Louis van Gaal’s Man United need to remember ‘defence wins you titles’
Manchester United need to become more pragmatic like Chelsea to take steps forward, writes Samuel Stevens
After Manchester United’s humiliating 5-3 defeat by Leicester City at the weekend, the swinging pendulum of public opinion took another violent turn.
While, to some at least, the 4-0 home victory over Queens Park Rangers felt like the dawning of a new era at Old Trafford, it was only a matter of time before United’s frailties were exposed.
Jamie Vardy, the 27-year-old striker who fired Leicester to promotion last season, was all that was required to bring about a defensive implosion so catastrophic it was felt across the entire country. Following a start even worse than the one suffered under David Moyes last year, there is an inescapable feeling that this campaign could become another write-off for the Red Devils.
Louis Van Gaal, however, has previous. At Bayern Munich he endured a similar baptism of fire in Germany, but recovered from a slow start to lift both the Bundesliga and the German Cup, as well as reaching the final of the Champions League.
The thing is, contrary to popular belief, things are much worse now in Manchester than five years ago in Munich.
Jose Mourinho, whose Chelsea side are eight points clear of United at the top of the Premier League table, has probably already crossed Van Gaal’s men off his list of prospective title rivals this season.
During his side’s 1-1 draw with Manchester City, Manuel Pellegrini started with Vincent Kompany and Eliaquim Mangala in the heart of his defence while Mourinho called upon the ever-reliable services of John Terry and Gary Cahill.
“The Premier League is not just different,” the Portuguese boss said afterwards, “It is crazy.”
His experienced central pair, with the added protection of Nemanja Matic in midfield, compensates for this ‘craziness’ and allows his flair players to thrive further up the pitch.
When Mourinho first burst onto the scene in English football, back in the 2004/05 season, the top three clubs – Chelsea, Arsenal and United – suffered just 11 defeats between them.
The top three sides last year, on the other hand, were beaten 18 times. In the modern climate, it would seem that pragmatism could be the most reliable way of ensuring success. Liverpool, with their swashbuckling approach under Brendan Rodgers, learnt this lesson the hard way in May.
Mangala, meanwhile, a £32m signing from Porto this summer, was a risk worth taking for Pellegrini despite Uefa continuing to breathe down his neck over Financial Fair Play.
With such an imposing defensive duo sitting in front of Joe Hart, it is not surprising that City were the first top flight side this season to prevent Diego Costa from finding the back of the net.
At the King Power Stadium, Van Gaal’s men in the middle were Jonny Evans and Tyler Blackett. The latter of whom, sent off after a naive last-ditch challenge on Vardy in the 83rd minute, was on loan at Birmingham City last year.
In March, during a 4-1 away defeat by Sheffield Wednesday in the Championship, Birmingham manager Lee Clark even hauled the 20-year-old off after just 24 minutes. If anyone needs a senior centre-half alongside him, it’s Blackett.
As Esteban Cambiasso wheeled away after scoring Leicester’s equaliser, the finger pointing which ensued revealed a lot about United’s character.
Losing Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra – 1,096 games worth of experience – should have forced United’s hand in the transfer market this summer.
An organised, coherent strategy was needed. Instead the Old Trafford hierarchy recklessly opted to pour £150m on whoever they could get their hands on.
Almost a third of that, of course, was spent on Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo, but neither meet the criteria needed to ease United’s defensive woes. Thomas Vermaelen and Mats Hummels, two defenders who most certainly do, slipped through their fingers far too easily.
With one of the most top-heavy squads in Premier League history, the 20-time English champions appear to be hedging their bets on simply scoring more goals than their opponents.
Evans, at 26-years-old, is now both the oldest and most experienced defender in Van Gaal’s squad. While the Northern Ireland international has proven to be a good servant to the club, he is no Gary Pallister or Jaap Stam.
“You never expect that,” Van Gaal said at full time in the East Midlands. “When you are two goals ahead, for the second time, you have to kill the game and kill possession but we could not do that.”
But are the likes of Angel di Maria, Radamel Falcao or Juan Mata really the sort of individuals to hold back and ‘kill’ possession? The manner in which Mata lost to ball to Richie De Laet before Leicester’s fourth suggests not.
While the capture of Daley Blind is certainly a step in the right direction, the United coaching staff don’t seem able to grasp that square pegs don’t fit in round holes.
Currently only two points ahead of Newcastle United at the bottom of the table, star players will have to be benched to make room for those who are more defensively-minded.
Either Darren Fletcher or Michael Carrick should be in the starting line-up whenever possible, alongside Blind, even if that means sacrificing the likes of Robin van Persie or Wayne Rooney.
Sir Alex Ferguson, who continues to loom above Van Gaal in the stands most match days, sums up United’s problems in just eight words. “Attack wins you games,” he once said. “Defence wins you titles.”