The last few weeks have arguably been an indication as to the direction Manchester United will be going in. With the confirmation of Dutch striker Robin van Persie leaving the club to join Turkish giants Fenerbahce, where he will be reunited with former United winger Nani, yet another established squad member departs from Old Trafford to try and reignite a stagnating career. In this respect, it seems as though, Brazilian right-back Rafael might become another victim of underwhelming performances, especially given the arrival of versatile full-back Matteo Darmian from Serie A side Torino. In other words, United supporters have been witnessing the combination of a changing philosophy with a new approach to transfer dealings.
The club have recently recruited Bayern Munich legend Bastian Schweinsteiger and as such, have reinforced the passing ability of their central midfield. Add to that the other fairly fresh faces of Juan Mata and Ander Herrera, and you have, with the exception of Michael Carrick, a central midfield that has never really met Sir Alex Ferguson. In other words, these are players that are not familiar with an approach that puts emphasis on the wings and the width that comes along with using wingers. These are players that prefer a possession-based and patient approach to build-up play. Furthermore, the collection of Carrick, Herrera, Mata and Schweinsteiger is probably amongst the best in Europe in terms of passing range, arguably on-par with Barcelona’s midfield.
In addition to the spine of United’s team, the wings have also been re-equipped with Dutch winger Memphis Depay and Argentina star Angel di Maria, who are both amongst the club’s rather recent additions. Much to the disappointment of the Old Trafford crowd however, United’s game under van Gaal has not yet been typical of a standard Red Devils match. Last season was evidence for a change of approach, one that would not have been introduced during the Ferguson era. In contrast to Fergie, LvG is a manager that prefers a risk-adverse philosophy and enjoys the idea of holding onto the ball as much as possible. In this respect an Angel di Maria running down the wing to provide a pin-point cross for Wayne Rooney to finish is not one of the expected outcomes of a Man United attack anymore.
Nevertheless, there is enough evidence to suggest that wingers will be involved more in the team’s play this season than during the last campaign, although the experience gained during the latter indicates a different type of wing-play. Last season, the left wing was mainly utilised by right-footers (e.g. Ashley Young), whereas the right wing was mostly occupied by left-footers (e.g. Mata or di Maria). In other words, what the Old Trafford crowd can expect from the likes of di Maria and new arrival Depay is an inside-based approach, meaning that they will cut in from their positions to either link-up with a forward, or to finish off a move themselves. In order to get an understanding of this form of play, it might be useful to look at Barcelona’s current set-up, where right-footed Neymar comes in from the left and left-footed Messi excites from the right.
Although the Manchester United faithful have got used to wingers providing a quick transition from defence to attack over the years, there is no reason to be worried about the level of attacking play that will be hosted at the club’s famous ground this season. Again, a look at the exciting attacking approach of Champions League winners Barcelona might be an indication as to the expected kind of football at the Theatre of Dreams in the forthcoming weeks and months. In this sense, the team already showed some flashes of the way in which the club is headed. Last season, Manchester United maintained an average possession of 60.9% which put them fourth in Europe, just behind PSG, Barcelona and Bayern. As such, the supporters can expect an increase and if one looks at the fate of the above mentioned clubs, this might just be right approach to win trophies.
There has been a lot of discontentment at Old Trafford last season and chants of ‘attack, attack, attack’ were commonplace at times. Despite some worries, the club is arguably headed in the right direction and if LvG manages to incorporate these world-class players quickly and if di Maria leaves behind his frustrations, Manchester United will not only be looking to improve on last season, they will be clear title favourites, come the start of the new Premier League campaign.