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Assessing the state of Manchester United's squad

With the summer's dealings done, we take a look at who Manchester United have ended up with, and what Louis van Gaal might be able to do with them.

Clive Brunskill

The transfer window has closed, the business has been businessed, and we now know exactly which group of players will be representing Manchester United ... until January, that is, when it all kicks off again. United, as you may have heard, have spent an awful lot of money on six established players (and a seventh young goalkeeper), and haven't recouped a huge amount in moving 16 players on. But for all that this recruitment splurge may have been expensive, and may not have addressed every single problem with a problematic squad, it's hard not to conclude that United are stronger now in every department than when Louis van Gaal took over.


A suggestion. For all that we know Louis van Gaal wanted both Mats Hummels and Thomas Vermaelen, the fact that United ended up acquiring neither doesn't mean that the defence is always going to be as shakily chaotic as it has looked in the first three league games. Some of United's shakiness has undoubtedly been personnel based, but we won't know how much until the players are comfortable with themselves and with the system they're being asked to play.

Or to put it another way, until Phil Jones and Jonny Evans know what they're meant to be doing, we can't tell if they aren't good enough to do it. And until we know whether or not they can do it, we don't know if it's the wrong thing to be asking them to do. The 3-5-2 may have its roots in United's imbalanced squad but it is being played at all levels across the club, which suggests (a) that it isn't going anywhere soon and (b) that Van Gaal, self-proclaimed educator that he is, sees a wider benefit in introducing the club's defenders to the joys of working as a three.

Let's make the assumption that a fully-fit squad will mean Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo either side of Jonny Evans, with Daley Blind, Chris Smalling, Tyler Blackett providing back up. It's not quite Jones-Hummels-Vermaelen, and it's certainly not the Ferdinand-Vidic of old, but it's not unreasonable to expect it to improve at least a bit with training and familiarity. And there will be other contributing factors beyond greater familiarity: thus far, the protection offered the defence by the aged Darren Fletcher and the rotating inadequacies next to him has been nearly non-existent. That, too, we can reasonably expect to improve.

Importantly, all three of those defenders are able to carry the ball out of defence, even if you wouldn't always trust Phil Jones to know what to do with it once there. One notable and frustrating feature of United's game has been Blackett and Smalling playing constant, hopeless chipped passes to the heads of opposing centrebacks. A little more football is to be hoped for, and again, a little more nous and energy in midfield will help. Ultimately, the centre of defence is not as good as it could be, and the lack of experience and established excellence is deeply troubling. But it should get better than it has been.

Out on the wings, while Luke Shaw's United career hasn't had the most auspicious of beginnings, Van Gaal is adamant that his conditioning issues are behind him -- "He did everything that he had to do to be fit. Now he is an example in the dressing room. He is training fantastically." -- and so we can expect him to slot in at left wingback after the international break. Already promising in attack with Southampton, he represents a serious upgrade on Ashley "I'll Cut Inside And Roll This One Square As Well, Shall I?" Young and is well covered by Blind, Rojo and perhaps even Reece James.

It's the other side that's a little concerning. Rumours of Rafael's departure didn't last much beyond his recent injury (he is injured, right?), but there are two major questions over United's rightback/right wingback options. Firstly, there's the slightly depressing suspicion that Rafael is never going to be quite disciplined or reliable enough for Van Gaal or United. Adorable, feisty, and profoundly sexual, yes, but always capable of either coming the berk or picking up an injury. And behind him? The confidence vacuum of Antonio Valencia, whose regression has been startling, and Saidy Janko and Jesse Lingard, kids both. Fingers crossed that the Brazilian finally becomes the player tBB desperately wants him to be.


You know what? It's been a while, but Manchester United actually have one. The spectacular injection of Arturo Vidal-shaped quality never came to pass -- didn't want him anyway; dodgy knee; silly hair -- but the additions of Daley Blind, Ander Herrera and Angel di Maria have given United their strongest central unit for five or six years.

It's not entirely well-rounded, of course; years of neglect don't get fixed over a summer. The most obvious lack is a proper destroyer, an equivalent to Chelsea's Nemanja Matic or Manchester City's Fernando; rumours of a move for Nigel de Jong never came to much. This is not to say that such players are always necessary -- Liverpool don't have one and Arsenal don't have a good one -- but it does cause a certain vulnerability in certain situations. De Jong would also have helped reinforce a collection of midfielders that, Fellaini aside, don't have much about them physically.

However, there is much cause for optimism. Ander Herrera and Daley Blind bring the prospect of somebody doing what Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick were supposed to do, but actually doing it, and they also up the handsomeness quotient. And Di Maria, if used in the middle, gives United pace, impetus, and drive between the lines. Ahead of them, Di Maria also offers an alternative, more direct model of No. 10 to Juan Mata. While the Spaniard's form has been patchy since he moved to United, he remains the squad's most imaginative passer of the ball.

If Van Gaal persists with the 3-5-2, then the midfield could be any two from Blind, Herrera and Di Maria, behind one from Mata, Di Maria, Adnan Januzaj and maybe even the irreplaceable, undroppable, inexplicable Wayne Rooney, who has to be shoehorned in somewhere. It's the back-up options that cause concern: one of Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick might just about be plausible, but two could well produce the slowest midfield of all time. And beyond them, we find Marouane Fellaini or Anderson; the former only remains at the club because he rolled his ankle; the latter because literally nobody in the entire of the footballing universe has any interest in buying him.

Alternatively, if he abandons the shape in favour of something more typically United, however, then Di Maria and Januzaj slot neatly into the wide positions, with Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia slotting neatly onto the substitutes' bench. If United do end up in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, then the central three will likely be assembled from Blind, Herrera, and one of Mata or Rooney.


By common consent, the attack was the part of United's squad that didn't need much work; common consent doesn't appear to have extended to Van Gaal. Nor, apparently, to David Moyes; in his piece on the purchase of Radamel Falcao, the Guardian's Daniel Taylor divulged the following:

the truth is that the people in charge at Old Trafford decided long ago that a frontline including the considerable talents of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie was not dynamic enough for a club of their ambitions.

David Moyes was the first person to identify the issue and initially thought Edinson Cavani had the directness and penetrative qualities to give the team a more vibrant attacking edge.

It's a strong and slightly strange word, dynamic, because it encompasses all manner of different attributes, physical and mental. Pace, directness, commitment and, when it comes to strikers, that endless hunger for goals at all times. Van Persie has maybe never been particularly dynamic; Rooney certainly hasn't been for some time. Falcao, on the other hand, most definitely is.

In the rush to criticise United's defensive shape over the first few games of the season, what has been slightly lost is quite how stodgy the attack has looked. Early on in the game against Burnley, Di Maria picked up the ball from midfield and drove at the defence, before slipping a ball into the space behind ... at which point Rooney looked at the ball, slightly baffled, before jogging back to the halfway line. Perhaps the pass was slightly overhit, weighted for somebody of Gareth Bale's speed. But it did look as though the idea of trying to sprint past the defender simply hadn't occurred to United's captain. And it's been noticeable that the now-departed Danny Welbeck has, when introduced, made United look instantly more dangerous simply by being willing to run at and past defenders.

The search for dynamism mean that United now have three players who look for all the world like automatic first-team choices: their captain; their coach's favourite striker; and the shiny new signing. And they don't have the stuffed calendar that might require rotation. Rumours that Van Persie might require surgery presented one solution -- the player has denied that any operation is required -- and one suspects that, surgery or no, a creaking Van Persie is bound to miss a few games.

Assuming that Falcao was brought in for a purpose leads to the assumption that he will play, which means either Van Persie or Rooney end up bristling on the bench, or Rooney drops back to displace Mata. Quite why everybody seems to think that Wayne Rooney can be a playmaker despite all evidence to the contrary is a mystery to tBB -- according to Taylor, United's coaching staff don't think he can pass the ball properly -- but his hex over United's teamsheets appears as strong as ever. Still, whatever happens, it's always better to have too many good strikers, and not too few.

The only other question, though, is what happens to Januzaj? Not a central midfielder, a system without wingers limits his options to either that crowded No 10 position, or up front alongside a proper striker. His prospects this season look likely to mostly come from the bench, and as such a lot depends on how the first team are doing, though we do know that Van Gaal is perfectly happy to trust young players ahead of established professionals if he thinks that they're ready. That last also applies to the extremely promising James Wilson; maybe Van Gaal will tea everything up, and United will end the season with a front three of Januzaj behind Falcao and Wilson. Now that would be worth watching.

Full squad

GK: David de Gea, Anders Lindegaard, Ben Amos, Sam Johnstone

DEF: Phil Jones, Jonny Evans, Marcos Rojo*, Chris Smalling, Tyler Blackett, Marnick Vermijl, Rafael, Luke Shaw, Reece James, Saidy Janko

MID: Daley Blind, Ander Herrera, Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick, Anderson, Marouane Fellaini, Angel Di Maria, Juan Mata, Adnan Januzaj, Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, Andreas Pereira, Jesse Lingard

ATT: Radamel Falcao, Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, James Wilson, Will Keane

* clearance to play pending