On Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football last night, Gary Neville spent some time analysing United’s defensive organisation in the opening spell of the 2015/16 season, focusing in particular on Daley Blind’s reinvention as a centre-back. He described Van Gaal’s team as having one of the most well-drilled defences around – they know when to push up, when to drop off, and seem to be making the crucial tackles at the right times.
Blind’s intelligent football brain and well-documented versatility means Van Gaal has been able to surprise everyone by seemingly converting him into a capable partner for Chris Smalling – based on his recent form, he may well keep Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo out of the starting lineup if he and Smalling can remain fit.
But United’s defensive solidity – exemplified in two consecutive clean-sheets in this season’s opening fixtures – is not entirely new. In fact, we have the best defensive record in the league over the last 8 months, conceding just 23 goals since 8th November 2014. That’s 4 less than Chelsea, the league’s archetypal defensive-supremos, according to popular opinion at least.
Of course, De Gea was a huge factor in that last season, and of course it’s a massive concern that his situation remains unresolved. Romero hasn’t done too much wrong so far, but he’s hardly a genuine replacement for De Gea. If we do keep the Spaniard for the rest of the season, I just hope his mental focus and commitment to the cause haven’t been too seriously undermined. We know he belongs here, but the fact is he has other ambitions.
With the new season underway and not much time left to bring in more players, United may well have to continue with the defenders currently available. Personally, I like the look of the current back four, but if we do suffer injuries to any of them, the cover available is worryingly limited. Rojo can fill in at left-back or centre-back without putting too much strain on my cardiovasclar health, but Valencia at right-back has never looked that convincing to me and, as much as I want to love him, Phil Jones still fills me with a special kind of dread. As for Blackett and McNair – they may have bright futures, but they’re still both incredibly raw.
Neville argued that Van Gaal’s focus on defensive organisation is giving United a solid foundation from which to build, and I agree. If we can seal the deal for Pedro, I’m confident that more attacking expression will come, bringing back some of the excitement and goalmouth action we crave.