In the last in our series of 2015/16 squad previews, it’s time to take a look at what United’s attack has in store for us this season. If you missed the earlier previews, here are the links:
And now, onto the attack…
A cursory glance at last season’s squad tells you that United may be somewhat lighter in the forwards’ department for 2015/16 – indeed, there were few squads in the world that could’ve boasted strikers with records as prolific as those of Robin Van Persie and Radamel Falcao. Yes, we lost fan-favourites Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck last season, the former temporarily to Real Madrid and the latter permanently to Arsenal. But with the addition of Rooney and promising youth academy graduate James Wilson, the forward line looked well stocked in Van Gaal’s inaugural season as manager.
As we approach the opening day of the 2015/16 Premier League season, however, United’s is a squad that boasts only three natural forwards and none with a goalscoring record akin to those of RVP and Falcao. We all expect Rooney to be the main man up top, but how he will be supported and where other goals will come from remains to be seen. In pre-season, LVG deployed Dutch wunderkind Mephis Depay “in the hole” where his astonishing control of the ball is sure to create opportunities. Additional support is likely to come from the flanks as Adnan Januzaj, Ashley Young and Juan Mata seem likely to be the players tasked with creating opportunities from wider areas. Out-and-out-strikers Hernandez and Wilson may only expect to be included as substitutes and rotation options, though there is scope for them to stake a claim should injuries strike.
A DUTCH-STYLE FRONT THREE?
If LVG’s first season as United manager was characterised by tinkering with square pegs in round holes, his second may be remembered for the implementation of a forward line in a mould much more familiar to the Dutchman. An allegiance to Van Persie, the star-power of Falcao and the special dispensation afforded to Rooney muddied the water when it came to the strikeforce selection last season. It was a narrow front three that rarely proffered top draw performances and seemed devoid of the speed needed to take advantage of chances that often seemed a yard away, but crucially beyond the grasp of the forwards.
The way the squad has evolved since last year, we should expect to see a stark contrast as Rooney moves up top into the lone forward position and support comes from wider players cutting inside. A style made famous in Holland and subsequently Spain, the wide front three would take advantage of Rooney’s link-up play as well as the agile creative players that United possess out wide. Sounds great in theory, but there are perhaps question marks over the idea in practice, as the system would require the quick bedding-in of Memphis as well as a second coming for Januzaj in the Belgian’s third season in the first team squad. Consistency from Mata and Young as well as super-sub appearances from Hernandez and Wilson will also be a necessity if United are to score the all-important goals that will propel them back to the top table of European football. In truth, it seems like a big ask.
HITS, MISSES AND ONES TO WATCH
It is difficult to predict exactly how United will create and score goals this season, though we can be certain that they will require an extra spark at several points over the season. Opposing teams quickly worked out how to suffocate chance creation in the spring as defences sat deep and allowed United to control the play in areas where they lacked enough speed and guile to be a threat. It is doubtful that Van Gaal will allow the attack to become so predictable in 2015/16 as he looks to utilise pace and flair in the final third to create opportunities.
Another piece of this puzzle may be out-of-favour Barcelona player Pedro, who has been heavily linked to Old Trafford in recent weeks and is desperate to prove himself with a new challenge. He will certainly add more options in the wider forward roles, but how will the rest of the forwards perform? Will anyone be “banging the goals in”? Or will the strikers struggle for consistency again?
HIT – WAYNE ROONEY
At times a frustrating player to support, the club and England captain looks set to spend his first season in four years as the team’s primary striker. Often deployed off the front for club and country – even in defensive midfield under Van Gaal – Rooney’s career is one that has stuttered in recent seasons as his goal tally fell and all-round contribution slipped close to unacceptable levels. Quickly becoming the leader and a senior voice at the club, the former Everton striker will, however, be a commanding presence this season up top as he hopes to hit 20+ goals once more.
HIT – ADNAN JANUZAJ
It was perhaps too soon for the Belgian-born Kosovar-Albanian in 2013/14, but a year maturing with the reserves and a welcome chance to bulk-up his physique will stand the youngster in good stead for the new season. There isn’t much doubt about his touch and ability on the ball; the missing piece of the puzzle is now the search for consistency at the top level. Equally capable with both feet, Januzaj should expect plenty of opportunities to play in his favoured positions behind the striker this season – be it off the left, right or through the middle.
MISS – JAVIER HERNANDEZ
If this ends up being the Mexican star’s last season in a United shirt, then he will have at the very least fond memories of a rollercoaster first three seasons in Manchester. Greeted by fans and media alike with a collective “Who?” upon his arrival in 2010, Hernandez settled quickly and was instrumental in bringing the 19th title to Old Trafford scoring memorable goals along the way. Simply put though, his game hasn’t progressed and he looks to be no more than a benchwarmer once more this season. He’ll score a few goals like he always does, but this may be the end of the road for the Guadalajara-born striker.
ONE TO WATCH – MEMPHIS DEPAY
One of the hottest properties in world football, the former Sparta Rotterdam schoolboy comes replete with the feet that one would expect from a Dutchman. A graceful first touch and a mind to match, Memphis looks set to explode onto the world stage as an attacking wide forward. Whether he can repeat his goalscoring of the last two seasons with PSV Eindhoven remains to be seen, but a link up with Rooney seems like a natural partnership that will get the best out of the 21-year-old. Expect goals, assists and a flair that will dazzle and perhaps frustrate, with a hope that he steps up quickly to the standard required.
SUMMARY AND PREDICTIONS
It may be fair to say that United fans are still not yet full of the confidence that used to propel discussions in the Fergie years, but last season’s tentative progress coupled with the transfer business (both into and out of the club) leaves a certain optimism for 2015/16. Van Gaal has had a year to assess the players and formulate a strategy, and he seems much closer to a balanced, cohesive squad than when he took over. There are question marks over certain positions and the playing style he wishes to implement, but should this season produce good performances, long cup-runs and a shot at the title, there won’t be many fans looking for a shake-up in the managerial department.
The defence will profit from a resolution of the goalkeeper situation as well as a stability in terms of fitness and selection, the midfield looks much more solid on paper as LVG seeks to make the team more difficult to play through and the attack looks varied, if lacking a bit in numbers. So far, it seems that LVG’s three year plan is on-track, and if he brings silverware as well as good performances, who knows – he might even sign on for another season or two.
And with that, it’s time to make some competition predictions:
LEAGUE POSITION – 3rd
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE – Last 16
F.A. CUP – Winner
LEAGUE CUP – Semi Final