When Manchester United square off against Crystal Palace this weekend it’s a fair assessment to predict that the match will be a far tighter affair than might have otherwise been the case.
A galaxy of attacking operators in their prime is what Neil Warnock’s shaky defence will be probed by come tomorrow afternoon, and yet there remains a strong chance they can salvage something from the game.
United's defensive woes
Gone are the days when Old Trafford was the home of an impregnable force that mercilessly took points and sent pretenders packing; the United of today is just as susceptible to defeat as the very worst teams in the Premier League.
The primary reason has been pointed out to Louis van Gaal time and time again, and if the Dutchman wasn’t prepared to heed the warnings prior to the closure of the summer transfer window, the performances of his players since will have confirmed any scepticism. The defence is utterly terrible.
Even when fit the first-choice centre-backs aren’t of the required standard. The likes of Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling suit playing behind an all-star cast containing Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao and Wayne Rooney about as well as David Moyes suited replacing Sir Alex Ferguson, which is to say not at all.
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Van Gaal's stance
Having hit the ten game stage in the season it’s clear to see that Van Gaal has been given reason to regret not focusing his efforts on recruiting a stoic leader for his back-line, with the Red Devils now more desperate than ever thanks to the recent injury suffered by Marcos Rojo.
One look back at Van Gaal’s managerial career however prompts a different theory altogether and, thanks to the Manchester Evening News’ research, it’s fairly easy to ascertain the view that he cares very little about the soundness of his defence so long as the players up top are doing their job better than their opposite numbers.
Examples of the past
As recently as the World Cup can those who prefer to guard against defensive frailties begin to see major flaws in Van Gaal’s setup. The veteran coach placed his trust in a back three of Ron Vlaar, Bruno Martins Indi and Stefan de Vrij.
Whilst on that occasion the risk paid off, with the Netherlands making it all the way to the semi-finals before bowing out to Argentina on penalties, it could so easily have backfired. Vlaar had become something of a laughing stock for his Aston Villa performances prior to this summer’s international tournament, whilst De Vrij and Martins Indi were inexperienced to say that least.
Casting our minds back further there’s a notable example to be found from his reign as Bayern Munich manager, which MEN kindly bring to the attention of the public in the form of a match coincidentally played against United in the Champions League.
Van Gaal fielded the hapless duo of Martin Demichelis and Daniel van Buyten in 2010; both notoriously slow and neither an assured option in the heart of the defence.
As a result United scored four over the two legs, though the sheer force of Bayern’s attack was enough to bring an equilibrium of a sort, and the Bavarians squeezed through on away goals.
What it could mean
The fact remains though that more often than not placing too strong an emphasis on your attack is a dangerous approach which gives the opposition every chance of upsetting the odds. Nowhere is this more true that in the Premier League, where even the bottom feeders can spring surprises if given but the slightest room to manoeuvre.
Heading into tomorrow’s clash United fans should be confident that Warnock’s side will be bowled over by their awe-inspiring front-line. At the same time they better hope Palace don’t turn up at the races themselves going forward.
If they do they’ll certainly have too much for United to handle.