Manchester United & phantom concerns

Manchester United's Louis Van Gaal

Manchester United are one from one in the 2015/16 Premier League, having beaten Tottenham at Old Trafford on opening day.

That isn’t the story, though.  United have been portrayed as sluggish and ineffectual and within hours of the game ending, new signings were being proposed and deficiencies identified as if it were late December and the side had serious structural problems.

Even for modern football that’s alarmist.

Yes, United have a few areas which are in need of improvement, but - with the exception of the centre of defence and probably goalkeeper - none of those shortcomings are at first-team level.  Louis van Gaal probably needs an auxiliary forward option and maybe a bit more natural width wouldn’t hurt, but if signings are made in those areas between now and the end of the month, they will be of the squad-deepening variety.

Up to this point, Van Gaal and Ed Woodward have done a very reasonable job of upgrading the first-team and there’s every reason to believe that the current side is capable of surpassing what was achieved in 2014/15.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the improvement will be immediately apparent because, although a cliche, teams with new players will always appear slightly clunky through the first few weeks of a season - and, in addition to the usual fitness issues which effect all clubs at this time of year, it’s right to anticipate a period of technical adjustment at Manchester United.

Of the ten outfield players who started against Tottenham, only three may have been new components, but consider the positions they occupied.  Memphis Depay was asked to be the side’s principal creative force in advanced areas, Morgan Schneiderlin was picked in that crucial intermediate midfield role, and Matteo Darmian made his first competitive start at full-back.

In that latter instance, Darmian’s responsibility was enormous.  With Van Gaal selecting Juan Mata ahead of him, a player whose instinct will always be to drift in from the touchline, the Italian was required to provide all of the right-sided width and that’s a mighty responsibility for a debutant.  With limited exposure to the those inside and ahead of him, Darmian’s performance - and hence United’s right side - was always going to look slightly formulaic.

He needs to learn how to time his over-lapping runs and, through trial and error, he will need to establish a balance between attacking and defending based on how much protection his teammates afford him.  He’s dancing in the dark at the moment and can’t possibly have any real feel for his role.

Similarly, the two central players - Depay and Schneiderlin - may have performed quite well individually - but it was also unrealistic to expect anything more than they produced given that they had no competitive experience with any of the surrounding players.  The clever angles and defence-challenging movement required in that area are not created by team-selection alone.

Football teams live and die on the strength of their combinations all over the pitch.  Until these players grow a proper understanding for each others’ on-pitch traits and habits, it’s almost impossible for this team to add up to anything more than the sum of their parts.  These are the intangibles that determine what a team’s potential is and, at United, they are not yet in place.

Referencing issues of chemistry can sound very vague and a bit too much like a generic excuse, but it’s a very real problem and it was one which was inevitably going to afflict United for a certain amount of time this year.

October, November, December: that’s when to start worrying about the team’s fluency.  Until then, winning is all that matters.

The fans should be giddy; win at Aston Villa this evening and they’ll be another step closer to that elusive balance without having dropped a Premier League point in the process.


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