The new Premier League season has barely begun, yet Manchester United already appear to have established their identity. The early signs are that Louis van Gaal’s men will be organised and conservative, with substance preferred over style. That might be a far cry from the swashbuckling champions of the Sir Alex Ferguson era, but it could be enough to keep Manchester United in the title race.
The additions of Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger, coupled with Michael Carrick’s return to fitness, have solidified the Manchester United midfield, which has long been an Achilles heel. The focus is now on patient ball retention, with neat interchanges in midfield and continual protection for the back four. The two full-backs – Luke Shaw and Matteo Darmian – have also seemingly been instructed to limit their overlapping bursts. It has not been pretty, but the league table shows it has been effective.
This approach makes Manchester United somewhat reliant on counter-attacking raids like the one that broke the deadlock against Tottenham Hotspur on the opening weekend. With fewer goalscoring chances being created, it is now especially crucial that van Gaal’s men show their clinical side.
In truth, it is the type of system in which Angel di Maria would have been a huge asset. Di Maria ended an unhappy time in Manchester by sealing a move to Paris Saint-Germain this summer after struggling to replicate his sublime performances in a Real Madrid shirt the previous year. Nonetheless, he was the likeliest Manchester United player to beat his man and create an opening out of nothing. He would have offered this more conservative Manchester United side a deadly weapon to unlock defences.
But Di Maria never really found his groove. Given that the Argentine came with a hefty £59.7M price tag, the Red Devils were entitled to have expected more. Whether it was the physical style of Premier League football, niggling injuries, difficulty settling in England, or a combination of the three, Di Maria has to rank among the highest profile flops in recent years. By the end of last season, he was resigned to the role of impact substitute. Van Gaal was looking for more consistent, complete performances. That meant tracking back defensively, retaining possession and providing an end product. Di Maria fell short on all three counts.
On the other hand, the Di Maria signing served as a timely reminder that Manchester United were still a force to be reckoned with in Europe, even during a season where they had not qualified for the Champions League. This is rarely discussed, but it certainly mattered, both for future deals and in appeasing the likes of Wayne Rooney.
But Manchester United are back in the Champions League now and eager to prove they belong in the title race conversation. After stuttering starts for Chelsea and – to a lesser degree – Arsenal, their belief will be growing.
That said, Manchester United may find themselves a little light in attack as the season progresses. It remains to be seen whether Memphis Depay, Juan Mata, Ashley Young and Adnan Januzaj can provide the service that Rooney needs as a lone striker. Rooney has a long campaign ahead of him. Van Gaal has granted the England captain’s wish to lead the line, but Rooney has been an isolated figure thus far. Away to Aston Villa, he dropped deep to get involved in the build-up play, but had no sights of goal.
The biggest positive in Manchester United’s two 1-0 victories has been the defensive steel, even as the David de Gea saga rumbles on off the field. Wrapping Chris Smalling in cotton wool between games should be a consideration for van Gaal given how well the centre-back is playing. Manchester United fans will be praying that Smalling can stay fit for the full campaign.
The coming weeks will reveal more about whether Manchester United’s conservative style is here to stay. Games against Newcastle, Swansea and Liverpool will test their resolve and their ability to chase the game if they fall behind. But, for now, Van Gaal can savour maximum points and a team that is rounding into shape.