Van Gaal looking to address depth
Much has been made of Brendan Rodgers' comments about Louis van Gaal's first season in the Premier League, with many people seeing them as provocative. However, a close reading of his words reveals them as not particularly controversial. In fact, were Van Gaal not so meticulous himself, they might even have been illuminating.
For the record, Rodgers stated: "I think what he'll find is the competition in this league will be different from any other league that he's worked in ... In a lot of the other leagues there are one or two teams and those are the teams that are expected to win. This is a league where the top team plays the bottom team and on any given day you can lose. You don't get that a lot in the other leagues. I think the competition will probably take him by surprise and that's from foreign managers I have spoken to over the years."
All of the above is entirely fair, even if some -- including Van Gaal's assistant, Ryan Giggs -- have taken umbrage at the fact that Rodgers, who has not yet won a major trophy, seems to be giving advice to a man who has won league titles in Spain, the Netherlands and Germany.
If anything, it asks questions about the depth of Manchester United's squad, which is currently the one key area where their title challenge is likely to fall short this year. This much would have become clear to Van Gaal during the club's unbeaten preseason tour to the U.S. where, despite the fact that his side won every game, the uneven nature of his players became all too clear. Rodgers' observation that even the bottom teams in the Premier League can beat those at the top carries particular weight when it is noted that United's weakest starting XI is significantly weaker than those of any of their closest rivals.
If, for example, Ander Herrera is ruled out through injury at some point in the season, then even a 3-5-2 formation will not be sufficient to give United the defensive solidity and fluidity of passing through midfield that they need. With Michael Carrick out and Darren Fletcher, who had a superb tour, still perhaps unreliable in terms of his fitness, Van Gaal is not far from having to field Marouane Fellaini and Tom Cleverley in the middle of the field again, which would be an unfortunate combination of two men who use the ball with excessive conservatism.
All the current talk is of signing one central midfielder, with the name of Juventus' Arturo Vidal attracting the greatest clamour, but in truth United need two, which why the mooted acquisition of either AC Milan's Nigel de Jong or Ajax's Daley Blind is so attractive. De Jong has the physicality and the passing to accompany Herrera well; his Netherlands teammate offers versatility, able to play as a wing-back as well as a defensive midfielder.
Another area where the new manager will probably need to invest is in his defence. The use of three centre-backs has its own tactical issues, which Van Gaal will be sure to minimise on the training ground, but he will need at least one other body -- presuming that he is willing to give young Michael Keane a chance this year.
While Van Gaal was settling in at Old Trafford, Lazio signed Feyenoord's Stefan de Vrij, who would have represented a signing with his peak well ahead of him. However, in an apparent indication that the manager is building a team to compete for the Premier League title this year, the club has just submitted a bid for Arsenal's club captain Thomas Vermaelen, who -- also apparently coveted by Barcelona -- may cost in the region of 15 million. Vermaelen's age, 28, suggests that, despite his somewhat patchy injury record, United are looking for him to take charge at the back and develop further as he reaches his peak years.
The one problem that Van Gaal seems to have solved, for now at least, is that of width. Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, in particular, have looked far happier as wing-backs in preseason than they have as wingers over the last two years -- the position being a perfect blend of their defensive diligence, stamina and willingness to overlap. Young's adaptation, though it is yet to be tested in elite and truly competitive fixtures, is by far the most surprising, especially since he is now scoring goals again -- four on the tour -- and crossing well both from open-play and dead-ball situations on either flank.
An exciting thought for United supporters is what -- if Van Gaal can reinvigorate the players already at his disposal -- he can do with those whom he has chosen to buy himself. Perhaps if he acquires his main targets, he will not find the Premier League as steep a learning curve as Rodgers has cautiously suggested.