Manchester United’s summer transfer window was mixed to say the least. After a quick start and a busy 12 days which saw them wrap up deals for Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin, Memphis Depay and Matteo Darmian, lingering doubts still remain about their dealings in the latter half of the window.
Having failed to sign the world-class centre back that so many fans were eagerly anticipating, and with want away goalkeeper David de Gea being forced to remain at the club for at least four more months, many questions still remain about both United’s squad, as well as how they will fare this season.
In this piece we are going to assess just three of the biggest problems still facing Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal, as well as offering a potential solution to how this problem might best be dealt with.
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One of the most talked about problems still facing Manchester United is the perceived lack of quality the Red Devils still have at the heart of their defence. Despite promising starts being made to the season by both Chris Smalling and Daley Blind, many United fans were still expecting a further addition to be made.
With many players linked to the English club, most prominently Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid, and Nicolas Otamendi, then of Valencia and now of local rivals Manchester City, many in the media were insistent that United remained in the market for a top class centre back.
This proved not to be the case however, with United having ended the window only signing one defensive player; Regan Poole, a 17-year-old hot prospect signed from Newport County.
Having sold long term servant to the club Jonny Evans, as well as loaning out the promising Tyler Blackett to Celtic, United currently only have four natural centre backs in their squad; Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Paddy McNair. Were just two of these to be injured simultaneously, United could be left dangerously short at the back.
Despite Van Gaal’s usage of Daley Blind in a more central position, more defensive reinforcements are required if United wish to re-establish themselves at the top of both the English and European game. Signing a top-class centre back in the January window would provide not only cover, but would also help improve upon United’s solid, albeit a tad limited, defensive line.
Expensive Options – Mats Hummels (Dortmund), Pepe (Real Madrid), John Stones (Everton), Mehdi Benatia (Bayern Munich)
Cheaper Options – Ezequiel Garay (Zenit St Petersburg), Bruno Matins Indi (Porto), Leandro Bonucci (Juventus), Gonzalo Rodriguez (Fiorentina)
United also have an issue regarding quality at the other end of the pitch. Wayne Rooney’s performances in the lone striker role that Van Gaal likes to utilise have drawn a lot of criticism in the opening few weeks of the season. Despite recent improvements, most notably his hat-trick against Belgian side Club Brugge, many still feel that if he is to hit the heights again with Manchester United, a striker who can partner, or potentially challenge him, must be found.
That brings us to the arrival of summer signing Anthony Martial. Signed in a high-profile £36 million deadline day deal from French side Monaco, his arrival and the potential impact he can have on United’s fortunes has been a much debated topic.
At just 19-years-old he certainly brings the pace and potential that manager Van Gaal was reportedly so desperate for, if not the experience that many others felt would better suit United.
Questions also still remain over where his best position is, with some claiming he would be better suited on the right of a front three (Juan Mata’s current position for Manchester United) and if this were to prove the case, that still only leave Wayne Rooney as United’s only senior striker heading into the rest of the season.
Bringing in an experienced striker with a proven track record of scoring goals must be a priority for United, if not in the January transfer window, then definitely in next summer’s. Not only would it provide competition for Rooney, but it would also allow Van Gaal to be more fluid with his tactical experimentation, e.g. allowing United to switch to a 4-4-2 if a game needed it, or allowing a second striker to be brought on late in a game if United needed another goal etc.
Expensive Options – Gonzalo Higuain (Napoli), Edinson Cavani (Paris Saint-Germain), Robert Lewandowski or Thomas Muller (both Bayern Munich), Alexandre Lacazette (Olympique Lyonnais)
Cheaper Options – Charlie Austin (QPR), Bas Dost (Wolfsburg), Aritz Aduriz (Athletic Bilbao), Alexandre Pato (Sao Paulo on loan from Corinthians)
The final major issue still facing United is the lack of a winning philosophy and mentality. Gone are the years when United would play with pace and power, and would always seem to find a way to win a game, no matter what the circumstances or opponents.
The United of the last two seasons seem slow and lacklustre by comparison, struggling to break down teams who are willing to sit deep and invite pressure onto themselves, aiming to exploit a vulnerable defence on the counter attack.
Despite enjoying the lion’s share of possession in almost every game they have played so far this year, United still frustrate with their inability to make the crucial pass when it really matters, or to create a chance out of nothing in the dying minutes of a game they are trailing in.
If Van Gaal wishes to return to winning ways with United, and gain the fans wholehearted adoration and respect, he must find a formation and philosophy that fully employs the players and talent he has available to him.
Whether this means switching to a 4-3-3, in which Martial and Depay would play either side of Rooney in a more traditional front three, or whether it means playing Rooney and Martial as strike partners, with Depay and Mata playing as the wingers across the four man midfield, remains to be seen.
Van Gaal must decide and act quickly however, whilst the fans have remained supportive and trusting thus far, with the money Van Gaal has had available to him over the summer, and with the players he has brought in, expectations are sure to rise over the coming season.