The contenders: Manchester United

EPL preview: Dilemma to find best XI

Memphis Depay on the ball against Pablo Cesar Aguilar of Club America during a pre-season friendly. United's new £25 million Dutch winger can also play as an attacking midfielder or second striker.
Memphis Depay on the ball against Pablo Cesar Aguilar of Club America during a pre-season friendly. United's new £25 million Dutch winger can also play as an attacking midfielder or second striker.PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES

It has been just over a year since Louis van Gaal's arrival, and already Manchester United's squad looks vastly different from the one he inherited. The Dutchman has no excuses as he seeks his first trophy at Old Trafford. The Straits Times continues its preview of the chasing pack. Tomorrow: Arsenal

Like most in his profession, Louis van Gaal likes to plead hardship.

The Manchester United manager believes he has been denied credit for coping with the difficulties of his job. He has taken to saying that United have parted company with 17 players in his reign.

He rarely bothers to mention that some were youngsters, unwanted or, like Robin van Persie, exiled on van Gaal's whims. Yet it amounts to an extensive overhaul. United, long the bywords for continuity, have undergone a revolution.

Three-quarters of the back four, in Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, left together last summer. Van Gaal could start his second season in charge with seven of his signings in the side.

But that should not bring him sympathy. Rather, it has amounted to an opportunity. An expensive one, too, as the Dutchman has now spent £230 million (S$494.4 million).

  • THREE KEYS TO THE SEASON

  • 1 Resolving the future of Real Madrid target David de Gea. If the goalie is staying, he needs to regain his focus. If not, back-up Sergio Romero must hit the ground running.

    2 Signing the top-class centre-back they need before the summer transfer window closes on Aug 31.

    3 Getting Bastian Schweinsteiger, 31, match-fit in a fast-paced, physical EPL. After all, with his intelligence and ability to control games, he was signed to make an instant impact.

  • THREE QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

  • 1 United scored only 62 goals last term, their second-lowest EPL total. Can they get back to their lethal best despite letting go of Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao?

    2 Will Memphis Depay be the No. 10? The trequartista in four pre-season games, but the man who made his name out wide has to hold off the likes of Juan Mata to own that role.

    3 How will van Gaal utilise his squad now that United also have the Champions League (or Europa League if they lose their play-off) to contend with?

If he fails, he should not use the exodus as an excuse. And if he is to succeed, he has to find his finest 11. As that took him until March last season, it may be no simple task.

While United eventually prospered by playing 4-3-3 then, the indications from pre-season are that Van Gaal will switch to 4-2-3-1 now.

Memphis Depay, the £25 million winger who was the top scorer in the Dutch league, has been installed as a No. 10 and Wayne Rooney's sidekick. One corollary is that van Gaal, who has bought two central midfielders, now only has room for two in his side.

It brings a difficult decision. Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini, who finished last season in the side, seem to be jettisoned, with the Belgian likely to be re-invented as an impact substitute.

But van Gaal will still have to omit one of new recruits Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger or his talismanic vice-captain Michael Carrick.

United won 75 per cent of league games the 34-year-old started last season and only 32 per cent of those he did not. Yet perhaps Schweinsteiger will be charged with supplying the penetrative passing from deep. Schneiderlin's energy surely ensures he will start.

 
 

Van Gaal may have thrown a curve ball by suggesting that the converted winger Antonio Valencia remains his first-choice right-back when Matteo Darmian will start the season in the side.

The Italian offers greater solidity. Yet while the Dutchman has failed in his attempts to recruit Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos as his defensive leader, other changes are being implemented at the back. The versatile Daley Blind is now his preferred left-footed centre-back.

United look to the left in another respect, too: with Juan Mata cutting in from the right and Ashley Young nearer the other touch-line, they can be lopsided.

While others have taken their leave, Mata and Young are the exceptions amid the exits, the survivors from earlier reigns. They are rarities.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2015, with the headline 'DILEMMA TO FIND BEST XI'. Print Edition | Subscribe