As the pre-season tour continues into any U.S city that will take us – much to the annoyance of the new manager – we are starting to learn more and more about the system being implemented Louis van Gaal.
If the short pre-season so far this year has taught us anything, it is the importance the Dutchman places on the centre of the park. With the new 3-5-2/5-3-2 (call it what you will) we have seen implemented in the opening three games the side have lined up with three centre-halves, two centre midfielders, a number 10 as well as two strikers. The use of wing-backs brings a new edge to the side; not one we have come to expect at Old Trafford in previous years, with Ferguson opting to prefer the use of dynamic, pacey wingers.
This poses big question marks over the likes of Nani – who has been surrounded by question marks for some time now, none more so than when he penned his five-year contract last season – Ashley Young and Wilfried Zaha who van Gaal has already suggested would only suit the current system as a striker but, will struggle to break through in that position.
In customary fashion during the summer, Ed Woodward has fled the tour to deal with business – something which we may start now seeing on a regular basis – and as per usual the club gets linked with every Kleberson, Eric Djemba-Djemba and David Bellion in world football, with maybe only 1 or 2% of the targets likely to be realistically shortlisted.
With the importance placed on the middle of the park now under the new system, we can expect to see the most movement in these positions. With both Vidic and Ferdinand heading through the exit door, defensive reinforcements will be brought in, while Ander Herrera can expect to be joined by 1 or 2 midfield additions before business concludes.
Of all the names banded about, Daley Blind’s versatility would make him a stand-out candidate. Not only does the Ajax defender know first hand how the new manager operates, he could fit in either as a full-back/wing-back, a centre-half, or a defensive midfielder. And if he was able to arrow some more 50-yard balls onto the head of Robin van Persie then nobody would have too many complaints about that.
While additions to United’s “broken” squad are not only inevitable, but also a necessity, the current crop has players crying out to re-invent themselves under van Gaal. While it is hard to make a realistic case for Fellaini or Anderson, this season could be of massive importance for both Darren Fletcher and Tom Cleverley.
For differing reasons, here we have two players who have come through the youth academy with high hopes and have stalled a little over the past three seasons. Fletcher had become one of our more important and trusted players before circumstances out of his control halted proceeding, while Cleverley – destined to fill the boots of Paul Scholes after his first retirement – is yet to progress to where either the club or he would like him to be at present.
Fletch has made just 38 appearances in the past three seasons due to an ongoing battle with ulcerative colitis but finally looks to be edging towards full fitness and could have a big part to play. In his absence we have missed somebody who will cover ground in the centre of the park and put pressure on opposition and his return could see the return of some steel into the side.
The Scot featured on 18 occasions last season under Moyes, his most in a season since his illness but having a full pre-season under his belt this year could mean that van Gaal is able to utilise Fletcher from the off, particularly in the absence of Michael Carrick.
Before the illness, the Scotland captain had started to establish himself as one our key players under Sir Alex Ferguson and although we were outclassed by Barcelona on the night, the 2009 Champions League final could certainly have been a more competitive affair had Fletcher not been suspended. (For those whose memory need jogging, Fletcher was red-carded in the semi-final for an inch perfect tackle on Arsenal’s Cesc ‘kiss whichever badge is closest’ Fabregas.)
Not only will his return give an extra option in the middle for van Gaal, and could hold the fort until Kevin Strootman returns from fitness – before an inevitable move is made – but Fletch will surely be one of the few names in the running for the captaincy.
As one of the more senior members of the squad, only his fitness would prevent him for being a really viable option to replace Vidic and has already taken the armband ahead of the likes of Rooney and Evans in van Gaal’s first outing, a 7-0 victory against L.A Galaxy.
Tom Cleverley is another who has tasted captaincy stateside, although the 24-year-old will not be thinking at all about earning the armband on a regular basis, but instead about resurrecting his Old Trafford career.
Cleverley captained United in their 3-2 victory over Roma in a move which would have been designed more to lift confidence than to inspire the team, again given that the likes of Rooney and Evans were in the side.
The midfielder endured a torrid season last season and was made a scapegoat, perhaps unfairly, by many for dismal performances and was a primary target for ridicule from all quarters alongside David Moyes.
That seems to be the way things happen in modern football and fans look for targets, and unfortunately for Cleverley, a largely uninspiring and disappointing season for he and the club, was capped by missing out on a place in Roy Hodgson’s World Cup squad, despite having gained 13 caps since his 2012 debut.
Many players have come back from being targets in the past. Darren Fletcher was not always a fan favourite at first, and a large number of United fans used to level abuse at Michael Carrick in the early stages of his Manchester United career, presumably for having the audacity to take Roy Keane’s number 16 shirt but having his own, very different style of football. Fancy that!
It’s been a tough time for Cleverley over the past 2 or 3 seasons, who is perhaps feeling the effects of being the victim of his own early success. After successful stints at Leicester, Watford and Wigan, Sir Alex was convinced enough to promote the then 22-year old to the first team squad for the 2011/12 season with the hope that he could fill the gap left by Paul Scholes’ initial retirement. For a brief period, it looked as though he could effectively do just that.
United had come unstuck in the Champions League final at the end of the previous season, again by a devastating Barcelona side who played us off the park, and it was obvious that extra midfield options would be needed in order to invigorate our side.
He came off the bench in the Community Shield against City to play a big hand in the 3-2 victory at Wembley and was involved in a delightful link-up with Rooney, Welbeck and Nani with some sublime close range passing and control for the equaliser, akin to the brand of football which had proved our downfall just three months earlier at Wembley – certainly one of my favourite United goals in recent memory.
The season started remarkably that season for Cleverley and United as he started the next four games (United won their 5 five in the Premier League that season) and looked every inch a key figure, particularly in an 8-2 thrashing of Arsenal at Old Trafford, but it all ended before it had any real chance to take off after an out of character tackle at the Reebok from the angelic Kevin Davies. Ahem.
The injury kept the youngster out for the majority of that season, and it seems that mentally he seems to have struggled since then, with his extended absence being one of the key drivers for Fergie to convince Paul Scholes to lace up his boots again to return for another 18 months, although the levels of persuading were presumably minimal.
Van Gaal has already made it clear – as he certainly tends to make things when he has a point to make – that although he will be strengthening the squad, that he will give the current squad a chance to prove themselves first, although for reasons unbeknown to me, this invitation seems not to have extended to Anderson or Bebe.
I’m not for one minute suggesting that four good games three years ago are enough to see Cleverley become a world beater, but instead we are dealing with a player who has the ability to succeed at Manchester United and certainly play a part at Old Trafford. While he is currently not fulfilling potential, if van Gaal can ignite some much needed confidence, then he can make a case to be a key squad member. He can pass, he can move and he has good vision, the attributes are there, he just needs a manager who can help him find the next level. Unfortunately David Moyes was not that man.
It would be a huge oversight to overlook the attributes Cleverley has and the role he could play, but perhaps LVG would do well to adopt the David Brent “if it’s in you, I’ll find it” school of though in this case.
The club has always been able to boast importance of having a complete squad, often made up of academy graduates, not necessarily always first choice, but there to do a job when called upon. While opposition fans would scoff at the likes of Nicky Butt, Phil Neville, Wes Brown and John O’Shea – to some not the most glamorous of players in our squad – these are the players who would win titles, coming in and giving their all and keeping competition for places high.
Cleverley may not be given the opportunity to play in the number 10 role that he has done in the past (mainly for England) due to the competition from Mata, Rooney, Kagawa & Januzaj, but he can compete strongly for more of a deep-lying playmaker berth alongside the likes of Herrera, Carrick and Fletcher, with the new system meaning that ball retention in the centre of the park will be a particular priority.
With almost £60million spent so far in this transfer window on Shaw and Herrera, the Reds are likely to spend much more in the coming weeks, but whoever does join the squad, two of the most key deputies for the new system could be found from much closer than you would think, and maximising these options could have the effect of two new signings in themselves.