Five points from his first five Premier League games was not what Louis Van Gaal had in mind. Although the Dutchman’s new sides are notoriously slow starters, not many would have predicted Manchester United picking up such a lowly points tally against three newly promoted sides, Sunderland and Swansea City. The 5-3 loss at Leicester City at the weekend may have exposed severe defensive flaws in this United squad but there is no need to panic just yet.
Following the capitulation at the King Power stadium, it was hard to comprehend what had just happened. 3-1 up, controlling the game and seemingly coasting with 60 minutes played, the final half an hour can only be described as a defensive horror-show. It was all too easy for the Foxes as they exposed United’s lack of experience in key defensive areas. Gary Neville was right post-match; United had been bullied by a rampant Leicester side, who simply wanted the three points more in the final 30 minutes.
But if we look at the situation rationally, there were still plenty of positives to take from such a devastating result. Before the game changed on an absolutely dreadful penalty decision from Mark Clattenburg, United looked like a side ready to set the Premier League alight with their array of attacking talent. Angel Di Maria’s captivating performance in midfield was enough in itself to gets United fans hysterical with excitement whilst having the luxury of leaving Juan Mata’s creative talents on the bench and watching Radamel Falcao’s full debut in a Red shirt would both have been unthinkable just a month ago. Di Maria’s remarkable chipped finish in the first half almost defied the laws of physics but had the Colombian hit-man’s own instinctive lob dipped one inch further, it would have arguably topped it.
If we rewind six months to the latter stages of David Moyes’ nightmare reign as United manager, there was no room for such excitable thoughts. The team was heartless, gutless, had little creativity and lacked sheer mobility all over the pitch. The humbling 3-0 defeats to Manchester City and Liverpool at home and the abject 2-0 losses to Olympiakos and Everton away from Old Trafford showed that a massive overhaul was needed at the club. Moyes, his coaching staff and several senior first team stalwarts had to go so a new manager could re-build a broken team which had laboured to a seventh-placed league finish.
That is exactly what happened in the summer as Van Gaal along with six new summer recruits arrived at the club. The problems never going to be fixed within a couple of months of the new season and you would have to be pretty naïve to think it would have been. A squad that has undergone such a huge re-build needs time to gel and get used to the way each other play. Unlike Moyes, Van Gaal obviously has a long-term plan and he should be given time to implement it. There just isn’t enough patience in the game these days.
Obviously, Clattenburg’s decision to award Leicester a penalty at the weekend, when Rafael had barely touched Jamie Vardy in the box, after the Brazilian was shoved to the turf by the forward, was a terrible refereeing decision, but there are no excuses for handing the three points over in the aftermath. There was a clear lack of leadership in United’s inexperienced defence of Rafael, Chris Smalling, Tyler Blackett and Marcos Rojo. The absence of Phil Jones due to an injury picked up on international duty was felt massively and it is arguable that Jonny Evans’ own untimely injury, which saw him leave the field in the first half, had a big effect on the eventual outcome.
Jones and Evans may have their critics from a huge number of United fans, but it is hard to argue that they are the strongest and most experienced partnership at Old Trafford. Jones is a born leader whilst Evans has been in the first team for the best part of a decade, learning every day from Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in training and even ousting both from the starting line-up in Sir Alex Ferguson’s later days as boss. But the fact is, both pick up far too many injuries and cannot be relied upon to be fit for a full season at this moment in time.
Both Jones and Evans were missed massively in the final half an hour at Leicester when heads were down. Blackett is new to the first team and has a long way to go before he becomes an imposing figure at the back whilst Smalling has never really convinced that he can reach the top level, in fact his lapses in concentration mean that he is often a complete liability. It is startlingly obvious that an experienced, imposing defensive leader is desperately needed as soon as possible.
Although Van Gaal named an unchanged back four for the Leicester game, only QPR and West Brom (8) have used more defenders than United (7) in the Premier League so far this season. It means it is important the Dutchman gets the backline settled as quickly as possible to forge an understanding and get some sort of consistency going in the defensive third. For example, league leaders Chelsea have barely made any changes to their defence since the season began with Gary Cahill and John Terry having been their staple partnership for over a year now. If United can find consistency such as this when the injuries return, it would solve part of the problem. There have been far too many changes in that defence for far too long now.
With 33 games remaining, there is a long, long way to go in Van Gaal’s first season in charge. Despite the obvious poor results and criticism United have received so far, there have been plenty of positives to take, whoever the opponents may have been. This side may have to take a step backwards to move two steps forward as they seek to learn Van Gaal’s philosophy. Its better such a devastating defeat comes early on so these defenders can learn from their mistakes and make sure this capitulation never, ever happens again. The Leicester defeat could be he wake-up call everybody at the club needed.