The Pedro and Otamendi deals hit the Manchester United fanbase hard. After months of replying to the every tweet from the club account with desperate pleas for them to announce the signings of these two players, they have ended up at title rivals Chelsea and Manchester City respectively. The Argentine and Spaniard were seen as the answers to the team’s main issues: centre back and attack. In the past two years, Old Trafford has seen an evacuation of experienced defenders with Rio Ferdinand allowed to leave for free and Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra securing moves to Serie A clubs. In attack, this summer has seen the once talismanic figures of Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao leave with little fuss whilst the club record signing Angel di Maria left for Paris in a less quiet fashion. At first glance it appears that there are gaps at both ends of the pitch that United must patch. However, this may not be the case.
Louis Van Gaal’s first season in charge was punctuated by defensive mishaps. The enduring images of the season will be the misguided attempt to introduce 3-5-2, the MK Dons humiliation in the league cup and that comeback by Leicester City at the King Power Stadium. The last of these seemed to have a huge effect on the Dutch manager’s attitude and from then on there was a new emphasis placed on physicality and defensive solidity. United then failed to keep a clean sheet in their next five games until Michael Carrick’s return to the team in November against Crystal Palace. This is where the case for United’s defence kicks in.
As Gary Neville recently highlighted on Sky’s Monday Night Football Show, United have conceded the least amount of league goals in England since that Crystal Palace game. Their record of 23 compares extremely well to the teams who should also be challenging for the league: Chelsea – 27, Arsenal & Man City – 28. This is evidence of the more pragmatic approach Van Gaal developed after the Leicester game and also of his coaching’s effect on United’s defensive unit. Neville praised the organisation of this unit and the shielding players in front of the back four at Villa Park, particularly the way in which Blind lead the defensive line and helped marshal the back four throughout the game. The defence has been further bolstered by the intelligent business done in this area over the course of the summer with Matteo Darmian finally providing a solid right back presence at Old Trafford and Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin giving the midfield a much more assured feel. A lot of United’s defensive problems last year came through untracked runs from deep due to the lack of pace and physicality in this area but Schweinsteiger and his French colleague should resolve these issues. Darmian’s street smarts have already been in evidence this season as has Luke Shaw’s time with his personal trainer over the holidays. Along with Chris Smalling, who recently gained the approval of his ex-teammate Rio Ferdinand for his “beast mode” performances, the United defence seems to be in a much healthier state than it may first appear.
The defence also deserves praise for protecting a nervous looking Sergio Romero as he adjusts to the Premier League. The absence of last season’s club Player of the Year, David De Gea, hasn’t been as keenly felt since the Spaniard’s head was turned by Real Madrid’s advances as many feared it would. This is not to say this will be the case throughout the season as Romero has done little to inspire confidence even in the warm-ups but so far the Argentine has conceded only one somewhat freakish goal against Club Brugges.
The main problem is that in spite of the quantity of centre backs at the club, Smalling, Blind, Jones, Rojo, Evans, McNair and Blackett, there is a lack of the same guaranteed quality that Kompany and Terry provide at City and Chelsea. This combined with the Dutch coach’s preference for left footed-right footed combination at centre back could cause issues through the season especially with Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Luke Shaw’s injury records. The squad depth is likely to be tested throughout the season and the Red Devils may regret not strengthening this area of the team if they are finished their business for this summer. These regrets are much more likely to be overshadowed by what seems to be sheer negligence of the quality and depth of United’s attack. The club has made one signing in attack this summer, the hugely exciting Memphis, who ignored advances from Bayern Munich and PSG to rejoin his former national team manager. Despite the 21 year old’s enormous potential, he will struggle to help ignite United’s lacklustre attack on his own.
Over the past ten league seasons going back to 2005-06, the teams crowned Premier League champions have averaged a total of 84 in the goals for column even though Chelsea were considerably below this last season with 73. United were worlds away though with a meagre 62 goals scored, down two on Moyes’ disastrous campaign in charge, and United’s worst goal return since 2005. The defensive record holds up much better to such inspection though with United’s 33 goals conceded last season only two away from the average of 31 goals conceded by the eventual champions over the past decade.
Focusing back on the attack, of the 62 goals scored, van Persie, Falcao and di Maria were responsible for an admittedly disappointing 17 but these are goals which still have to be replaced. Memphis’ arrival, Rooney’s redeployment to the centre forward position and the return from loan of Javier Hernandez are the main changes in attack from last season and as things stand, United are taking a serious gamble in deciding these adjustments to the squad are enough to not just cover the lost goals of the departed trio but also to bridge the gap from last season’s total to the 84 goal average needed to win the league since Mourinho’s first spell in charge at Chelsea. It seems optimistic at best from the club’s leaders.
However, this optimism appears downright delusional when examining Rooney’s recent record. The forward has set himself a target of beating the 34 goals he scored in 2009-10 and 2011-12 but in the past five seasons he has beaten the twenty goal mark in all competitions just once (the aforementioned 2011-12 season) and more worryingly for United’s league campaign he has only made over thirty league appearances in two of those five seasons. This would leave United looking at Javier Hernandez, who Van Gaal deemed surplus to requirements last season and was happy to loan out, and the inexperienced James Wilson, who has made 18 appearances for the club, as their only striking options for significant chunks of the season. The ex-Evertonian has not provided the most encouraging start to the campaign either carrying on where he left off last season as shown by the alarming statistic that the Newcastle game was the first time Rooney had over one shot on target since February.
The manager has made it clear that his ambition at United is to win the title and a title challenge will be expected by the Old Trafford faithful this season. They will not look as favourably on rousing speeches about targeting second place next May but if United fail to address their lack of goalscoring ability in this transfer window this will most likely be the scenario they are staring at come February next year. In the meantime, the understated yet efficient United defence remains at the heart of United’s solid start to the season.
Tachey Del Bosque
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