As Manchester United prepare for life under Louis Van Gaal, there are a number of players whose futures seem uncertain under the new manager. Indeed, even before he even takes his first training session at the club some already appear surplus to requirements.
Van Gaal has used the World Cup to showcase his tactical flexibility – his Netherlands team have used variations of 3-5-2, 3-4-3, 5-3-2, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2, 4-2-2-2 and even 2-3-3-2 depending on the challenge the opposition has posed for them and the urgency with which they needed to find a goal – and to also display a pragmatic streak not always associated with him throughout his career.
Although Van Gaal was never as firmly wedded to an overarching tactical philosophy like coaches he has often been compared to such as Marcelo Bielsa, Johan Cruyff and, perhaps, Pep Guardiola, his approach has always been centred around starting out on the front foot and taking the game to an opponent, no matter who they may have been.
However, Brazil 2014 has highlighted the 62-year-old’s new-found pragmatism with the move to a mainly counter-attacking style taking many in his native country by surprise and, inevitably, drawing criticism from some of the Netherlands’ football purists (It is slightly overlooked that Van Gaal won the Dutch Eredivisie title with AZ Alkmaar utilising a counter-attacking strategy; perhaps this is due to their ‘underdog’ status and so there is an acceptance of its’ legitimacy in that context).
But while Van Gaal now appears more open to adjusting his teams’ tactical game plan, the type of player he desires to carry it out remains the same; versatile players who are comfortable in possession, technically gifted and with a tactical intelligence to carry out his vision for the team on the pitch.
Depending on which area of the pitch they operate in, some qualities are more valued than others but a number of players’ futures are in serious doubt with the likes of Chris Smalling, Marouane Fellaini, Javier Hernandez and Ashley Young edging towards the departure lounge where after years of underperforming – or, more accurately, freeloading – Anderson sits with bags packed and one-way ticket in-hand.
Hernandez could survive the cull should he be satisfied with, and capable of, reverting to his dice-rolling super-sub role of the Ferguson years but the future looks bleak for the other three. Bearing this in mind some may feel that the contract extension awarded to Antonio Valencia was a little surprising considering his one-footedness, lack of a goal threat, and naivety in defensive positions which would see him only fit in comfortably in an orthodox 4-4-2 or 4-5-1.
While Smalling’s poor distribution leaves him vulnerable to the chop – and Van Gaal’s desire for a ball-playing centre-half explains the otherwise surprising move for Thomas Vermaelen – Phil Jones’s perceived superior potential will probably buy him time to develop the necessary improvement in that area.
Had Van Gaal arrived a year ago the promising player that seemed to be in Tom Cleverley (but unable to regularly show itself) may have been found by the new boss but at this stage a move would be best for all parties.
Meanwhile Nani, a player who many of the Old Trafford faithful believe is pushing Anderson in the outstaying-their-welcome stakes, would fit the Van Gaal profile but, again, after at least a couple of years of stagnation at the club, a move may also be best for all.
With all the speculation around which players will arrive, who will leave and who will be on notice that their survival at the club is dependent on a vast improvement, little has been directed at one who has come to, in some ways, dominate the club i.e. Wayne Rooney.
When the striker finally renewed his contract in February,the official line from the club and most of the traditional media was that this was a great piece of news and one which promised good times for the club over the coming years, but there were many observers in less of a hurry to join in the fanfare.
Rooney’s transfer request in 2010 – when he was felt by many to have held the club to ransom – and the second will-he-won’t-he saga from last summer has alienated many United supporters to the point where they would prefer he left their club on a point of principle, refusing to forgive and forget what they considered gross acts of disloyalty.
There was also a third group who wondered if it was a sensible move to make him the highest-paid player in the Premier League when Sir Alex Ferguson no longer trusted him to start in his first XI for the biggest game of the season.
Rooney would surely be at a different club had Fergie not retired and his stock had fallen to the point where his apparent availability only attracted a bid of £25m and the interest of just a couple of Europe’s top clubs.
The big question now is just how Van Gaal will accommodate Rooney in his new-look United. With Robin Van Persie certain to form the focal point of the attack, should the Dutch captain remain fit then there are big questions around where Rooney will play for both the England striker and his new manager.
The problem for Rooney is his continuing desire to play as a centre-forward but while the former Everton man last October revealed a desire to partner Van Persie as opposed to replacing him – “I don’t mean I want to play as the only centre-forward, but one of the two.”, Van Gaal is unlikely to grant him his wish.
Although there will be games against lesser opponents where Van Gaal would be comfortable starting both up top, and there will be periods when United are chasing a game when he will do likewise, it is unlikely the duo would start often as a front pairing.
Although Van Gaal has demonstrated he is prepared to start with a front two in this World Cup tournament, the inclusion of Arjen Robben alters the dynamic a little. With his searing pace, unique dribbling ability and comfort attacking from either flank, Robben poses a bigger variety of problems than the typical centre-forward. The Rooney of 2014 no longer offers or is no longer capable of such dynamism and it will be one of Van Gaal’s biggest challenges to see if he can coax the old Rooney back into action.
From the time he burst onto the scene way back in 2003, Rooney looked set to become a few players rolled into one, with such an all-round combination of pace, power, dribbling ability, vision and finishing that he would effectively be given licence to roam and pick his areas from which to cause the most damage.
During his early career at Old Trafford and indeed with England this idea of ‘Rooney the Marauder’ took shape but with the emergence of Cristiano Ronaldo, the former Everton man was forced to adapt his game a little and Ferguson attempted to bring more structure and tactical discipline into his play.
From 2006 onwards and then as part of a flexible, interchanging forward trio alongside Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, Rooney was still dynamic in his play but much of his work was done from a starting point on the flanks, often the left-hand side. The results for United were clear with the club enjoying one of their most successful periods ever, scooping up a hat-trick of league titles and back-to-back Champions League final appearances, including that famous win over Chelsea in Moscow in 2008.
While many feel that that period from 2006-2009 was Rooney’s best so far at Old Trafford, the player himself appears to have felt overshadowed a little by the feats of Ronaldo and when the Portuguese moved to Real Madrid, Rooney felt his time to be the star turn had come.
Although United’s first season post-Ronaldo ended up a trophyless one, Rooney had by-far his most fruitful campaign to that point, grabbing 34 goals in just 44 matches with his importance to the team highlighted by Ferguson’s gamble on his fitness in their ill-fated Champions League quarter-final second-leg clash with Van Gaal’s Bayern, a match Rooney limped out of before the hour-mark.
The following season saw Rooney drop deeper again, albeit in a central role, with Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez’s goals helping United regain their title with the England forward scoring just 16 times. This was also the season in which the first fractures appeared in the Ferguson-Rooney relationship with the argument over his fitness being the catalyst for the transfer request in October 2010.
Ferguson’s loss of faith in Berbatov saw Rooney revert to a role further up the pitch and he repaid his manager with 34 goals in 43 appearances which saw United’s dramatic final-day title loss to Manchester City.
While Rooney’s goals were the driving force behind United’s title charge that season, during the summer Ferguson brought in Robin Van Persie to spearhead his attack, believing the Dutch striker a better option as the focal point of his attack with Rooney again dropping deeper, including on a number of occasions in a central midfield role.
The emergence of Van Persie as United’s go-to man, Rooney’s dissatisfaction with becoming the sideshow again, and his unhappiness at being shunted to an unfamiliar role led to the second public breakdown in his relationship with Ferguson and Rooney ultimately being omitted from the side to face Real Madrid in February 2013 and then the flirtation with Chelsea last summer.
Had Ferguson stayed on it is almost certain Rooney would no longer be a Manchester United player and there is much currency in the theory that the purchase of Shinji Kagawa and Robin Van Persie were to pave the way for his departure.
Whether this was mainly due to Ferguson’s lingering ill-feelings at the manner in which Rooney questioned the direction the club was taking under him or whether the Scot saw evidence of his decline and, like with many of his other former players such as Mark Hughes, David Beckham, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, was shipping him out before it became evident to everyone else and to the detriment of the team isn’t clear.
While some argued that Rooney was back to his best under David Moyes last season, those who looked at his performances with a balanced, neutral view would have seen a player whose effort could not be questioned, who was occasionally performing well but who, like most of his team-mates, was lacking the dynamism, the unpredictability, the sharpness and the fire of old.
So with a 4-3-3, 3-4-3 or 4-2-3-1 likely to be Van Gaal’s formation for his new-look United, if Rooney is to fit in he will likely have to revert to the player of 2006-2009, one content to play on probably the left of a front three, with licence to roam infield but not as the central focal point of the attack.
In English football culture there is a belief that the star players must operate from a central position, partly for reasons of status; for example large sections of the press spent years touting for David Beckham to play in central midfield – a role the player himself often spoke of his desire to play – despite him not necessarily possessing the attributes of a world-class player in that position and ignoring the fact he generally performed superbly in his usual station on the right.
Steven Gerrard also expressed his unhappiness when Rafa Benitez moved him to the right of midfield but he responded with his best goalscoring season in his career until then. Benitez’s reluctance to play Gerrard in central midfield led the Spaniard to next play the England skipper just off Fernando Torres and the result was 16 Premier League goals for Gerrard as the pair almost led Liverpool to the Premier League crown.
So there will be two challenges for Van Gaal in whether he can rediscover the Rooney of 2006-09; the first will be whether the passage of time and his last few seasons’ of being shunted around the pitch has permanently robbed the pace, sharpness and dynamism from the Rooney of old or if it can be rekindled. The second will be convincing Rooney that a move away from being a centre-forward is not a demotion and that he can still be central to United’s tactics and success starting from the periphery.
If the Dutchman is successful on both fronts, we could once again see the thrilling ‘Rooney the Marauder’ of previous years; if not, then it might not be long before we see a third transfer saga develop. But next time it will be one the club will be eager to bring a different conclusion to.
Cian O’Callaghan, Pundit Arena.