There we have it. Louis van Gaal’s first season in charge of Manchester United is over and what a rollercoaster it has been. From an early season injury plague to constant switches in formation to embarrassing results against lower league opposition, there have been many problems along the way but in the end, the Red Devils did the minimum required and returned to the Champions League after just one season out.
Credit to Van Gaal, he has made fans forget the tribulations of the previous campaign under David Moyes, where a stale squad laboured their way to a seventh place finish in the first campaign without Sir Alex Ferguson at the helm. The Dutchman came to the club off the back of successfully guiding Holland to third at the World Cup and immediately set about transforming the club from top to bottom.
A new ethos, or philosophy as Van Gaal famously refers to it, was implemented throughout the club and the deadwood within the first team squad was immediately removed. Over 20 players left the club last summer with six new faces coming through the door. Whilst for the majority of the campaign United did just enough to stay inside the top four, we have seen in recent months some truly exciting signs that the 20-time champions are about to return to their best next season.
Here are five key thoughts following Van Gaal’s first season at the helm.
1) United achieve their primary objective but there is still major work to do
First things first, let’s get one thing straight. A fourth place finish should not equal a successful campaign or a cause for celebration at a club like Man Utd. It was the minimum expectation for Van Gaal in his first year in charge to set the platform for a real push for major honours next season. Returning to the Champions League is exciting after one year without any European football so the manager should be applauded for guiding the Red Devils to that objective.
However, there is still plenty of work to do if United are to become a more consistent and successful team. Their away record was poor all season, as was their record against teams in the bottom half. United dropped points against the likes of Burnley, Hull City, Sunderland, West Brom and Leicester over the course of the campaign, results which ultimately cost them from achieving anything more than a top four finish.
Van Gaal must invest in the squad this summer to improve key areas. These include a new right-back, a central defensive option, a holding midfielder and a world class striker to add to the recently acquired Memphis Depay from PSV. His first season in charge should be regarded as a job well done rather than a success. The re-building has begun but it is next season where Van Gaal will be judged after a year bedding into English football.
2) Van Gaal has rejuvenated squad members who were once written off
What was most impressive about the meticulous way Van Gaal relieved the squad of its deadwood were the players he chose to keep at the club last summer. There were certain members of the squad that had been written off by the majority of the fan-base, who the manager chose to keep in and around the squad. They have benefitted from this faith and truly delivered this season to establish themselves as vital cogs in the United machine.
I’m talking about players like Ashley Young, Marouane Fellaini, Antonio Valencia and Chris Smalling. Those four names in particular have shone this season and have nailed down positions in the starting eleven. Whether they are good enough to remain in the starting line-up when the new faces come sin is another question but they have certainly served United well during a transitional season. Bar the much improved Smalling, who has become the leader in the backline, they are the sort of players who may need upgrading but have served their side well all year.
Young’s renaissance has been the stand-out. His direct running and versatility has been crucial to United and his match-winning display in the Manchester derby will live long in the memory. Meanwhile, Fellaini may still be best as a Plan B but his physical presence in midfield has been vital to results in big games. And finally, Valencia is a transformed character defensively at right-back but will benefit from some competition being brought in this summer.
3) Big name signings do not guarantee instant success
The six new faces we saw brought into the club last summer have had mixed results but surprisingly it has been the lesser name buys that have shone through as the stars. Ander Herrera in particular is the creative midfielder United have needed for a long time. The Spaniard is a neat player, who makes things happen in the final third and is capable of arriving late in the box to score goals. He was Van Gaal’s best signing by a distance.
Meanwhile, Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind’s versatility during tough injury times have also been vital. Although the pair have faded towards the end of the campaign, they will both play crucial roles next term. Likewise 19-year-old Luke Shaw, who has suffered with injuries individually throughout the campaign, should serve United well for the next decade. The English full-back is a star in the making and his super performance away at Chelsea proved that.
On the other hand, the big signings of Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao were less successful. Falcao, who was immediately sent back to Monaco when the season ended, scored just four times during his loan spell, a tally which is not good enough for a team like United. Di Maria should get another chance and despite starting the campaign off with a flourish, looked a shadow of the player who won the Champions League with Real Madrid in 2013-14. The Argentine needs the fans to get behind him so he can regain his lost confidence because he is undoubtedly a world class midfielder on his day.
4) United’s strike-force needs refreshing this summer
Surprisingly, it is not the once leaky defence which has been the issue this season. It has the strikers who have failed to deliver half decent goal tallies. The formation switches earlier in the season did not help but neither did Wayne Rooney playing as a holding midfielder at times. If United are to challenge on four fronts next year, they need to start creating more chances and scoring more goals.
In terms of league goals, Rooney scored 12, Robin van Persie bagged 10 times to add to Falcao’s miserly tally of four. Their tally of 26 in total matched the total that Golden Boot winner Sergio Aguero got in total, which is not good enough. With the Colombian gone, Van Persie could be next out of the door whilst captain Rooney needs to deliver more next campaign.
Van Gaal must be looking to refresh the attack in time for the start of next season. United need their strikers to be scoring at least 20 goals each, especially with Depay, Di Maria, Herrera and Juan Mata supplying them regularly. Karim Benzema and Robert Lewandowski seem like unrealistic targets, meaning someone like Harry Kane or Alexandre Lacazette could be of interest. Only time will tell but a prolific, more dynamic striker is needed at Old Trafford next season.
5) Van Gaal’s learning curve will serve him well next season as United look to mount a title charge
Some of Van Gaal’s decisions have raised many an eyebrow during his first season, namely Phil Jones taking corners and the decision to play Di Maria up front with Rooney in midfield earlier in the year. But one thing is for sure, 2014-15 has been steep learning curve for Van Gaal, who must now know what it takes to win games regularly in England. He needs to add quality in key areas to give the squad more depth to compete on all fronts.
What will be key is how early he can bring in those players and how quickly they can settle into the squad. We saw Jose Mourinho at Chelsea last summer identify the weaknesses in his squad and immediately sign Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa, two signings who were vital in them winning the title. The signing of Depay is a very good sign and United fans must hope that more new faces join the club soon.
What will also be crucial to mounting a title charge is pinpointing what the best team and system is as quickly as possible. Van Gaal took a while to find the right formula this season and although when he found it, against the likes of Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool, it was incredible to watch, those sort of performances need to become the norm rather than exceptions. Now the players have adapted to Van Gaal’s methods and vice versa, we should expect that to happen next season.