So far so good for Louis Van Gaal. He’s achieved what he set out to achieve without really setting the world alight. He’s convinced without ever really being convincing.
But that’s a good thing, and there’s more to come.
Building a football team is a progressive thing. Jose Mourinho came back to Chelsea and worked on the overhaul in the first season and saw the benefits in the second. His first season back was itself a case of convincing without ever really being convincing. Chelsea came third, were kind of in a title race and made it to a Champions League semi-final. It sounds like an impressive season, but there were too many slip ups against the lesser sides – it was close but no cigar. Still, it was progress.
This season Chelsea are back to where Jose Mourinho feels they belong. They’re champions and they’re not going to stop there, they’ll strengthen their side.
And that’s the model Van Gaal will surely follow. One season to steady a rocking ship, add some more quality where he needs it – a striker and a defender should surely be on the list – and then challenge for a title next season. Sounds simple doesn’t it?
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We can be fairly sure that United are going to spend big when the transfer window opens. It’s United’s way of acting like a big club. They’ve worked so hard to build up one of the most lucrative business models in the world – or you can call that billions’ worth of debt if you’re of the jealous type – and now that they are in trouble they can use that money to bail themselves out. So Van Gaal has a considerable war chest to dig into this summer.
Despite the well-publicised defensive failings last season, Louis Van Gaal is probably more worried about his attack than his defence. United’s defensive woes were partly caused by a myriad of factors. Youthful inexperience, individual errors, injuries and maladaptation to Van Gaal’s formation and tactics are all blame-able to various degrees.
Their attacking failures are a little more difficult to pin down. United suffered three consecutive defeats against Chelsea, Everton and West Brom as their season came to a grinding halt. But worse than the defeats was the fact that United didn’t score in any of those games. They had 60%+ of the possession and created a multitude of chances but never rippled the net fabric. For a team that has spent so much on attacking options, that’s simply unacceptable.
The stats don’t lie either. United’s goal difference of +25 is worse than all three teams above them, they scored 62 goals – almost 10 fewer than Chelsea (73) and Arsenal (71), and 21 fewer than Manchester City (83). Defensively, though, it’s a better story. United conceded just five goals more than Chelsea and a goal fewer than City.
In an attacking sense, it’s clear to see that United are struggling. For all of the wonderful possession stats, United’s domination of games has been sterile. They’ve offered a lot of passing around the final third but little penetration, even resorting in the end to lumping it to Fellaini with varying degrees of success.
An interesting stat is that United are 6th in the chances created table. Last season they managed to create 391 chances (interestingly, QPR managed 385), but that’s a whole 141 behind leaders Manchester City. Arsenal and Chelsea managed a similar amount to each other, and are still miles ahead of United.
And that’s where United need to strengthen. It’s important to score the goals. If the defence looks weak it’s probably because United camp in the opposition half for so much of the game. The whole team is just shifted up the pitch a few yards, so one bad pass allows a counter, and Premier League teams are all adept on the counter. But when you have 60%+ of the ball possession, the opposition doesn’t get many chances to counter.
The progress United need to make is up front, they need to create chances and they need to convert the ones they do make. That’s why Van Gaal seems to be blindly focussed on attackers at the moment. Surely that’s where they’ll strengthen this summer.