Future looking up for United

What does the future hold for Manchester United?

After all the euphoria caused by Manchester United’s unbeaten preseason under Louis van Gaal, the world came crashing down for the fans and the club.

They lost their first game, at home to Swansea City 2–1. A lot of the same problems were evident during the game: United was not inventive, there were too many wasted possessions, and crosses seemed like the only outlet for attack. Of course, the defense was nothing short of calamitous.

It was all too reminiscent of outgoing manager David Moyes’s teams. When van Gaal took over, he splurged like United had never splurged before, bringing in defender Marcos Rojo, versatile defensive midfielder Daley Blind, and two world class signings in striker Radamel Falcao (on loan) and midfielder Ángel Di María, the latter for a British record fee of 59.7 million pounds. Results did not improve as United still drew 1–1 at Sunderland and 0–0 at Burnley.

The worst, however, came when they were thrashed by Milton Keynes Dons, a League One team, 4–0 in the Capital One Cup. The international break came at a welcome time when the manager got time to integrate the signings and tweak the tactics, as well as formation of the team.

The first game after the break went well — the team scored a sound 4–0 victory over the hapless Queens Park Rangers (QPR). It was a fantastic performance, with Di María proving he was worth all that money.

So where exactly does United go from here? What should the fans expect from this team that has been letting them down time and again?

First, it would be ignorant to get carried away with hype after just one good performance. Truth be told, QPR did not offer much going forward and was in shambles defensively. Against a stingier defense, United may have still struggled, but the linkup play between Di María and midfielder Ander Herrera, another new signing, was encouraging. United was also far from their best defensively, with the clean sheet a misleading fact.

Van Gaal switched to a back four instead of a back five, and though the coordination was better, the communication between the defenders and the keeper was still shaky. David de Gea, arguably United’s best and most consistent performer in nearly two years now, had uncharacteristic problems in goal.

Rojo, meanwhile, started at left back this game, but it is likely that he will partner with Jones in the middle once new signing, Luke Shaw, is match fit. Evans and Blackett will both probably drop to the bench.

Rafael was fantastic against QPR, providing the attacking spark from the back United has missed since the Sir Alex Ferguson days after Moyes’s criminal mismanagement of his full backs.

Moving forward, United should take note of how the diamond formation worked for them this game. The team lined up in a 4–1–2–1–2 format, with Blind playing the holding midfielder, Di María and Herrera playing the shuttlers and Juan Mata playing in his favored No. 10 role behind the strike duo of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie. This formation lets van Gaal play almost all of his new signings in their favored positions.

Di María as a left midfielder in this formation is arguably in the top five players in the world. And Mata is up there with the best too. With van Persie’s form dipping recently, it is likely that Falcao will take his place in the lineup. Teen prodigy Adnan Januzaj will also be able to get meaningful minutes as either the No. 10, where everyone sees his future lie, or as a support striker, a position he is comfortable playing.

The only issue with this formation is the demand it places on the full backs to provide the width and cover defensively.

Fortunately for them, United is adequately stocked at both positions; Antonio Valencia provides cover at right back and Rojo, Blackett, Blind and youngster Reece James are all able to play left back instead of Shaw when needed.

Once Micheal Carrick returns, United will have sufficient depth in midfield too, something they haven’t been able to say since 2008.

The early signs are encouraging after the QPR game that van Gaal is getting his message across to the team. He has placed extra emphasis on team bonding activities, such as dinners and interviews with each other while also ensuring that each and every non-English speaking member of the squad is taking lessons to become fluent. Van Gaal is looking at United’s problems from the grass-root level and overhauling the entire system of the club.

It seems like the team is finally moving on from the Sir Alex days. For their sake, let’s hope the QPR game wasn’t a flash in the pan. Let’s hope that Manchester United are on their way back to where they belong — on top of English football.