With only 13 games remaining in the season, Manchester United sit 3rd in the Premier League table. Plenty of United fans would have accepted that had you offered it to them at the start of the season no doubt. What they might not have accepted, however, is being 12 points off the league leaders, and a meagre 5 points above 7th place.
If United were to lose the next game they could potentially drop out of the coveted top 4 places. The stretch of 6 unbeaten games seems like a distant memory, and current performances are arguably the worst they’ve been all season. Draws to Stoke, West Ham, Tottenham and Cambridge, and unconvincing wins against QPR and Burnley have hardly left fans feeling enamoured with van Gaal – a man who claims that teams improve incrementally under his guidance.
Although the widely disparaged 3-5-2 formation has been dropped in favour of a 4-4-2 diamond, little improvement has been noted. A lack of goals from our centre forwards and Wayne Rooney’s otiose central midfield role unsurprisingly bearing the brunt of criticism. Van Gaal contended that United’s third highest scorer in history is being played in midfield to provide ‘balance’ to the team, although a profound lack of creativity and impact seems to be Rooney’s only provision. He thrived against Newcastle, but has not directly featured in any of United’s goals since. A quick perusal of Rooney’s stats reveal that he has not managed a single shot on target in 2015 so far, and against Burnley, he almost appeared to be part of a back three at times.
The sharp vicissitudes of form have given impetus to several campaigns for van Gaal to be replaced. This, along with declining to fortify the squad during the January transfer window, his weekly omission of £30million Ander Herrera from the starting lineup and playing Di Maria and Rooney out of position have been the salient contentions of anti-van Gaal protestors.
It is clear to everyone that improvement is needed, and I believe that the following changes to the starting XI could benefit United greatly.
A back four is imperative, and while Smalling offers more offensively than Jones, but it’s hard to imagine that either of them will feature in the lineup next season after consistently deplorable performances. Paddy McNair has impressed at right back, and with no serious competition from journeymen Rafael and Valencia, it would be unreasonable to bench him.
With two players in front of the back four, Blind could maintain his holding midfielder capacity, breaking up play and providing extra cover for De Gea, whilst Herrera would be given liberty to move forward with a creative mindset, much like Matic and Fabregas at Chelsea, respectively. It seems that United’s play improves when Herrera is on the pitch, and many United fans would champion his inclusion in the starting XI. He would also furnish the ‘balance’ that van Gaal is so fond of.
Fan favourite Juan Mata is a dependable goal scorer and contender for the primary no. 10 in the Premier League at his best. Adnan Januzaj has forced his way into the starting XI in the last few games, and his pace and flair have been a source of animation in a team otherwise devoid of any. The prospect of his fulfilling his enormous potential is why United should do their utmost to fend off any outside interest. Angel Di Maria, who was named in the FIFPro World XI, showed glimpses of his finest form against Burnley when played in his favoured position. He reached the apotheosis of his season very early on, but I believe he will thrive again once freed from the more central duties van Gaal tends to lean towards.
Any one of Rooney, van Persie or Falcao could be played as a lone striker in this formation. RVP is officially United’s leading goalscorer this season, but his post-Ferguson returns have been disappointing, and his zeal and pace have been at a noticeable shortage this season. Falcao, one of the most celebrated strikers of the decade, has scored only 4 goals so far, but his positioning in treacherous areas and anticipation of where the ball will be is tremendous. With supply from Di Maria and Mata I see no reason why he cannot be a 20+ goal a season centre forward. Having said that, Wayne Rooney is the captain, and would indubitably feature in whatever starting XI van Gaal concocts, so must be included in this one.
I strongly feel that this lineup will bring out the best in each of the players, and with the individual talent at van Gaal’s disposal, any finish outside the top 4 should and will be considered a disaster.