Where Can Manchester United Improve? Part 1 (Defence)

This weekend United will be going into their 36th game of the 2014/15 season with the top 4 spot still not guaranteed and with recent poor performances fresh in their minds. Despite losing three in a row however, it seems as if United are still likely to earn a place in the top 4 this year and although it’s never a good idea to take the foot off the gas, Louis Van Gaal will now surely have one eye on the summer transfer window.

Van Gaal seems to have at least a vague idea of who his first choice 11 is with all players fit and available and although it could be argued that they are not the best 11 players at the clubs disposal, they do seem to form the most effective team. It’s certainly true that the partnership of Fellaini, Blind and Young down United’s left hand side in an orthodox 4-3-3 formation haven’t failed to produce for Van Gaal this season. They’ve played four games together in that formation. These games were against Tottenham, Aston Villa, Liverpool and Manchester City. Arguably United’s best four games Since Alex Ferguson was in charge. The subsequent losses to Chelsea, Everton and West Bromwich Albion occurred with this partnership broken up due to injuries. On the opposite wing, the trio of Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and Antonio Valencia have also passed their way through opposing midfield lines in all of the aforementioned successful games. Valencia’s flaws as an out and out defender have been called into question on more than one occasion this year but he is still no doubt an incredible athlete and a willing runner when the need arises. United, when in top form this year, have proven to be a team that is greater than the sum of it’s parts. Players like Young, Fellaini, Valencia and Jones may not be the kind of players that are hung up in poster form on many bedroom walls, but their ability to work together as a cohesive unit means that they are keeping more suited individuals like Di Maria, Falcao and Rafael Da Silva out of the first 11 for the time being.

With Van Gaal seemingly happy to place emphasis on teamwork over individual brilliance, it begs the question: ‘Where can united improve?’. Simply replacing a player in a certain position with a better player does not necessarily benefit the team. This makes it very difficult to decide how to make changes to the current first choice line up without diminishing the teams ability to work as one.

Many fans and neutrals alike (if there is such thing as a United neutral) would instantly point towards the back four as an area that can and should be improved upon. The lack of a consistent back four is damaging to any team and United have had one of the most inconsistent defensive lines in Europe this season. Of all the players that have appeared in United’s back line this year (an incredible 14 in total) only Chris Smalling seems to have performed well enough to deserve to keep his place going into next season. No other defender has been reliable enough for United, mostly due to a wide range of reoccurring injuries. With Luke Shaw, Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo all capable of filling it at left back it’s probably not necessary to bring in reinforcements for that position. However a more experienced centre back and a top class right back should be high on the list of priorities. Assuming that Louis Van Gaal wants to persist with his preferred 4-3-3 formation, a ball playing centre back would be required. Mats Hummels has long been touted a a possibility and he would certainly fit the bill. A tall, powerful and tactically astute defender with the ability to play the ball out from the back under pressure, not too dissimilar from United legend Rio Ferdinand. Another centre back with these same qualities is Athletic Bilbao defender Aymeric Laporte. Calm and composed on the ball, Laporte is elegant enough to control the game from the back in the style that Louis Van Gaal craves and although he has been criticised for lapses in concentration at times, he is still one of the most highly rated young defenders in European football. It could be an intelligent buy considering his price is likely to rise in coming years.

Despite my personal opinions, many fans are still unhappy with Rafael Da Silva being the clubs only first team right back at the moment. I’ve always thought that Rafael has been unfairly criticised during his time at United but his long absence from the team this year is proof that the club really should attempt to improve in the right back position. Much like Hummels, Nathaniel Clyne has been constantly linked with United recently and he seems to be a player that could slide seamlessly into the United first team. The qualities that have kept Antonio Valencia in the team this year (other than being the only player available) are his tenacity in winning the ball back, his strength and his pace going forward. Clyne is perhaps able to match Valencia in all three departments plus he is a far more capable defender. For obvious reasons he is the first choice for many United fans on social media at the moment although he is in high demand and signing him would not be easy should he decide to leave Southampton this summer. Some journalists have also been quick to link Dani Alves to United in recent weeks. 32 year old Alves has experience at the highest level and could undoubtedly bring something new to the united dressing room but a more suitable La Liga right back would be Valencia’s Joao Cancelo. Cancelo is admittedly inexperienced at just 20 years old but what he lacks in experience he makes up for in work rate. He plays the right back role in a similar fashion to the way Luke Shaw plays the left back role. working tirelessly to win the ball back and working equally as hard to affect the play in attacking areas of the pitch. He makes very few mistakes and he isn’t shy about getting forward to help out the winger ahead of him. United could get Cancelo for a fraction of the price that the higher profile and English Clyne would cost. Assuming they could prise him away from a Valencia team that are surely likely to want to keep him for a while longer.

Strengthening the United defence with these acquisitions or other signings of similar quality would put United’s back line in a promising position going into the new season considering the defensive quality they could have on the bench with the likes of Jones, Rojo and McNair.