How can Manchester United turn their season around?

A bizarre Premier League season of unexpected plot twists has already seen two of last season’s most successful teams – Chelsea and Swansea – get rid of their managers, and it is testament to the chaos that has reigned across the 2015/16 season that Manchester United’s wheezing performances are only recently making the back pages.

Their football has been slow, jaded, and lacking penetration since the beginning of the campaign, but it is only recently that the perception of their form has switched – from moving up through the gears, to aimless and doomed.  This change occurred after their rock solid defence capitulated, although a recent flurry of 0-0s suggests that the problems run deeper and, clearly, this squad is too young and imbalanced for one that cost £250 million. United need to make sweeping changes – in tactics, team selection, and player position – or they will surely miss out on a top four spot for the second time in three years.

Tactics

The LVG project was criticised last season for lacking coherence or a clear tactical philosophy, but twelve months on from the first sighs of discontent amongst the media and United are struggling with precisely the opposite dilemma; a low tempo, short-passing, possession-centric mantra has defined their Premier League campaign to date, but this ruthlessly idealistic tactical strategy has weighed down on the legs and minds of the players.

They hold the most possession in the Premier League (57.5% average), but sit 15th for shots (11.2 per game), 14th for dribbles (8.7 per game,) and 18th for key passes (7.7 per game). 14% of matches under Van Gaal have ended 0-0, and United have scored just 10 goals in their last 14 matches – stats that look even worse against Alex Ferguson’s record of zero 0-0s in his final 116 games.

The apparent failure of United’s quasi-tiki-taka model is hardly surprising. As the rise to prominence of Dortmund, Juventus, and Atletico Madrid in the Champions League had warned us, the German gegenpressing model – of furious hassling, swift counters, and clinical passing lines – has dramatically shifted the tactical landscape in Europe. As Leicester and Watford triumph in their swashbuckling style, the stubborn idealism of Man United’s system looks seriously out-dated.

Unsurprisingly, their reliance on such an extreme interpretation of the possession approach – founded by LVG in the 90s at Ajax and Barcelona (where he coached Pep Guardiola) –  is the first thing that must change at Old Trafford. There have been tentative signs of this in recent weeks, first in the 3-2 defeat at Wolfsburg and then in last week’s 0-0 draw with Chelsea.

In Wolfsburg, they played long, vertical passes to Memphis Depay, Jesse Lingard, and Anthony Martial, all of whom constantly made runs on the shoulder of the last defender and awaited Juan Mata’s through ball. Their opening goal was a 60 yard move completed in five touches and two passes, either because Van Gaal had accepted change was needed or because these young, energetic players simply could not help themselves. Against Chelsea, Anthony Martial hugged the touchline throughout the second half, and United looked to play in behind the defence as frequently as possible.

It is imperative that they continue with this strategy; high energy football and exploiting space on the counter are vital components of any football team.  Even Guardiola recognises the importance of variation and incisive speed (he regularly criticises the idea of recycling possession for the sake of it), because defending against low tempo attacks is too easy. Sit deep, be patient, and await the chance to counter; it is the system employed by virtually all of Man United’s opponents this campaign.

Team Selection

There have been some strange team selections throughout the season, but the most unforgivable have been in central midfield. The extent to which Marouane Fellaini looks out of his depth is genuinely astounding, reminiscent, at times, of a Sunday League player being asked to play out of position. He runs up to attack at the wrong time, jogs listlessly back to defend, and can often be found chasing the ball in randomly selected areas of the field – often within two yards of his midfield partner.

Leaving him out should be a no brainer, but equally absurd has been the decision to leave Morgan Schneiderlin – one of the country’s best all-round midfielders and a player particularly adept at steadying the ship and holding possession – out of the starting line-up for six successive matches before the goalless draw with Chelsea.

Schneiderlin made six tackles on his return, cementing his record as United’s most prolific defensive midfielder statistically (3.2 tackles, 2.7 interceptions per match). Combined with his technical skill (he has the highest pass completion rate (90.3%) in the United squad), his exclusion is unforgivable; Man Utd’s loss percentage this season is 7.7% with Schneiderlin in the team, and 66.6% without him.

Assuming central midfield is in the process of being sorted (Fellaini was left out and Schneiderlin brought in for United’s last outing), then back United to finish in the top four at 11/8 with Coral.

Player positions

Bastian Schweinsteiger has also looked unreliable, leggy, and positionally undisciplined since his arrival in Manchester, only adding to their woes in central midfield; the pattern of opposing teams counter-attacking quickly through the centre of the pitch is alarming.

As such, one change the Man United manager could make is moving Wayne Rooney even deeper – and right into the heart of central midfield. Rooney no longer has the pace to function as a lone striker, and is too static in the final third to play with the agility and constant space-creating movement required of a number ten. However, his one touch passing and general technical ability remains superb; Rooney could be the deep-lying playmaker whose quick feet help raise the tempo of United’s attacks in congested areas of the pitch.

January Signings

Considering the money spent on assembling this squad, and the growing list of ex-United players flourishing elsewhere, it is surprising that this team should look so weak. But the manager ideally needs a centre-back, a full-back, a central midfielder, a winger, and two strikers: if only they could get their hands on the likes of Rafael, Tom Cleverley, Angel di Maria, Danny Welbeck, and Javier Hernandez…

Predicting who United will bring in is difficult, since their ambition – to attract James Rodriguez and Neymar – is unlikely to match the reality. If they can bring in several new high calibre recruits, such as Gareth Bale or Mats Hummels, and abandon LVG’s possession-centred tactics, then it would be worth a small wager on United to win the title at 33/1 with SkyBet.

These odds are likely to drop if Jose Mourinho becomes the next United manager – currently at 4/6 with SkyBet – and indeed it seems likely that this appointment will occur at some point this season. Mourinho may not build the dynasty the board had been hoping for, but with a big budget and with the league winners likely to need fewer points than usual, he might just be the ideal fit.

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