Manchester United are rebuilding under new manager Louis van Gaal. The Dutch gaffer has been criticized recently for his 3-5-2 formation, which has enraged fans and pundits alike for the lack of chances it creates. Traditional United fans are craving a 4-4-2 formation, and an increased emphasis on attacking football. And while they have a point– United have scored only the 5th most goals in the Premier League– van Gaal’s men are currently in 4th place, and have a very legitimate shot at qualifying for the Champions League after just a one year hiatus.
But Champions League football isn’t van Gaal’s ultimate goal, nor should it be. Manchester United are the most decorated franchise in England, and their drive should be, year after year, to win the Premier League. The way the squad is currently constituted, that isn’t a realistic goal. Chelsea and Manchester City are still leaps and bounds ahead of United, in talent, and pedigree, and most importantly, points.
But Louis van Gaal has several things playing to his advantage: money, for one– the Dutchman spent over a hundred million dollars this summer on players like Angel di Maria, Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera, Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo. While all of those players are solid pieces (excluding di Maria, who is a superstar), van Gaal needs to spend more on star power. di Maria was a perfect example of this; the mercurial Argentine was named to the FIFA Team of the Year (to be fair, this award can be taken with a grain of salt, as David Luiz made the team despite putting together one of the worst individual defensive performances ever against Germany in the World Cup), and is a constant threat with the ball at his feet. van Gaal needs more game changers on his squad, and he has the money to make that happen.
He also has the allure of the club, and his personal accomplishments, at his disposal. United are the 2nd most valuable sports franchise on Earth, and boast 20 Premier League titles, 11 FA Cups, 4 League Cups, 20 Community Shields, and 3 European Cups. Old Trafford is a Cathedral of a ground, and playing in the fabled home red kit in front of the famous Stretford End make the Red side of Manchester one of the most desirable places to play. Louis van Gaal has won the Champions League himself with Ajax, and recently led the Netherlands to the semifinals of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
van Gaal has the money and the pull to return United to contender status: here’s how he’ll have to do it.
Keep David de Gea: Once a heavily criticized, mistake-prone young goalkeeper, David de Gea has transformed into one of the world’s best shot stoppers. He’s easily a top 5 keeper in the world, and he makes a strong case as the Premier League’s finest goalkeepers- and he is only 24. While rumors have been swirling about Real Madrid picking him up to be the next Galactico (how fitting it would be, to see legendary Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas pass the proverbial goalkeeping torch to de Gea at club and country), Manchester United must do all they can to keep him at Old Trafford. Victor Valdes is a serviceable backup, but his age and the often ineptitude of the United defense could lead to some struggles. de Gea must be kept. Will United have a choice to keep him? That remains to be seen.
Sign 1-2 ball-winning midfielders and 1-2 dominant center backs: William Carvalho. Arturo Vidal. Kevin Strootman. Ezequiel Garay. Mats Hummels. Diego Godin. Raphael Varane. All marquee names, and all of them have been linked to the club after the past 12 months. Carvalho is a young, brilliant Portuguese anchor defensive midfielder on the rise. Arturo Vidal exemplifies a brilliant box-to-box midfielder. Strootman, coming off a torn ACL, is a ball-winning monster. Garay is a prodigious center back coming off an impressive World Cup campaign with Argentina. Hummels has been United’s most desired center back for almost a year, and was the best center back at the World Cup. Godin was the captain and the rock for Atletico Madrid’s dominant defense. Varane is one of the best young center backs in the world. Signing 3 of these players would almost instantly solve the defensive issues that have plagued United for a year and a half.
Sign a right back: Brazilian right back Rafael da Silva has been injured and disappointing this season, which has led to speculation about finding a replacement for him. Compatriot Dani Alves has been linked to United, after announcing he would leave Barcelona after the season. Alves is a good forward player who has an endless engine, but his struggles domestically and internationally (he was dropped from Brazil’s XI in favor of Maicon due to a string of poor performances) suggest that he may not be the answer. Southampton’s Nathaniel Clyne could follow Luke Shaw’s footsteps and join Man U– the English right back has been a revelation for the impressive Saints. Also an option is Irish right back Seamus Coleman, who was incredible a season ago for Everton.
Don’t retain Radamel Falcao, and entrust James Wilson: Falcao has been a disappointment at Old Trafford, struggling with fitness and accuracy. He only has three goals to his name, and is certainly not worth his outrageous wages. James Wilson, on the other hand, is a young (19 years old) and exciting strike prospect. In United’s most recent Premier League match against Aston Villa, Falcao missed several golden opportunities, while Wilson cooly slotted a goal in the last minute of injury time as a substitute. In order to save money, Falcao should not be retained, and Wilson should be given the time to develop with the first team.
Make a choice with other home-grown players: Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Tyler Blackett, Adnan Januzaj… Manchester United have several young, home grown talents that have been somewhat neglected this season. As the team starts to emphasize signings as opposed to cultivating youth, a decision needs to be made as to whether to keep these young talents or to maximize their potential value on the transfer market.
Sign one more young, promising attacker: Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Juan Mata, di Maria, Falcao all play for United, and the first four are owned by the club. While that sort of attacking dynamism has many fans feeling optimistic about the squad going forward, the average age of those five players is 28 (Mata and di Maria being the youngest, at 26). United need one more young attacker, about 20-22, to anchor their offense for the long term. A perfect fit? 20 year old Dutch winger Memphis Depay, who was brilliant at the World Cup for van Gaal’s Dutch team.
An ideal XI would look like:
David de Gea in goal. A back line of Luke Shaw, Raphael Varane, Ezequiel Garay, Seamus Coleman. A midfield trio of Kevin Strootman, Wayne Rooney, and Juan Mata. And an attacking trio of Angel di Maria, Robin van Persie, Memphis Depay.
United are still a year or so from Premier League contention, but once the team is allowed to open their large checkbook, anything can happen.