Tuesday 21 July 2015

Van Gaal’s toughest transfer

Manchester United have impressed so far this transfer window, but still face a major challenge

It’s safe to say that Manchester United fans will be happy with their clubs business in the transfer window so far. The additions of Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin mean that, for the first time in a long time, United can go toe to toe in central midfield with any club in the Premier League, whilst captures of Memphis Depay and Matteo Darmian have also got fans drooling over their flair and reliability respectively.

Though the longstanding problem positions of central midfield and right back may have been solved this summer, Van Gaal still clearly has to plug more gaps in the United squad if they are to challenge for honours next season. Though a leading centre back is one role that needs such recruiting, a far tougher challenge is the signing of a striker who can provide reliable cover for Wayne Rooney now he has been given full responsibility for leading the line at United.

Whilst a second choice striker may not be the most high profile role in a squad, two factors about Van Gaal’s system at United make it a near impossible role to fill adequately.

The first of these factors has to do with Van Gaal’s adoption a 4-3-3 at United. Despite it merits, the formation does have the tendency to leave its solitary centre forward isolated, a problem which is further exacerbated by Van Gaal’s preference to have his players stick to their positions rather than to roam around in an attempt to find the ball. Therefore, to successfully make an impact as a centre forward in this formation a striker needs to be in one of two moulds.

The first of these is the bullish mould: a striker who can impact the game even when isolated, either through the pressing and bullying of centre backs even when he doesn’t have the ball and/or through being such a goal scoring threat that defenders cannot keep their eyes of him for a second—with or without the ball. Rooney and Luis Suarez typify this type of striker and its no coincidence that they have both successfully led the line in a 4-3-3, whilst many others have failed.

Luis Suarez: A bullish striker who can spearhead a 4-3-3

The second type of striker that can be successfully deployed in this role is the zeitgeisty “false 9”, an unorthodox striker who roams around the final and middle thirds of the pitch, contributing to several phases of play to both score and lay on goals for teammates. A good “false 9” needs to be as proficient in setting up goal scoring chances as finishing them and also requires the intelligence to know when to roam deeper and when to hold their position to ensure their team are not outnumbered in attack. Francesco Totti and Lionel Messi are two players who can play this position well. Due to the massive demands of this position there have been a lot more trainwrecks in it than success stories for the "false 9" as players fail to strike the balance between being a creative force and a goal scorer.

The key point here is that both centre forward roles in a 4-3-3 require an incredibly complete footballer to play them. As they will not be spoon fed the ball in the way a striker playing off of a dedicated number 10 or with a strike partner may be, they need to be able to create their own chances or contribute more to their team than just goals, but not at the expense of goal scoring itself. A striker who cannot do this simply will not work in a 4-3-3, and it is this stringent role criteria which has seen the likes Robin Van Persie banished from the club.

So, if the first factor that makes the second choice striker berth such a hard one to fill at United is the difficulty of the role itself, then the second factor that makes this such a tough recruitment mission is that a second choice striker at United will never be more than second choice. Whether it be due to Van Gaal’s undying faith in his captain or a clause in his obscene contract, Rooney is never dropped. If two strikers earning in excess of £200,000 a week could not get a game ahead of him then no player can rightfully expect to displace him from the starting line up. This is obviously a massive turn off for any potential transfer targets.

What Van Gaal therefore appears to be looking for in his striker search is one who is complete enough to spearhead his 4-3-3 formation but who is also happy being at very best a rotation player. Such a player simply does not exist. Any player who possesses the broad skill set required to fill the centre forward role in Van Gaal’s system could command a starting place at a top European club. A player who would choose to warm the benches at United rather than to start for a similar (or even slightly smaller) statured club is immediately the wrong player for them, posing a seemingly impassable dilemma to this recruitment mission.

Though Van Gaal has recently said that he will bring in another “mystery” striker, there is an argument that a potential solution already lies within the club in the shape of young Memphis. Though the player is unproven as a striker at any level, he possesses the pace aggression and eye for a goal that could see him develop into a striker of the first variety described. This also overcomes the lack of game time issue as Memphis can play on the left wing (albeit not as first choice) whilst Rooney is fit. United have enough cover in that position through Ashley Young and Angel Di Maria that they will not be left short on the wing if Memphis is to play up front.

A second possible alternative is to sign a right winger, a position which United are in short supply of, who can also play up front in a 4-3-3. Though, for reasons set out earlier, a perfect solution is unlikely to be found, Barcelona’s Pedro is the closest thing to this currently available and it will be of little surprise to see him unveiled as Van Gaal’s “mystery” striker signing.

Could Pedro be Van Gaal's next signing?

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