The Season So Far
Louis Van Gaal’s first season in charge at Old Trafford has been indisputably stressful but seems to be ending on a high. His was never going to be an easy job – the fans at Old Trafford expect nothing less than the world after being given exactly that by Sir Alex Ferguson for 26 and a half of years – and the Dutch master has suffered repeated embarrassments, but he appears to have steered United back to the Champions League and, following Manchester City’s collapse, re-established local supremacy. Most fans would have taken that in July, but still some remain unconvinced.
As ever in this day and age, most of what has been written about Van Gaal’s tenure has been shamelessly hyperbolic, malicious and lacking in perspective. First, from the moment he replaced the hapless David Moyes, every public utterance was held up as proof of his genius. Then, when it slowly became clear that he wasn’t going to win every game 5-0, the press turned on him. By March he was being widely portrayed as an incompetent, arrogant and out-of-touch old man.
Such knee-jerk judgements haven’t just been related to Van Gaal. United’s marquee summer signings, Ángel Di María and Radamel Falcao, went from being considered among the best players in the world to being figures of fun within a few months. Never mind that both were adjusting to a new club, new teammates and a new way of life, while also dealing with the aftermath of a violent burglary and a career-changing injury respectively – they haven’t immediately produced all-time great individual seasons or Messi-like numbers, so they’re both seen as busted flushes.
The truth, of course, is that Man Utd are in the middle of a rebuilding job of unprecedented scale. Performances and results were always going to be patchy in the post-Ferguson era and while some managerial decisions have been rather baffling and some big money signings haven’t worked out as hoped, that’s football – it happens. There’s no such thing as guaranteed success.
If there’s a problem anywhere, it’s with the press for presenting Van Gaal as a sure bet and with the fans for buying into the idea of a messiah who would magically make Man Utd unplayable again. Despite the majority of Van Gaal’s selections being sensible and most of United’s summer signings seeming like they’ll work out in the long-term, standards were set so insanely high that a few blips became full-blown crises and the baby almost went out with the bathwater.
The tide has recently turned back in Van Gaal’s favour. Comfortable victories over Tottenham, Liverpool and Man City have lifted spirits at Old Trafford and boosted confidence in the new regime, and most United fans are hopeful of a title challenge next year. Were it not for the latest spate of injuries, Saturday’s game would be a good measure of United’s progress, but given said list of absentees, it would be unwise to judge Van Gaal and company on this showing – not that that will stop anyone doing so anyway.
Perhaps the key reason for Van Gaal’s negative portrayal in the media is his tactical flexibility, which has been portrayed as indecisive foreign cowardice whenever possible. Most fans and pundits are still in thrall to the idea that to ensure success the same eleven must be picked in the same formation and system in every game. There’s an element of truth to that, as Chelsea have shown, but Van Gaal is correct in thinking that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Furthermore, when your squad is as unbalanced and downright confusing as Man Utd’s, it's logical to experiment and find a winning formula before committing to one system.
The season began with United using a back three, which never really suited them and only succeeded in making their play shockingly stodgy and one-dimensional. It was a worthwhile experiment based on an idea that made sense on paper for a number of reasons (with a squad low on top centre-backs, quantity over quality was needed at the back; it enabled United to play two strikers and a midfield three; Falcao, Di María, Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie could play in their best positions) but one that didn’t work in practice.
Next, 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond was tried out, with many of the same ideas behind it, but that was little better. Van Gaal has recently returned to his beloved 4-3-3 and with unsurprising success. It was entirely predictable that moving away from a two-striker formation would cure many of United’s woes – playing two number nines in modern football is a complete waste of time – and it will be interesting to see what Van Gaal does when Robin Van Persie and Falcao come back into contention on a regular basis.
In recent games, the 4-3-3 has allowed United’s attack to work from many different angles. It could pretty much be divided into two units: Daley Blind, Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini on or from the left flank, and Antonio Valencia, Ander Herrera and Juan Mata on or from the right. Each trio has worked together to devastating effect in open play, with Michael Carrick orchestrating play from deep and Wayne Rooney acting as a mobile(ish) pivot up front.
However, injuries to Blind and Carrick, as well as the absences of Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Jonny Evans, mean that United’s spine will be restructured for this game and the system will probably change to protect their fragile centre. It will amount to a patchwork team and were it to play with any fluidity or flair, it would be a surprise.
The most obvious thing that jumps out of the numbers is that Man Utd are great at keeping the ball – no Premier League team completes a higher percentage of its passes and only Man City’s average possession figure is greater – and José Mourinho’s happiness to play on the counter means that United can be expected to have the majority of the ball. That said, their domination is very often sterile and Chelsea should be able to get enough men behind the ball to neutralise United when they have possession.
Therefore, United’s main attacking threats will most likely be swift breaks with Mata, Herrera and Di María, if the Argentine is selected, and long-balls to Fellaini, whose ability to control the ball on his chest while simultaneously elbowing opponents into unconsciousness remains unparalleled.
Although it's not their strongest suit, United are still a force in the air: only two teams cross more often than them, only three produce more headers on goal and their figure of 12 goals from set pieces is the third best in the division. While their attacking potential in open play may have been greatly diminished by injuries, they will remain a threat from dead balls. This may sound ridiculous, but John Terry and Gary Cahill will have to keep a close eye on Chris Smalling.
There’s no use beating around the bush: Man Utd will be vulnerable simply because their starting eleven will be so unfamiliar. In Friday’s press conference, Van Gaal mentioned the possibility of playing Wayne Rooney as a holding midfielder due to the lack of alternatives available, which says it all. The prospect of Didier Drogba being marked by Smalling and Paddy McNair is enough to send shivers down any United fan’s spine.
If it isn’t, then the prospect of Eden Hazard playing against Antonio Valencia certainly should be. The Ecuadorian winger has never really looked comfortable as a full-back and Mike Dean might as well show him a yellow card in advance. It’s inevitable that he’s going to repeatedly foul his way into the book.
One of the reasons for Valencia’s susceptibility is that if Juan Mata plays ahead of him on the right, he won’t be getting any help in stopping Hazard. If Mata does start on the right, don’t be surprised a large part of Mourinho’s post-match dealings with the press is dominated by him saying "that’s why I sold Mata." Equally, don’t be surprised if Van Gaal moves Mata away from that flank and plays someone more workmanlike in front of Valencia.
As ever, Chelsea’s more-or-less picks itself: with Diego Costa and Loïc Rémy injured, Didier Drogba should start up front, while Mourinho’s frustration with Oscar means that Ramires should continue alongside Nemanja Matić in midfield. Man Utd’s is much harder to call – I’ve assumed that Van Gaal will do his best to stick as closely as possible to the system that has been working so well of late, but it really is anyone’s guess.
Chelsea have been pretty abject of late and under any other circumstances a draw would seem almost inevitable. However, United’s depletion means that the Blues should take a big step towards title glory.