Ramos he cannot leave for United and two years ago United told Wayne Rooney he could not leave for Chelsea. The message to Di María does not seem to have been as strident.
So again Van Gaal has no excuse in the coming season for United not prospering. He has signed Depay whose pace and directness may offer the scintillating play the manager craves. He has signed Bastian Schweinsteiger, the World Cup and European Cup winner, to command the centre. He has signed Morgan Schneiderlin, who showed on tour an engine that propels from midfield, an asset United have lacked.
He has signed Matteo Darmian, Italy’s right-back at Brazil 2014. And the manager has signed Sergio Romero, who has 62 caps for Argentina and can provide a challenge to De Gea. The latter could offer a further boon to Van Gaal. United continue to insist he will not depart for Real unless Ramos can move to Old Trafford so the Spaniard could now stay. Van Gaal may yet sign the stellar footballer(s) of “vision” he wants before September 1.
But if he does not there must still be a rise in United’s status, both at home and on the continent. The doomsday scenario is that the team suffer a similar stuttering start to last season when 13 points were claimed from the first 10 matches. And that United fail to make the draw for the Champions League proper. But with the club now plugged into the Van Gaal way this should not occur. – © Guardian News & Media 2015