This week, Eric Cantona declared that Manchester United’s recent derby victory proves that they can win the Premier League next season.
The Frenchman is not the only one anticipating a return to glory for United, with Gary Neville also suggesting that trophies may be round the corner following his former club’s excellent run of form in the last month.
Since Louis Van Gaal switched to a 4-3-3 formation, his team have produced the best football seen at Old Trafford in the post-Ferguson era, recording victories over Tottenham, Aston Villa, Liverpool and City. United certainly have their attacking swagger back, along with the fear factor which was so instrumental in delivering them title after title throughout the past two decades.
However, despite their recent scintillating performances grabbing the headlines, many of the reasons why United are not challenging for the title this season have not yet been eradicated.
Although Van Gaal has found a team that on its day can match any other, he needs to address some more fundamental issues with his squad before they can begin to compete with Chelsea next season.
The most pressing of these issues is the squad’s over reliance on one player: Michael Carrick. United’s 4-3-3, so integral to their recent success, is necessitated on the most central midfielder’s ability to launch attacks from deep and allow the two wider midfielders to push on and support the front men. Carrick is the only player in United’s current squad with the composure and intelligence to play this role.
Worryingly, however, the English midfielder has only managed to make 17 league appearances this season due to a spate of niggling injuries and, at 33 years of age, this problem may well worsen.
Van Gaal therefore needs to add another player who can play this role; during the sixteen matches when Carrick has not been on the pitch United have only averaged 1.6 point a game — nowhere near title winning form.
Carrick is not the only midfielder that Manchester United’s supposedly title challenging new system is heavily reliant on. Marouane Fellaini has also emerged from the shadows of Moyes’s reign of incompetence to become absolutely key to Van Gaal’s winning strategy.
The Belgian powerhouse is used as a battering ram targeted specifically against opposition players whom Van Gaal has identified as liabilities defensively. In recent weeks Kyle Walker, Joe Allen and, most notably, Yaya Toure have been singled out as players unable to contain Fellaini.
United pump up balls to him from the back, pulling the opposition midfield and defence out of position as they have to cover for Fellaini’s overwhelmed marker, thereby allowing the space for the front three to work their magic.
This strategy has played a big part in Ashley Young seemingly morphing into a late-nineties Ryan Giggs in the past few weeks.
Though this use of Fellaini may be seen as a masterstroke by Van Gaal, or rather a simple act of common sense by anyone who saw him play at Everton, United’s use of him as a cornerstone of their strategy may well negate a potential title bid next season.
The Belgian is, on his day, unplayable, but ultimately he is a footballer with severe limitations. Attacking quickly on the ground through him simply does not work, due to his slowness of thought. If Fellaini plays a team’s attack needs to be built around him.
Although this has been effective in recent weeks, building the attacking component of a team around such a limited player will clearly lead to one dimensionality. As opposition managers get used to Van Gaal’s new formation they will construct defensive units that can deal with United’s Belgian led attack.
Building United’s attack around Fellaini also does not provide an obvious solution to one of their biggest problems this season – the consistent dropping of points against smaller teams.
Though using Fellaini as an unorthodox midfielder-cum-target man may be effective against more lightweight teams such as Spurs and Liverpool, it will be less effective against teams such as Stoke, West Ham and West Brom, all of which United have dropped points against this season.
These such teams can handle the physicality of Fellaini, but will always struggle against fluid, technical attacking play as seen by the likes of Arsenal, who always do well against such smaller clubs. As Fellaini’s presence in United’s midfield stifles such play from happening, Van Gaal needs to find an alternative to the Belgian for certain fixtures if United’s title tilt is to become a reality.
A final major factor behind Manchester United’s absence from this season’s title race that not yet been addressed is their inability to field a regular defensive line. This problem proved particularly damaging in the opening five games of the season where the likes of Tyler Blackett, Adnan Januzaj and even current Derby County attacking midfielder Jesse Lingard made appearances in defence for United. They dropped ten points in these opening five games, including a loss to bottom of the table Leicester City who put five goals past them.
Although some may point to the fact that United have conceded the third least amount of goals in the Premier League as evidence they have not suffered too heavily over the course of the season from defensive inconstancies, there have rarely been instances of title-winning teams with ever-changing backlines.
It also cannot be said that United have been unlucky to have so many defensive absentees. The fact of the matter is they simply have too many defenders with woeful injury records, and in order to challenge for the Premier League title this needs to change.
It seems, therefore, that although there are clearly problems in the Manchester United squad that need to be addressed if they are to win the title next season, these problems can be solved with the right summer transfers.
A bolstered backline, a second deep sitting midfielder who can dictate tempo and technically gifted alternative to Fellaini can lift United from a team that can put together an impressive run of form to one that can genuinely challenge for domestic honours.
Though this may mean that the Premier League crown is in sight should Van Gaal make the right acquisitions, he must exercise caution in doing so. United’s current wage structure is non-existent, epitomised by the fact that 19-year-old second choice left back Luke Shaw earns a reported £100,000 a week.
Should United continue to spend in this fashion in an attempt to claw back the title next season, it could result in their players demanding wages that the club cannot possibly support.
Even a club the size of Manchester United is not immune to boom and bust, and therefore although pushing for the title next season may possible, a more patient build up to a title challenge may be in the ultimate long term interest of the club.