Manchester United’s attacking play may well be the subject of a lot of criticism this week but it is important to consider just how much Manchester United have strengthened defensively this season. A few months ago, United looked very leaky at the back as the defence struggled with injuries and took time to adapt to van Gaal’s five-at-the-back formation. However, things have improved in a defensive sense since the season has developed and this is down to a number of factors.
All good defences need a good goalkeeper to keep them on their toes as well as providing an assured figure in the penalty area. Without a solid goalkeeper, the whole defence will not operate successfully as a unit. This is why David de Gea has been so vital to Manchester United this season. When the Spaniard first arrived at Old Trafford, he looked a flimsy figure, struggling to command his area and gather crosses coming into the box. However, since he has adapted to the English game, he has become more of an imposing presence; he always possessed the excellent athleticism that made him produce excellent reaction-based saves but now he has improved by combining this natural ability with a sense of solidarity. He is not afraid to come and gather crosses, he has adapted well to the physical side of the Premier League. The Spaniard has kept seven clean sheets so far this season, the fourth highest total in the league. This is certainly an encouraging amount considering the often makeshift set-up of the United defence this campaign.
As well as the goalkeeper, defenders at the club have adapted well to van Gaal’s new system. Playing five at the back seemed to cause a lot of confusion at first, especially due to the fact that the three central defenders were changing on a regular basis due to injuries. The likes of Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Paddy McNair have been the best performers at the back for Manchester United this season. According to Squawka data, United actually have the second-highest defence performance score this season with 2,019, second only to Southampton with a defensive score of 2,468. Squawka recognises Phil Jones as United’s best defender this season. The Englishman has made the most interceptions and the most clearances in the team.
Another encouraging stat for United fans is the performance of Paddy McNair; in the 10 Premier League games McNair has featured in so far, United have won eight whilst McNair has a 56% tackle success rate as well as winning 53% of his contested duels. Another encouraging sign for United is the defence form of Antonio Valencia; he has won 58 tackles, 15 more than any other United player, with a success rate of 57%, the highest in the entire squad. The Ecuadorian has shown that he can adapt to Van Gaal’s wing-back role and is another defensive success story for the club.
Although van Gaal may not be entirely pleased with how his team are performing so far this term, they are certainly showing signs of improvement, especially in a defensive capacity. The Dutchman will be encouraged by the fact that the United defence has become more of a solid unit in recent weeks. It is this solidarity that has contributed to the Red Devils losing only once in their last fourteen Premier League matches. It may look like United still have a long way to go if they want to be challenging for trophies next year, but this is an encouraging development nonetheless.