In just a matter of weeks, Louis van Gaal has introduced exciting, dynamic and winning football at Manchester United. Performances in the Dutchman’s first five games, albeit pre-season ones, stand in stark contrast to the lethargic displays that typified David Moyes’ tenure.
Using friendlies as a barometer of a team’s title-winning chances is usually ill-advised, but the last two in United’s case have been telling.
In 2013, United won just two of seven games, losing to a Thai All-Star XI and Yokohama F. Marinos in the process. Though wins against Wigan Athletic and Swansea in Moyes’ first two competitive games were impressive, what followed stemmed from a poor pre-season.
In 2014, United scored freely, defended resolutely and passed the ball confidently on their tour of the United States, beating some of the world’s best teams along the way. Pre-season or not, it’s a marked difference.
With United’s Premier League opener against Swansea just days away, let’s preview the 2014/15 campaign.
Tactics: 5-3-2 and 4-3-3 Interchangeability
Van Gaal’s introduction of a 5-3-2 at United has reinvigorated a side that struggled desperately last season.
Much like his Netherlands team did at the 2014 World Cup, there is scope for Van Gaal to revert to a 4-3-3 at any time. Such interchangeability will provide United with a tactical versatility that was missing just months ago.
United will likely begin the season in a 5-3-2, having enjoyed success with it this summer. It would make little sense to do away with it now.
And if there’s one word to sum up the system Van Gaal has adopted in recent weeks, it’s “teamwork.”
There were 20 passes in the build-up to Ashley Young’s first goal vs. Real Madrid and an equally impressive 14 passes before Juan Mata’s strike vs. Liverpool. Defensively, we’ve seen United pressing more and closing down space in numbers.
Where United looked disjointed last season, the 5-3-2 has them playing as one cohesive unit.
One problem with playing a 5-3-2 is that United’s forwards don’t possess raw pace. A trio of Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Juan Mata probably won’t be able to stretch the game.
Therefore, Van Gaal may look to play two pacy wingers either side of an out-and-out striker, as he has done in the past. That he can choose to do that during the game or midway through the season on a permanent basis is an added bonus.
The important thing is that the two systems aren’t independent from one another. Switching between them is easily done.
Key Player: Danny Welbeck
In a team containing Rooney, Van Persie and Mata, it might seem strange to pick Welbeck as United’s key player.
But he’s certainly one of the most important. After all, Welbeck was one of United’s standout players in Champions League ties against Real Madrid and Bayern Munich in recent years.
He’s a player Van Gaal will no doubt warm to as well. Eager to learn and likely to play in his preferred centre-forward position, Welbeck could flourish under Van Gaal’s tutelage.
The reason he’s a key player is because of the role he will play this season. As an out-and-out striker, playing in front of creative players such as Mata and Ander Herrera, his pace and ability to run beyond defenders will be so vital.
Rooney and Van Persie’s injury record emphasises that, since Welbeck will probably play more often than people think.
It will be interesting to see how he develops under Van Gaal. Though he still needs to become more clinical in the final third, Welbeck remains so crucial to United’s shape when he plays.
Whether he’s underrated or overrated is irrelevant, because he’s a key player and Van Gaal knows it.
Predicted Player of the Year: Juan Mata
It speaks volumes of United’s problems last season that David de Gea was named the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year, an award given each year to an exemplary player for Manchester United. As magnificent as he was, usually it’s an outfield player who scoops the award. Expect normal service to be resumed under Van Gaal.
Rooney would be a smart suggestion for the accolade in 2014/15, but he’ll have to have an excellent season to take it from Mata.
The Spaniard, already a fan favourite after just 6 months, should be played in his preferred No. 10 role with Van Gaal in charge. His natural attacking flair will shine through in that position, and he will probably notch at least 15 goals and 15 assists.
Mata registered six goals and four assists in 14 Premier League games for United last season, per ESPN FC, so that prediction is not as bold as it may sound for a full 38-game season.
Inexplicably, he was often played on the right wing by Moyes, which stifled his inventiveness and highlighted his weaknesses.
If Van Gaal puts Mata behind a striker or two regularly, he’ll thrive.
Make-or-Break Time: Four Players Who Must Step Up
This is a make-or-break season for a few United players.
Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, at 24 and 22 respectively, are now faced with the difficult task of leading United forward after the departures of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
Both have been played at right-back in their time at Old Trafford—Jones has also featured in midfield—but neither has convinced regularly enough at centre-back. That has to change this season.
Playing in a three-man defence will suit both players, allowing Van Gaal to position the more experienced, level-headed Jonny Evans beside them.
Ashley Young is another who will benefit from Van Gaal’s management style. Young has looked like a completely different player in pre-season, excelling in his new wing-back position.
Whether he holds down that role full time remains to be seen, but it’s great to see him playing well for now.
Young’s diving last season was indefensible, and his contribution in games remained low throughout the season. He must now step up.
Shinji Kagawa is the fourth player who faces a make-or-break season.
Now in his third year at Old Trafford, the Japanese has yet to hit the heights he did at Borussia Dortmund. That’s mainly because he’s been played out of position far too often, but he’s also been unconvincing when handed a chance to shine.
Another mediocre season will probably see him leave United next summer.
Summary: What Can United Achieve This Season?
Though there is unquestionably a feel-good factor around the club right now, the truth is that United’s squad is still not strong enough to compete with Chelsea or Manchester City over the course of a full season.
A couple of injuries is all it would take for United’s title challenge to be derailed, and the lack of cover in midfield and defence is alarming. The transfer window is only open for three more weeks for United to change that.
A top-four finish therefore wouldn’t represent a bad season. Regaining Champions League football is the priority in 2014/15.
Van Gaal certainly has the pedigree and know-how to make that happen, and the way his side has played in just a handful of games suggests he will be able to get the very best out of his players.
In terms of lifting silverware, though, a cup victory might be more likely.
United haven’t won the FA Cup since 2004, and with other top sides competing in Europe after Christmas, this could be the year in which United lift the trophy at the new Wembley.
In a strange way, United’s season could be shaped by what happens in the next few weeks.
If United can make two or three astute signings and perfect the 5-3-2 system they are still learning, the 2014/15 campaign should be a promising one. A failure to do either of those two things could see the weaknesses in United’s squad exposed once again.