Louis van Gaal’s post match interview summed it all up really, ‘I had expected better.’
Yes Louis, so did all of us. By virtue of the fact that Manchester United only registered a single shot on target the whole match, they were extremely lucky to come away with a victory against a below par Spurs side (or as Gary Lineker put it on MOTD last night it was “Spurs being Spurs”).
There is no doubt both the pragmatists and Van Gaal will argue that the result was what mattered most and considering United’s calamitous start to the season in the past two years, three points on the opening game of the season was a welcome start to United’s league ambitions.
At the end of the day it ultimately comes down to how you think; whether you feel an opening game of the season is a means of an end of getting the three points and shaking off the proverbial rust in the machine; or whether you think the first game of the season should be a statement of intent. (I know what Mourinho would have preferred…)
Judging by the glory United have been accustomed to in the past, I would go with the latter, however the reality of the modern game has shown us time and time again that it is not as clear cut as that.
While for some, a 1-0 win on the first day of the season is disastrous, but before the critics and keyboard warriors start baying for blood, I suggest saner minds prevail; perspective and common sense is needed.
1. Van Gaal needs to play Memphis out wide if United are to see the best of him this season.
Depay has to weigh in with at least 12-15 goals this season to ease up United’s characteristic over-reliance on Wayne Rooney in the final third.
Memphis has the makings of a player to become an instant hit with the Old Trafford faithful – two footed, pace to burn, quality dribbling ability, balance and enough skill to supply the Soccer AM Showboat editing team with countless highlight reels. Sound like a certain Portugal forward at Real Madrid?
However, as demonstrated by some of his preseason performances and his debut in the Premier League, Memphis looked a bit out of sorts in the free roaming role he was assigned. He was non-existent in the second half, which is why he was substituted to his frustration.
To coin a phrase from a friend, with teams pressing high up the pitch like Rottweilers on crack, United will be more susceptible to being closed down and getting caught in possession. Memphis was not comfortable in the middle as he is been closed down so quickly and teams will suss this out and exploit it if Van Gaal continues to play him in the middle.
Van Gaal insists on playing Mata on the right when he is not a natural winger. He has no pace or strength, but for those weaknesses, he more than makes up for it his ability to be effective in tight spaces in the middle of the park in the final third.
To say Memphis played either well or badly would be grossly misleading. He made some clever turns and runs in behind the Tottenham defense but those glimpses were equally negated by Tottenham neutralising him as a threat.
Memphis is most dangerous when he has space. It may be a case of Van Gaal simply overthinking too much but it’s not rocket science; if United are to see the best of him, they need to play him on the wings and let him have his freedom.
This would both enable him to refine his raw skills as well as simultaneously boost is confidence which would also help him become a more versatile in the positional sense.
2. The importance of Bastian Schweinsteiger’s fitness to United’s plans
To quote Jason Humphrey’s article in The Guardian, Schweinsteiger is neither the second coming of Roy Keane nor Paul Scholes (I miss you Keane and Scholes… and your red cards). Nevertheless, he possesses qualities that may finally aid United in offsetting the losses of both.
Historically United have always done well with midfielders that have a quality passing ability at the helm and with Schweinsteiger’s lateral passing ability being as strong as it, his intelligence and ability to read the game is an asset that United will no doubt aim to exploit.
This is particularly important when taking into account Manchester United’s wingers. With Memphis and the potential acquisition of Pedro doing the rounds in the rumour mill; United’s central midfielders will be able to utilise their ability more effectively by bringing them into the game more frequently – a factor which would give rise to more penetrative wing play, a dimension United sorely needs.
Schweinsteiger’s addition to United’s squad this summer was clearly done to negate United’s overreliance on the ever-present Michael Carrick. However United could potentially end up being in a worse position than they were originally in and here is why.
Pep Guardiola’s comments surrounding Schweinsteiger’s fitness were justified. Last season, he only started 15 of Bayern’s 34 league games due to a series of knee and ankle problems. These question marks surrounding his fitness cast doubt over whether Schweinsteiger will be able to deal with the difficulties that come with a labour intensive fixture list.
Due to the fact that he’s injury prone Carrick might have to play more hence negating the significance of the signing.
If the above is a persistent issue, Schweinsteiger has got absolutely no resale value which will do little to help United’s midfield. The sceptics will say, unless he can emulate his form of old and play that way until he’s around 34 years old, then United will have another Owen Hargreaves on their hands (Sorry Owen, nothing personal).
There might be a method to Van Gaal’s perceived madness in signing a 31-year-old midfielder for £15 million however. If you step away from the standard narrative most of the doubters, they could be seen as playing checkers whilst Van Gaal is playing chess.
In the immortal words of Dr Dre, “Would you look over Picasso’s shoulder and tell him about his brush strokes?”
Like all good managers, he’s thinking of the wider implications that this edition will bring to the club and the kind of culture he wants to create as well as players that would be compatible with this culture. One should not underestimate the effect on the squad’s mentality a signing like this has.
The likes of Jesse Lingard, Rothwell, Goss, Adnan Januzaj and Ander Herrera can all learn from the way Schweinsteiger plays and conducts himself. His achievements in the game should afford him the respect he deserves and the winning mentality he will bring to the team should not be understated.
A criticism of United for many years has been the fact that they get bullied in the midfield. The physical presence of Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin, Marouane Fellaini, Antonio Valencia and Depay would give Man Utd an extra dimension; and with Mata, Herrera, Januzaj and Pereira, United have a lot of guile to call on.
3. The Schmidfield combination could be key to United’s prospects
The combination of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger to United could significantly strengthen the cohesion between United’s defence and attack. With Schneiderlin in the fold, United have an option to set up in a similar way to Chelsea in the midfield with the deep lying roles of Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic.
Both of them together could potentially give rise to a formidable combination of efficiency, power and control, a pertinent factor when taking into account Schneiderlin’s ability to break down game which would be useful in United’s games both domestically and in Europe.
The much needed balance this will bring to the United team is evident. However, balance is only a means to an end and the final product Van Gaal priorities above all is control.
Schneiderlin is a great acquisition and infringing prospect.
In England, most fans (including myself) think that Schneiderlin is already a great midfielder (then again, that doesn’t count for much as we’re easily impressed in this neck of the woods.) In France however, the jury’s still out as to whether he can deliver at the very highest level. It’ll be interesting to see how he fares this season.
4. If United do not add flair to their play, they are going to be a team which grinds out results this season.
Judging by United’s lack of attacking threat yesterday, they may fall into the habit of becoming a very industrious regimented side this season lacking flair.
A problem with deep lying midfielders playing in a team with average to below average centre backs is their inability to utilise the space available and susceptibility to poor defensive shape. United will be more vulnerable to getting caught in possession due to over congestion at the back and the middle of the park. This is a Hazard for United as they could be Puncheon above their weight with teams that have real pace to get in behind defenders.
5. Squad rotation will be crucial to United’s season
Overreliance on the proverbial engine room of Carrick and Schweinsteiger might end up with Van Gaal experimenting with players in different positions giving rise to more positional uncertainties.
Thereby, delaying the implementation of his “philosophy” and by default, United’s success. With Wayne Rooney having a habit of dropping deep to try and make things work and bringing other players into the game when United struggle, this will cause issues to their conversion rate in the final third.
6. The De Gea situation needs to be resolved as quickly as possible.
United need to retain David De Gea’s services for one more season before his inevitable departure to Madrid. What would the estimated £20 million for De Gea do for United? Not much financially in the grand scheme of things.
Losing him would be a huge impact on United’s prospects this season however. And ultimately, the biggest loser in this equation would be De Gea and his agent as he could end up losing £6-7 million this year if he doesn’t sign a new contract.
Madrid are tapping De Gea up unlike Ronaldo who United got to sign a new contract, promising him he would be sold for big money. Madrid want to equal the bargaining position by not letting history repeat itself by telling him that if he signs a contract, Madrid will look elsewhere for a keeper and he’s scared he will miss his chance, hence his urgency to leave.
Time for Ed Woodward to start justifying his ridiculous salary.
7. Man Utd need to sign a quality centre back before the end of the transfer window.
Sound the horn for Nicolás Otamendi*. To paraphrase football’s cognoscente Andy Tate, United have sorted out one problem out and exacerbated another two in defence and being short in attack.
Van Gaal’s philosophy is orientated around controlling the lion’s share of possession which for United involves building up play from the back.
There were no stand out performances for United or Spurs bar two crucial moments from Chris Smalling and a solid debut from Matteo Darmian. Daley Blind is not a centre back and ultimately, United’s central defenders are simply not good enough at the moment.
And these issues will cause problems for United’s attacking ranks because there will be no consistency in attack or defence.
Additionally, a quality centre back would ease Sergio Romero’s transition into the pace of the league which will be more important if De Gea does end up going to the Santiago Bernabéu at the end of the transfer window.
Apart from pulling off some decent saves in the second half, Romero had some distributive problems which weren’t aided by the fact that Spurs dominated the first 15-20 minutes of the game.