Manchester United’s disappointing start to the season continued on Saturday with a 0-0 draw against Burnley. United are now without s competitive win in their first four games under Louis van Gaal. Saturday’s result may not have been memorable, but it did mark British record signing Angel di Maria’s debut for the club. There were certainly more positives in this game than any other game this season, so what exactly did we learn from the Burnley game?
Injuries are taking their toll
Manchester United are top of one table so far this season, with physioroom.com stating that the Reds are currently missing 9 players through injury. Of these, Angel di Maria, Juan Mata, Ander Hererra, Luke Shaw and Rafael are all first XI players, not including Michael Carrick who is a vital squad player in a side so devoid of midfielders, or Marcos Rojo, whose arrival is being held up under a worrying cloud of legal trouble in his native Argentina. If any more perspective were needed, the squad limit for Premier League clubs is 25 players, meaning that United’s options are currently almost half what they would be were everyone fit. Assuming Rojo was signed to start for United, just five first choice players are actually able to play. This does not excuse these early season performances, as a club of this size should have enough strength in depth to cope with injuries, however it is fair to say that any team in the world would struggle with over half of their first choice players missing. Van Gaal has said he expects many players to return after the international break, and that day cannot come quickly enough.
Angel di Maria was worth every penny
When the signing of Angel di Maria was announced, there were two main threads of thought about his transfer from Real Madrid. The most common was uncontainable excitement from United fans, Di Maria is one of the best players in the world, and Madrid were reluctant to let him go. He is the archetypal match winner, leading Real Madrid in assists and delivering a man-of-the-match performance in last season’s Champions League final victory. The second line of thinking was an acknowledgement of his quality, but a concern that he was not the player United needed, and that the fee needed to secure his services was too high. Within five seconds of receiving the ball for the first time about 10 minutes into his debut, Di Maria assuaged these concerns with a surging run into the Burnley half, ending with an ambitious through ball on which the Wayne Rooney of old would have feasted. Against Swansea and Sunderland United desperately lacked pace and drive from midfield. With Di Maria in the side this is unlikely to be a problem for the rest of the season.
United’s defenders need to get a grip
Jonny Evans had a nightmare against MK Dons. Due to United’s injury crisis, he had to start again on Saturday. Sadly, Jonny Evans had another nightmare against Burnley. Misplacing passes, getting the ball trapped in his feet in key positions, hoofing the ball long rather than playing it to his midfielders’ feet, Evans was woeful and against better opposition United would have conceded several goals. It seemed to be contagious, too, with Tyler Blackett also looking exceedingly sloppy on the ball. The back three is designed to help the team keep possession and build attacks from the back, but Reds’ defence looked to have no intention of doing so, consistently clearing the ball over the midfield and back to Burnley’s defenders, if not trying their best to play out of the back only to lose possession and force a mad scramble to prevent a goalscoring opportunity. It is true that these players are not used to this formation, and perhaps the signing of Rojo and Daley Blind who are more familiar with it will help, but United’s attacking force will never click if their defenders do not provide a more solid base for them.
Van Gaal’s system will click
The strike force of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata has somewhat failed to harness the talent of the sum of its parts so far this season. However, with Di Maria in the team, it is clear to see that Manchester United have bags of attacking talent. Really big bags. Van Gaal is experienced and astute enough to work out what the best combination of attacking players is for this side, and the formation which will get the best out of them. The manager has asked for three months, and said that in fact a year is a more realistic timeframe for building a team and instilling a philosophy. This assertion is supported by his history of slow starts with his new clubs, who often struggle before rocketing up the table once the penny drops. Unlike our last manager, I am inclined to believe that he does have a plan, and unlike our last manager, the board have backed him financially. It is certain that soon this team will click. It is just a matter of time. The good times are coming back to Old Trafford, they’re just not here yet.