Projecting Louis Van Gaal's Best Manchester United Lineup
Louis van Gaal is on the cusp of his first competitive game in charge of Manchester United. As the squad currently stands, what does his best starting XI look like?
There are areas where there is not much debate, where cover and options are hard to come by, and areas where United are overstocked with talent.
This XI is based on Van Gaal's current 3-4-1-2 formation and does not take any possible future signings into consideration.
Let's take a look, starting with a position where the choice could not be clearer...
David de Gea is comfortably United's first-choice goalkeeper. He won fans' and players' player-of-the-season awards last time out, and deservedly so.
De Gea's presence means goal is one of the areas in which United are strongest.
There may be better goalkeepers in world football, but there are not many, and the margins are not great. Many United fans would be delighted if De Gea was our keeper for a generation to come.
Van Gaal's strongest XI features Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans as his back three.
Whether that continues to be the case will depend on new acquisitions and the development of United youth prospects. Tyler Blackett and Michael Keane both performed admirably during United's pre-season, with Blackett particularly impressive.
However, for now, their role is to provide cover for the first-choice back three. Evans, Smalling and Jones have a complementary set of skills. They will make an excellent defensive unit, assuming they continue to adapt as well as they have so far to Van Gaal's new system.
This is an area where the first-choice players are not the issue; rather, there is a concern about adequate cover for injuries.
At left wing-back, Luke Shaw begins his first United season with a hamstring injury, per BBC Sport, and is expected to be out a month. Assuming he makes a full recovery, he should quickly find himself first choice, unless a new signing arrives.
Competition for his place comes from Reece James, older than Shaw, but with far less top-level experience. Ashley Young's surprisingly excellent performances on tour mean he finds himself in the running to provide cover.
But for now, Shaw looks to have a fine opportunity to make the position his own, on his return to fitness.
If they do, then it is clear that Van Gaal sees Antonio Valencia as his first-choice option, with Young providing back-up. Jesse Lingard has also played there this pre-season, although the position does not seem a good fit for his natural talents. He does not have the defensive experience required for the role.
Rafael has been retained the No. 2 shirt, per ManUtd.com, although it is probably a mistake to read too much into that.
If Valencia and Rafael are both at the club, then choosing a first-choice wing-back may depend on the opposition. Rafael offers enormous energy and defensive tenacity. His decision making leaves much to be desired, although that looked to have improved during the 2012-13 season when he was consistently impressive.
Last season saw the Brazilian regress, as many of United's players did. He also spent much of the season battling a series of injuries, something which may well worry Van Gaal.
Valencia offers enormous power and presence. He is defensively naive on occasions, unsurprising given his background as an out-and-out winger.
My guess is that Van Gaal considers the Ecuadorian first choice, but time will tell.
Assuming no new signings arrive—and that is a painful assumption to make—the key dilemma in predicting United's central midfield lies in deciding who will partner Ander Herrera.
Herrera is an automatic choice for Van Gaal and already looks the most creative deep-lying midfielder on United's books. He is a tenacious tackler and is key to United's aspirations this season.
Who plays alongside Herrera as first-choice option is tricky to predict. There are currently five other senior central midfielders in United's squad. Barring a remarkable turnaround, Anderson seems unlikely to feature much.
Marouane Fellaini has had a profoundly underwhelming start to his United career, but it is not impossible he will improve under Van Gaal, should he be retained.
Tom Cleverley has shown few signs of improvement during pre-season, but, again, may find Van Gaal has a beneficial effect on his performances over the longer term.
The first-choice partner for Herrera seems most likely to be one of Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher.
The two men offer very different styles. Fletcher at his best is a "box-to-box" player who covers a lot of ground, is combative and is happy to provide support to the forwards.
Carrick's more cerebral style divides opinion among supporters more than most. Even his harshest critics would have found it hard to deny he had a fine season in 2012-13. Even his most ardent supporters would have found it hard to defend his performances under David Moyes in 2013-14.
Huge questions remain regarding both players. Will Carrick recover from his injury-hit start to the season and find his best form again? Will Fletcher be able to sustain his excellent pre-season form and stave off the effects of his battle with chronic illness?
The answer to those questions will determine who is the first-choice partner for Herrera. Given Carrick's injury, it will certainly be Fletcher in the season's early going. Many United fans will hope that by the end of the transfer window Van Gaal's first-choice central midfielders are Ander Herrera and a player who is not yet at the club.
Juan Mata will be Louis van Gaal's first-choice No. 10. He was in every starting XI in pre-season, and is, simply, a superb exponent of the role.
Fine back-up exists in Shinji Kagawa, with Wayne Rooney and Adnan Januzaj also able to play between midfield and attack.
United have excellent quality in this position, but Mata's proven Premier League ability means he is the natural first choice.
Van Gaal's 3-4-1-2 has partially been applied at United in order to ensure there is room in the side for Mata, Rooney and Robin van Persie to all play in their natural positions.
It seems inevitable that the two superstar strikers will be first choice when they are both fit and in form.
This will mean a supporting role up front for Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez (if he remains at the club) and Adnan Januzaj.
The negatives of being so well stocked up front are clear. How do you keep all those talented players happy?
The positives are that United are possessed of the finest collection of forward players in the league. There is no striking partnership with as much potential as Van Persie and Rooney.
Whether they can truly gel, whether they are as effective alongside one another as they would be alongside the energetic running of Danny Welbeck, remains to be seen.
For now, though, they are surely first choice.
With that, Van Gaal's current strongest XI looks to be; De Gea, Evans, Smalling, Jones, Valencia, Shaw, Herrera, Fletcher, Mata, Rooney, Van Persie.
Not too shabby. Not too shabby at all...
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