Even before you walk through the turnstiles at Old Trafford, evidence of Manchester United’s European pedigree is apparent.
There’s the "Holy Trinity" statue, which depicts George Best, Sir Bobby Charlton and Denis Law—the core of the club’s first European Cup-winning team. A statue of Sir Alex Ferguson—the man who led United to their second and third such honours—also stands outside the stand that bears his name.
It illustrates just how synonymous European success and the Champions League is with Man Utd—and so it literally comes with the statue-scattered territory that any new manager is burdened with the expected continuation of that legacy.
Louis van Gaal is now carrying that pressure, and he might be the perfect man to do so.
Defeat to PSV Eindhoven in United’s first group-stage fixture this season was hardly the most emphatic way to launch an assault on European football’s premier club competition, but the following home win over Wolfsburg demonstrated just how potent United could be on the continent under Van Gaal.
The Dutchman’s tactics and philosophy have seen United become somewhat stodgy on occasion in the Premier League, with his side often lacking creativity and invention in the final third. Van Gaal prioritises control in the centre of midfield, and that sometimes hinders United’s threat in front of goal. Domestically, it has been a cause of frustration for many Stretford Enders.
But in the Champions League, such an approach could serve them well—especially if they make it to the competition’s knock-out rounds. They might be boring when playing in the Premier League, but Van Gaal’s tactics could make Manchester United England’s best hope of a contender on the continent this season.
United certainly have the players to go far in the Champions League this season. The arrival of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin this summer has given them an inherent control and structure in the centre of the pitch, and that could come to the fore in Europe against a high calibre of opposition.
Even United’s attacking midfielders—Juan Mata and Ander Herrera—are decidedly adept on the ball and operate with a measure to their play. They are not typically Premier League, and that will surely serve Van Gaal well in Europe.
Where his approach could fall down is in attack. A trend has emerged in continental competition over the past few years, with clubs possessing the best strikers winning the Champions League year-on-year.
With chances normally at a premium in Europe, successful teams have successful strikers who can take those opportunities when they fall to them. Barcelona have Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez. Real Madrid have Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema. And Bayern Munich have Robert Lewandowski, and Thomas Muller, too. Who do Manchester United have to compete at that level?
At present, Anthony Martial might prove an answer to that question—although it may be too much to expect the French teenager to sustain his current levels over the entire season.
Wayne Rooney turns 30 this week, and with that milestone, it’s probably time to accept that he is finished at the very top level of the game. United are consequently left somewhat short in the attacking ranks, and that could handicap them in Europe.
Too often in the past, English teams have been guilty of going gung-ho against smarter and shrewder continental opponents. With the Premier League such a naturally open division, it can be difficult for its teams to shift to such a dramatically different strategy on a week-to-week basis.
Of course, this deficiency isn’t anything new. It was only towards the latter stages of his United career that Ferguson noted the necessity to be more structured when playing in Europe—with the club reaching three Champions League finals in four years when he did. It will be forever pondered whether the Scot could have achieved even more in Europe had he shifted his approach sooner than he did.
However, in Van Gaal, United seemingly have a coach who understands what is needed to succeed on the continent.
Victory on Wednesday against CSKA Moscow will strengthen the club’s position in Group B and give yet another indication as to how United will fare in the Champions League this season. It could define their entire campaign.
Even in Van Gaal’s first season at the club, United’s campaign was rendered by the Champions League—despite the fact that they didn’t even play in it.
The Dutchman's initial brief was to lead the club back to the top tier of the European game, after David Moyes’ failure to finish in the Premier League’s top four the season before.
Now they are back in the competition, though, even more will be expected of Van Gaal. For starters, United’s fans will demand that they qualify for the last 16—and given the fortune of their draw, they will be expected to finish top of their group, too. Even if the Old Trafford club achieve that, their background means many won’t be satisfied unless they win the whole thing.
Indeed, it is the unwritten brief of any United manager that they should target Champions League success—and that is as applicable for Van Gaal as it was for anyone before him. Even under Moyes, a certain level was expected—and they were slightly unfortunate to lose to Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals two years ago.
The Old Trafford side are in much better shape than they were at the time of their last European assault, though, and what’s more, they might have the ideology in place to make the most of what they have.
United probably won’t win the Premier League this season, but they could make their biggest impression at an ever higher level.
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