Analysis: More questions than answers for Van Gaal as certain United players impress

With pre-season displays exuding confidence, will the new manager stick to tried and tested players?

LVGFinal New Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal must decide whether to stick or twist regarding certain players as transfer deadline approaches. Source: Tony Ding/AP/Press Association Images

PRIOR TO MANCHESTER UNITED’S 3-1 win over Real Madrid on Saturday night, Louis van Gaal admitted that he wished to allow his players the opportunity to impress him before deciding whether or not to bring in new faces.

I want to give the current players an honest chance. We are winning everything, maybe we don’t need other players.”

Mind games, to a certain extent. Van Gaal has already decided that the squad is imbalanced while such a radical formation change will certainly require reinforcements at the back. There seems little doubt that more players will be moved on: Marouane Fellaini is set to complete a loan move to Napoli while the likes of Nani and Wilfried Zaha have surely ran out of chances. And though Van Gaal will probably give minutes to Michael Keane, Tyler Blackett and Reece James this season, it’s inevitable that he will bring in two experienced defenders before the 31st August. But, he does have a dilemma. Further out the pitch, especially in midfield, certain players have played themselves into Van Gaal’s thoughts.

Darren Fletcher

Darren Fletcher’s return from long-term illness has come at the perfect time. At 30, he’s certainly not the future but after losing so many experienced players during the summer, the midfielder’s influence can’t be overlooked. From four pre-season games so far, Fletcher has worn the captain’s armband three times and has also featured the most  of any United player on the tour, despite being rested for the Roma game – which has been generally accepted as the team’s worst performance since arriving in the US.

His energy has always proved his biggest asset but under Van Gaal, that’s not enough. And it’s surely not a coincidence that from four games, United have conceded three times, with two of those goals coming when Fletcher was off the pitch. Now, these are friendly games and it’s difficult to lose oneself in a haze of tactical analysis but Fletcher has certainly brought an intelligence and awareness to each encounter, with Van Gaal already feeling he can trust the Scot with any given instruction. Be it screening the defence, dropping back during set-pieces or pushing forward when United add numbers to a counter attack.

Following the game against Inter Milan, there was an appreciation of United’s quick passing and Fletcher almost seemed to set the tempo. Under Moyes, he would’ve been encouraged to take an extra touch and look for a wide ball to the left side, in an effort to open the game up. But, as this clip illustrates, under Van Gaal, the emphasis is on speed, precision and awareness – not direction.


Again, the much-lauded opening goal against Real Madrid on Saturday was something similar. But the initial burst of power came from Fletcher in midfield while there was a  quickness of thought in setting up Welbeck later in the move before Young finished it to the net.

Source: Spicy Kick/YouTube

Under Moyes last season, United would regularly reach the edge of an opponent’s box and run out of ideas. Players would drop to the eighteen-yard line and attempt to thread through a defence. But the attacks were consistently too slow. With a front-line composing of Mata, Rooney, Welbeck, Kagawa et al – players with an appreciation for movement and changing angles, many were left confused as to why United were so lethargic up top. But the reasons extended further back, especially in transition.

It certainly didn’t help that Moyes’ double-pivot in his 4-2-3-1 was usually two from Carrick, Cleverley and Fellaini – each offered possession, poise, purpose and physicality but not in one complete package. What Van Gaal has done is acknowledge Fletcher’s in-game intelligence and used it to push and begin counters.

It says much that a player like Cleverley, who has featured heavily during the tour and who has spoken of how he’s tailor-made to work under Van Gaal, hasn’t offered much. In contrast, Fletcher has stood out and his awareness and smarts made United’s opener against Real.

FletcherFinal Source: newuser

It looks pretty basic – a pass into the channel. But, given United’s new system, Fletcher knows he can gamble in bursting forward, and is aware of Danny Welbeck’s position far-left. As soon as he sends Rooney away, he takes a nice angle and sprints forward to pick up the return – by making the run, he’s essentially forcing the striker to play him in.

FletcherAnglesFinal Source: newuser

Rooney’s return is perfectly-measured and received much praise but Fletcher’s initial pass and move takes out three Real players and forces Nacho to move across to cover. Fletcher is able to flick it on to the unmarked Welbeck, who then feeds the marauding Young who finishes well.

Shinji Kagawa

Real Madrid Manchester United Soccer Source: Tony Ding/AP/Press Association Images

It’s incredibly early to say but Louis van Gaal may be perfectly placed to allow the Japanese international revitalise his Manchester United career. Under the previous regime, Kagawa was continuously played wide left as Moyes’ religiously remained loyal to a 4-2-3-1. With Kagawa growing increasingly frustrated, it seemed inevitable that he’d move away from Old Trafford. Now, with Van Gaal clearly preferring to use Juan Mata as his play-maker in his 3-4-3 (or 3-4-1-2), Kagawa’s first-team opportunities would appear slim. But, on closer inspection, it’s not entirely true.

Because of the formation change, Van Gaal’s two strikers will be Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, with Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez (if he stays) offering alternatives. Last year, Kagawa had to battle with Rooney and Mata for his preferred role. Now, in theory, it should just be Mata who’ll be his competition, which loosely translates to more game-time due to inevitable rotation. Van Gaal has spoken of how he prefers Rooney as a no.10 or a no.9 but the manager’s immediate preference is to play with two strikers, which will place Rooney closer to goal much more regularly.

So, we should see Kagawa more regularly under Van Gaal and certainly playing centrally rather than isolated on the wing. As usual, what he has contributed to United’s tour so far has been rare but beautiful with his assist for Javier Hernandez’ goal against Real on Saturday sublime.

Source: WeAreFootball TV/YouTube

Van Gaal played Kagawa deeper in the first two games against LA and Roma and despite having a minimal impact, it showed that the midfielder is adaptable and open to trying new things. During his time at Borussia Dortmund, he created so much inside the final third but could also arrive late in the box to get on the end of crosses or simply drift forward to add numbers to a counter. Van Gaal may see some similarities between Kagawa and Georginio Wijnaldum. For PSV, the 23 year-old is an impressive goal-scoring attacking midfielder. But for the national team, Van Gaal dropped him deeper to play alongside Nigel de Jong as a no.8 at the World Cup.

Van Gaal has certainly learned that Kagawa still has plenty to offer at United. And for someone so obsessed with subtle technical alterations, the Dutchman might enjoy trying to accommodate him in his side.

Ashley Young

Van Gaal likes flexibility and his PE teacher-past is evident when attempting to coax players into stepping out of their comfort zones. He will warm to those willing to learn and Ashley Young has emerged as an early favourite. Over his three seasons at the club, his attacking prowess has come in for criticism but his defensive work has always been solid. He’s certainly displayed his versatility on this pre-season tour, scoring twice in the first game against the LA Galaxy after coming on as a second-half substitute and playing through the middle. He took both goals incredibly well, timing his runs to perfection before keeping composure.

Manchester United Galaxy Soccer Source: /AP/Press Association Images

Against Inter Milan, Young played on the right and left flanks – something that won’t go unnoticed by Louis van Gaal, who has a lack of options in the wing-back positions. But, Young’s ability to play comfortably on both sides hints at him having a much greater role under the new management.

As Luke Shaw has found out to his cost, the wing-backs set the tone for United and it requires immense fitness to cover so much ground during games. The emphasis on work and energy says much about what Van Gaal likes in his players and why someone like Dirk Kuyt was such a cult hero for the Dutch team at the World Cup. Early on, Young’s effort has won him a friend in the new manager.

Ultimately, the new formation has worked impressively for United so far with four of their thirteen goals scored by a player occupying the role on the left flank (two for Reece James against LA and two for Young against Real). Young’s first against the Spaniards would’ve delighted Van Gaal, mainly because of how his players used the system so well.

YoungWingbackFinal Source: newuser

Young was in possession on the left-flank with the clock showing 19.58. Under-pressure and out-numbered, he played a simple pass back to Jonny Evans but as soon as United made a key breakthrough on the right side, Young cantered down the wing.

AshleyYoungWingbackGoal Source: newuser

16 seconds later, Young was unmarked inside the Real penalty area. After good work by his comrade, Antonio Valencia, on the right-wing, Darren Fletcher’s incisive run created the space and Young was rewarded for keeping up with the play and pushing to add his weight to the counter attack. Within twenty seconds of him touching the ball in an unthreatening position on the left-wing, he had scored a goal.

It was bound to have made Louis van Gaal happy and he may now think twice about massively overhauling the United squad. Certainly, more players are required and some will undoubtedly be shown the door but others have proved to the new manager that their demise has been greatly exaggerated.

Manchester United: Players’ minutes on USA tour: 

Darren Fletcher: 90 + 90 + 90 = 270

Phil Jones: 45+ 45 + 45 + 90 = 225

Jonny Evans: 45 + 45 + 90 + 45 = 225

Tyler Blackett: 45 + 90 + 45 + 45 = 225

Michael Keane: 45 + 45 + 45 + 90 = 225

Ander Herrera: 90 + 45 + 45 + 45 = 225

Ashley Young: 45 + 45 + 90 + 45 = 225

Tom Cleverley: 45 + 70 + 45 + 45 = 205

Juan Mata: 45 + 45 + 45 + 62 = 197

Antonio Valencia: 45 + 45 + 45 + 62 = 197

Wayne Rooney: 45 + 45 + 45 + 62 = 197

David De Gea: 45 + 45 + 90 = 180

Luke Shaw: 45 + 45 + 45 + 45 = 180

Danny Welbeck: 45 +45 + 45 + 41 = 163

Shinji Kagawa: 45 + 45 + 45 + 28 = 163

Chris Smalling: 45 + 45 + 45 = 135

Luis Nani: 45 + 45 + 31 = 121

Javier Hernandez: 45 + 20 + 23 + 28 = 116

Wilfried Zaha 45 + 49 = 94 

Anders Lindegaard: 45 + 45 = 90

Reece James: 45 + 45 = 90

Jesse Lingard: 45 + 28 = 73 

Sam Johnstone: 45 = 45 

Rafael: 45 = 45

Ben Amos: 45 = 45

Will Keane: 45 = 45

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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