Louis van Gaal is certainly doing a fine job of banishing the harrowing memories of the David Moyes era from Old Trafford this season. His Manchester United side recorded their third successive win on Saturday by easing past Hull City, and while supporters of the Red Devils will continue to feel the absence of Champions League football – brought about by United’s 7th place finish last year under Moyes, their lowest league position in 24 years – all signs are pointing towards a swift return to Europe’s elite club competition under Van Gaal. After an indifferent start, the Dutchman has steadily shored up the backline, in spite of a number of injuries, and there seems to be a greater cohesion between midfield and attack this campaign than the last. Indeed, LVG deserves ample praise simply for getting Marouane Fellaini to play half-decent football again.
A lack of depth in defence was widely believed to be the most pressing issue that Van Gaal would have to face this season, yet as we have already noted, he has managed to instil a respectable degree of parsimony in the back four even without a number of first-team defenders. The three goals in their last five games that United have conceded – which included matches against Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal – suggests that the defensive players are adapting well to Van Gaal’s methods, and once Daley Blind, Luke Shaw, Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Rafael all return from injury, the Dutchman will be confident that this solidity can be maintained.
Ironically, it is a glut of options at the other end of the pitch that is proving to be van Gaal’s biggest headache. He has generally favoured playing two up front this season, usually consisting of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie. However, with the latter failing to convince on a consistent basis, Radamel Falcao chomping at the bit on the sidelines and the young pretender James Wilson rated highly amongst the Old Trafford coaching staff, we may see a variety of combinations before Van Gaal settles on his preferred pairing. But who should he go for in the long run?
Firstly, we will take it as a given that Rooney is a guaranteed starter for United. Not only would it be a politically controversial decision to drop the England international, who is the club captain and the highest earner by a considerable distance, but he undoubtedly deserves to be in the first XI on current form. He is United’s top scorer with five goals, and his all-round play makes him an integral member of the side.
This leaves one vacant position to be fought over by the three remaining centre forwards on the Red Devils’ books. While Van Gaal has tended to go for his compatriot Van Persie to partner Rooney, the 31 year-old has struggled to hit the heights of his first season at Old Trafford. Although he can still perform superbly on his day – as evidenced by his breathtaking thunderbolt against Hull City – he is doing so less and less frequently, and has been caught out by his lack of pace on a number of occasions. His ability has never come into question; he is simply showing the signs of decline that most strikers do when they hit their 30s. A very useful player to have on the bench, but United must surely look elsewhere for a long-term solution.
Falcao cannot be considered to be the future of Manchester United’s strikeforce either. A phenomenally prolific footballer, he has nevertheless been blighted by injury woes throughout his career, and has inevitably brought these to Old Trafford this season. The Colombian has missed half of United’s games, scoring just once, and is beginning to look like something of an expensive mistake. The massive fee the Red Devils paid to secure his services on a one-year loan has only strengthened the belief that Falcao, as immensely talented as he is, is nothing more than a football mercenary who goes to wherever the most money is being offered. At 28 years of age and with a knee as brittle as a cream cracker, electing to sign Falcao on a permanent basis would be an unwise move on United’s behalf. They should make the most of the remainder of his loan period, and he will surely add to his one goal in the coming weeks. However, a parting of ways at the season’s end is ultimately best for the club.
And so this leaves us with James Wilson. The 19-year-old is highly regarded by Louis van Gaal – the Dutchman even said that he was a brighter prospect than Danny Welbeck when the latter was sold to Arsenal in the summer – and the brace he scored against none other than Hull City in his only first-team appearance for United last season gave us a brief, yet exciting, glimpse of his talent. In Wayne Rooney – a player who himself was once a teenage prodigy and who found himself playing for Manchester United’s first team at a very early age – Wilson has a striking partner from whom he can learn a lot, and seeing this English duo pair up would also be of great benefit to the national team when Wilson eventually gets called up. He may still be raw and unproven, but James Wilson is the future of Manchester United, and having been at the club since childhood the Red Devils should do all they can to make sure that he becomes another success story from their academy of excellence. A prolonged period in the first team alongside Rooney would be a good place to start.
Louis van Gaal is a manager famed for his tendency to give youth a chance. When the time comes where he has to choose his established striking partnership at Old Trafford, he should once again embrace this philosophy.
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