Louis Van Gaal's 10 Most Pressing Issues at Manchester United
Having already won a league title with every club he's ever managed, Louis van Gaal didn't have much to prove ahead of this summer's World Cup.
However, after his country's press doubted Holland's ability to even get out of their group, Van Gaal has worked wonders in Brazil. In the end, he was just a penalty shootout away from taking Holland to the World Cup final.
There are just 11 days between the World Cup third-place play-off game on Saturday and the first game of United's pre-season American tour, meaning the Dutch manager has very little time to prepare.
So what are his most pressing issues to deal with in preparation for the 2014-15 season?
Replacing Vidic and Ferdinand
Between them, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic played 755 games for United and won over 20 trophies. When United fans discuss the greatest-ever defensive partnership, these two are always mentioned.
In a poll on ManUtd.com at the end of last season, the pair were voted ahead of Jaap Stam and Ronney Johnsen, Steven Bruce and Gary Pallister, and Martin Buchan and Gordon McQueen as the best centre-back pairing the club has ever had.
Even last season, with their age and form not what it once was, they played close to 60 games in all competitions between them.
In reserve, United currently have Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. Will Van Gaal trust the players already available to him or bring in another experienced head to attempt to fill the shoes of Vidic and Ferdinand? It won't be an easy task, but it is something that should be a fairly big concern for the new manager.
I think it’s a big risk losing Vidic and Rio at the same time. There are young centre backs coming through, Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling. And I think if we’re signing a new centre-back coming from a different country who hasn't played here before, the idea of having a stalwart there would help. I think it’s a risk. But we’ll see how that pans out.
Giving Youth a Chance
Ryan Giggs, as interim manager, gave youngsters James Wilson and Tom Lawrence their Manchester United debuts. Both players impressed, and Wilson even managed to score two goals in his first game as United beat Hull 3-1.
Van Gaal, who gave debuts to Clarence Seedorf, David Alaba and Andres Iniesta when they were teenagers, will be looking to scour among the youth players already at United.
As well as Wilson and Lawrence, it would be great to see what Van Gaal can do with the likes of Ben Pearson, Sean Goss and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson.
Bringing through youth players is part of the tradition at United, and Van Gaal will likely be keen to do all he can to continue that.
Getting the Most out of Giggs
There were reports last season of a breakdown in communication between Giggs and David Moyes. Tony Dawber of The Mirror wrote that Giggs was set to leave the club at the end of last season had Moyes stayed in charge.
Giggs has arguably had the greatest footballing career ever and knows Manchester United inside out. Whilst Van Gaal is obviously better qualified than Moyes did, he would be wise to use Giggs in a much more effective way than Moyes did.
Van Gaal will want Giggs on his side to help win over any possibility of difficulties with certain players, but he will also want to use his football brain. You don't have a career like Giggs has had without knowing an awful lot about the game, and Van Gaal needs to tap into that as much as he possibly can to complement his own knowledge and skills.
The fact that he has chosen Giggs as his assistant manager, rather than anyone he has previously worked with, suggests that Van Gaal knows what he's doing where this matter is concerned.
Fixing the Midfield
It is as boring to write about this topic as it must be for United fans to read about it. The midfield problem, which has been apparent to one degree or another since the departure of Roy Keane almost 10 years ago, is a great source of frustration to United fans.
Owen Hargreaves and Anderson were the only midfielders Sir Alex Ferguson purchased to try and solve the issue, and that was in 2007. Since then, United have muddled on with what was available to them, which has been successful at times and painfully embarrassing at others.
You could almost blame every single crushing defeat United have suffered over the past 10 years on the midfield being totally overrun, depending on which players were starting.
There has been no strength in depth at this position. Whilst Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick have thrived and impressed at times, with Darren Fletcher also pulling his weight for a few seasons, an injury to one or more midfielders has meant United have been in trouble.
The signing of Marouane Fellaini for £27.5 million last summer was the icing on the cake.
Van Gaal needs to bring in a world-class midfielder or two and has already seemingly acknowledged this with the signing of Ander Herrera. More needs to be done though, and United fans will be hoping that Van Gaal doesn't ignore the problem as Ferguson did.
Getting Van Persie Back to His Best
In Robin van Persie's first season at United he was a superstar. In 35 starts he scored and assisted 34 goals, according to WhoScored.com.
He was United's most important player and fired them to a 20th league title, the first of his career, wearing the No. 20 shirt.
Last season was a different story though, with the Dutchman cutting a frustrated figure when he played. Despite only starting 18 games in the league thanks to injury, he still amassed an impressive 15 goals and assists, per WhoScored. Still, he didn't look the same player in his first season.
However, if there's anyone who is capable of making Van Persie smile again, it is almost certainly Van Gaal, thanks to their relationship through the years they've spent together with Holland.
This won't require much effort from Van Gaal, as he is likely to make Van Persie United's captain in 2014-15, but it is nevertheless still very important for United's future success.
Manchester United fans were relieved to learn that Patrice Evra signed a contract extension at the end of last season. It seemed certain that he would be leaving with Luke Shaw's transfer on the horizon, so it was a very pleasant surprise when Evra signed up for another year.
The situation was perfect. Shaw would be the first choice but would have the help and guidance of a much more experienced player. There would be some games in which that Evra would be the more suitable choice, but Shaw could gradually find his feet.
Alexander Buttner left the club last month, so if Van Gaal is going to lose Evra he needs to make quality cover for this position a priority.
Getting Rid of Deadwood
Ashley Young, Tom Cleverley and Marouane Fellaini are among those players who shouldn't have a future at United.
Cleverley has impressed on occasion, and his feelings for United would mean it would be more disappointing to see him leave, but based on the past season or more these players just don't have what it takes to play for this club.
Van Gaal might be reluctant to get rid of too many players when he is still in the process of rebuilding, but you imagine time will be up for these three sooner rather than later to free some cash for the salaries of better players.
Manchester United players are used to winning the league most seasons. To find themselves not in contention to win the title, out of the top four and with no silverware was a fairly shocking reality.
Ferdinand shared his feelings with the media as the season approached the final few games:
I've not looked at the league table for flipping ages. It's because you don't want to. It's embarrassing. You don't want to look at the league table and see where we are.
We have to keep our heads down, work hard and try to end the season on a high. It has certainly been the most disappointing season of my career.
Vidic revealed to reporters that the difficulties of the season led to more arguments than ever before:
We argued amongst ourselves. This year more than any other, because when you have bad times, people show they care. We are still friends, but we were arguing to get better. We wanted to improve.
We could say those things to each other because we have been together for so long, but it hurt. If you didn’t argue, it would not be right. We had some hard moments in the dressing room between ourselves.
Van Gaal has to come in and restore morale. He needs to get these players believing that they can be champions again after the soul-destroying season of 2013-14.
Signing Quality Players
Van Gaal has made a good start to the summer transfer window by bringing in Shaw and Herrera.
However, United are still a few players short of a quality squad that is capable of competing for the league, so the manager needs to bring in world-class talent.
John Percy of The Telegraph wrote yesterday that Evra's departure to Juventus could play a key role in smoothing out negotiations for signing Arturo Vidal.
Vidal would be a great place to start, but Van Gaal needs to be able to convince top-class players that this past season was just a blip and that they will be playing in the Champions League by 2015-16.
Showing Rooney Who's Boss
Wayne Rooney was teacher's pet last season. Having come up through the ranks at Everton when Moyes was the manager, it was clear that the reunion between the two was something very special for the former Manchester United manager.
Rooney had been close to leaving United last summer following a fallout with Ferguson, but Moyes managed to resolve the situation and convince the player to sign a contract extension.
Moyes picked Rooney as his captain on several occasions. In March, Moyes hinted to reporters that Rooney would get the armband permanently when Vidic left at the end of the season:
Wayne has led by example all season. Maybe wearing the armband, taking a wee bit of pride in wearing that, to show exactly what it means. He wants to take responsibility and I think you always want players who take responsibility. ...
You get opportunities in football, even if you're a player out of the team suddenly you can get a chance. Or if you become a key player and then get the chance to wear the armband and take that on. He did that.
Whilst Rooney has been a key player for United and enjoyed a great career whilst wearing their red shirt, he's certainly not the be-all and end-all. He has tried to force moves away from the club on two separate occasions, has injury problems and hasn't fulfilled his potential the way people thought he would have done 10 years ago.
Van Gaal's favourite will be Van Persie, who he chose as his captain for the national team, and it will be interesting to see how Rooney responds that. Van Gaal might have a battle on his hands here, but it's important that he doesn't pander to Rooney in the same way that Moyes did.
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