Van Gaal’s big challenge to usher in a new era at Man Utd

The appointment of Louis van Gaal is being heralded by many Manchester United fans as a fresh beginning and a chance to expunge the memories of a season which for many fans was the worst in living memory.

There is no doubt that van Gaal’s stock is high. During the World Cup his Netherlands team was one of the star performers of the Group stage, with the biggest highlight undoubtedly smashing reigning world champions Spain. That they then went on to perform pretty moderately during the knock-out stages has tended to be overlooked by the media, such was the love-in that ensued from the popular press.

While van Gaal may yet enjoy the remaining days of the honeymoon period, it will be clear to the Dutchman that he has a significant task on his hands, including:

Buying a goal scoring midfielder

Manchester United were outscored by all of their title rivals last season. While uncertainty over Liverpool’s ability to replace the goals of Luis Suarez will provide hope for United fans, that Chelsea and Arsenal are boosting their goal-scoring prowess in the form of Diego Costa and Alexis Sanchez will be a cause for concern.

However, looking closer to home reveals a more deep-rooted cause for concern – Manchester United struggle to score goals from midfield. Last season the Red Devils’ midfielders contributed just 16 goals. This was the fifth lowest haul from a Premier League midfield last season (even Norwich and Fulham scored more goals from midfield than United), and a far cry from the 44 scored by Chelsea and City, and the 30+ scored by Liverpool and Arsenal.

Figure one: Comparing United’s goals from midfield to their rivals

hrz goals from midfield

That Juan Mata, who joined the club in January and was United’s top-scoring midfielder with six goals, might provide a shimmer of light for van Gaal’s men, it is clear that further midfield firepower is required if United are to seriously challenge this season.

Improve the defence

Last season was not such a disaster defensively for United and the club finished with the fourth best defensive record in the league. However, the defensive performance of the team will need to be improved in at least two ways next season.

Firstly, United need to replace Nemanja Vidic (and to a lesser extent, Rio Ferdinand). While the abilities of the powerful Serbian defender were on the wane last season Vidic still made a significant 25 league appearances for the club. Furthermore, his presence in the backline is a reassuring sight for managers, team mates and fans alike. The likes of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling do not inspire similar feelings of confidence. United simply must sign a commanding centre-half to replace Vidic.

Secondly, United must work harder to restrict the number of shots they concede in their own box. When compared to their likely title rivals this season, United conceded almost 80 more shots in box than City, and over 40 more than Chelsea. United will need to find a way to narrow this spread if they are to wrestle the title back to Old Trafford.

Win the hearts and minds of players and fans

Achieving the latter may be van Gaal’s easiest task. His record suggests he is a pragmatic manager, more in the mould of Mourinho than Ferguson (or, dare we say it, his Dutch nemesis Johan Cruyff). While in and of itself this need not be a problem, it will be interesting to see how players and fans react when they realise that van Gaal’s way is not necessarily ‘the Manchester United way’ that was used to taunt David Moyes in the latter weeks of his tenure.

In any event, it is unlikely that van Gaal will be swayed in his approach. He is no shrinking violet and has a colourful track record of criticising his employers (as he did at Bayern Munich and Barcelona) and so-called star players, most memorably world player of the year Rivaldo and his soon-to-be-captain Robin van Persie.

While instilling discipline and a strong culture into a squad which appears to need it will be welcomed by fans, they will hope it doesn’t come at the cost of further disarray and underperformance.

It should not be forgotten that this is Manchester United we’re talking about. With all the institutional experience and nous that club has, with its ability to attract quality to an already expensively assembled squad, and the fact that there is no European football on show to distract from the key mission, it would not be unreasonable for expectations to be high and the pressure on van Gaal to deliver likewise. His CV suggests he’s up to the job – perhaps moreso than Moyes – but his ability to bring success back to the club will ultimately depend on how he addresses the issues set out in this article.


  1. As a Manchester United fan I don’t expect big things next season. I expect an improvement, but given the shambles of last season that isn’t exactly saying much. So to finish above 7th and qualify for a European competition, the pressure is already taken off Van Gaal to a certain extent.
    Defensively i’m not too concerned about us. De Gea is a quality Keeper and out number one choice. It may come as a surprise but i’d be happy with Jones and Smalling as our starting centre halves for this coming season. I’m not saying they’ll be a success but give them a chance to fulfil their potential. Smalling always reminding me of a young Rio, only with less composure but that will come with experience. A few years ago Jones was a no non-sense defender built in the Vidic mould. Give them a chance to step into the roles they were bought for, give them a chance to form a partnership and work on it. they are both young and have time of their side. With Luke Shaw and Rafael on either side of them, it’s a young back 4, 3 English players included who could potentially work out very well….. especially if the midfielders infront of them are organised and in their natural roles.
    Do I think more transfers is a must, I don’t. A goal scoring midfielder would be nice but we already have a midfield with potential goals in them, the problem is fitting them into the right formation and playing them in their best roles. Mata and Fellaini can get goals playing in the number 10 role, but If Van Persie is fit Rooney will occupying that position. Which leaves playing either Rooney, Fellaini or Mata out of the natural position. And here lies the problem, Square pegs, round holes.
    Playing players out of position very rarely works. Fellaini was the example last year playing as a holding midfielder. If we play 2 holding midfielders, 2 wide attacking midfielders and 1 in the hole, we need naturals, not just players filling the holes as we did last year. Last season Mata and Fellaini were panic buys, we didn’t need them but they didn’t fit into the tactic we were playing. Van Gaal has to decide on a formation, and then play the players in their natural roles. Doing this will make all the difference, and should improve the goal tally of our midfield.
    The wingers didn’t work last season, Valencia, Nani, Young simply weren’t good enough. If we are going to play attacking wingers, my 1st choices would be Januzaj and….. Zaha. Januzaj was one of the few shining lights of Man Utd last season so his selection should be a given. We bought Zaha as a potential talent and never gave him a chance. From what I saw of him last season on his loan spell, he dribbled the ball well, looked threatening and dangerous with the ball. In a team surrounded in better quality players, he’ll improve and it’s another young English player being given a chance to shine.
    Has Van Gaal got a lot of work to do? No. His squad is better than all those that finished below them last year. He just needs to find a formation that works with the players, instead of playing a formation then trying to fit the players into it. With Rooney, RVP and Welbeck (don’t laugh) we have goals upfront. we have a GK who is as good as any in the Premier League. We have any amount of talented midfielders who he has to sort out and get the best out of them. I imagine Herrera will start infront of the back for alongside ?????. If our defence gels and our midfielders play well we should have a pretty successful season in my opinion.

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