Van Gaal's silence speaks volumes
Well, if there was ever any doubt that new manager Louis van Gaal was in charge at Manchester United, then all such illusions have gone now. For several months, the club has been linked with three targets -- Sporting Lisbon's William Carvalho, Bayern Munich's Toni Kroos, and Southampton's Luke Shaw -- who were seen by former boss David Moyes as the root-and-branch solutions that were needed in key areas.
Yet, within just a few weeks in charge, each of these targets has slowly drifted from view. Kroos has ruled himself out of a move to Old Trafford, though one wonders how keen he truly was on a transfer in the first place; talk of Carvalho has all but disappeared; and Shaw, following the offer of an extra year's contract to Patrice Evra, is apparently no longer being pursued with the same vigour.
What does all this mean? Well, it gives us some hints as to the team that Van Gaal is trying to build. Kroos is best deployed as a number 10, and Manchester United already have two of those, in the form of Juan Mata and Shinji Kagawa. Of course, Bayern manager Pep Guardiola has also used Kroos in deeper guises, to often excellent effect: either as a box-to-box midfielder, or at the base of the midfield three.
However, despite Paul Scholes' hearty recommendation of Kroos as the first player that Manchester United should sign, Van Gaal does not appear so convinced of his suitability for Old Trafford. This may be because Van Gaal does not consider Kroos mobile enough to play in his planned midfield: more cynically, it may be because Kroos was using Manchester United as a means to leverage more money in his contract renegotiation. Either way, it looks like he will now be staying put.
In a less surprising development, Carvalho is another player in whom interest has apparently fallen away since Moyes' departure. Carvalho, 21, has been outstanding as a disruptive presence in front of his team's back four, and will most likely anchor Portugal's midfield at the World Cup this summer. However, while he has very fine defensive capabilities, his distribution from deep is not particularly adventurous. Moyes' idea seems to have been to have Carvalho win possession in the defensive midfield area and lay it off to a teammate to carry the ball forward. The problem with this approach, though, is that it does not enable the swift transition from defence to attack that is a feature of Michael Carrick's play at his very best. Van Gaal may well be looking for a player with a greater passing range to occupy this role: this may be why Roma's Kevin Strootman, though injured, is being persistently linked with the club.
The hesitation to acquire Shaw may fill several Manchester United fans with concern, since it seems reminiscent of the dithering of last summer's transfer window. However, there are key differences between the delay in the acquisition of Shaw and the failure to sign Thiago Alcantara last summer. The main difference is that Thiago had already proven himself as a young player at the very highest level, whereas Shaw -- three years younger than Thiago was then -- is yet to play in the UEFA Champions League. Van Gaal may also have reservations about a relatively untested player being on a contract as high as a reported 100,000 pounds per week, an amount which, if true, seems excessive.
For example, it represents far more than Adnan Januzaj, arguably the most talented teenager in Europe, is being paid on a contract signed just last year. To offer Shaw such a huge contract may not necessarily remove some of his incentives -- since by all accounts he is a very well-adjusted player -- but it may throw the club's wage structure out of kilter, both setting a very expensive precedent for young footballers and causing several watchful agents to agitate for a pay rise on behalf of their clients. If Shaw's services are to be secured, then it should be on terms far more modest than have been reported.
If Shaw, Kroos and Carvalho are destined to go elsewhere, then what -- or who -- does Van Gaal have in mind? Tentatively speaking, he seems to be looking for players who are fleet of foot and ambitious in their passing: the counter-attack will probably be a key feature of his team's play, since it has brought him so much success in the past. Feyenoord's Jordy Clasie or Athletic Bilbao's Ander Herrera are two names that could usefully be in the ring: this is a team that needs someone who can organise a midfield at a very high tempo, just as Xavi did in his early years under Van Gaal at Barcelona.
Among the forwarded, Van Gaal will also note that he has a group of wingers who, though mostly diligent in their defensive duties, have largely been unproductive in an attacking sense for the better part of three years. An intriguing prospect in this area is Bernard, currently playing at Shaktar Donetsk, who recently beat the more-heralded Lucas Moura of PSG to a place in Brazil's World Cup squad. A feature of Van Gaal's most successful sides has been his deployment of very fast and skilful wide players, which explains his early, though apparently unsuccessful, efforts to convince Bayern Munich's Arjen Robben to rejoin him at Old Trafford.
It's not yet clear which signings Van Gaal will make, but it's already clear that he won't be dictated to: something which was seen as a strength of Moyes early on, but which proved to be a fatal hesitation. Still, the Dutchman has a track record of delivering, and while the speculation grows as to who is on his shopping list, the club's supporters can take comfort from the fact that he will do it all his own way.