Overloaded - Manchester United fail to build a case for the defence

COMMENT: Louis van Gaal has been handed an forward line to rival any in the game, but the lack of quality off the ball has to be of great concern to the Dutchman
By Kris Voakes | International Football Correspondent

Football coaches love to talk about balance. After a defeat, many will bemoan the lack of it in their side, while victories will often be attributed to an equilibrium that made the winning side difficult to exploit.

Nothing pleases a boss more than a perfect marriage between defence and attack, left and right.

Yet Manchester United’s summer transfer campaign largely flew in the face of such a philosophy. Far from creating a balanced squad, Louis van Gaal and Ed Woodward have thrown caution to the wind and built an attack-heavy staff with little in the way of defensive cover.

“When a player of this calibre becomes available, it is an opportunity not to be missed,” Van Gaal said following the capture of Radamel Falcao on a €440,000 a-week loan deal after the deadline had passed on Monday. But United could have done so much more with the €30 million it has cost to take on the Monaco striker until the end of the season.

While their forward line now has a formidable look about it, opposition strikers will be licking their lips at the prospect of their side counter-attacking at the likes of Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans, who now form the crux of their defensive set-up.

Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Juan Mata and record €75m signing Angel Di Maria undoubtedly provide a sharper edge in attack than United could offer last season, but at what cost?

Marcos Rojo has been added to the defensive line, but remains a player who the club’s extensive Portuguese scouting network had largely ignored until he produced a handful of positive displays for Argentina at the World Cup as a left-back. And, as a result, they ended up spending twice as much as they might have done had they plucked him from Sporting Lisbon before he headed to the finals in Brazil.

Daley Blind’s arrival from Ajax has been hailed as a great move by many in Manchester, but even he is more likely to occupy a midfield role rather than a defensive one, given his greater qualities in the centre of the park.

THE SUMMER SPEND | United's additions
Ander Herrera midfielder Athletic Bilbao €36m
Luke Shaw left-back Southampton €40m
Marcos Rojo left-back Sporting Lisbon €20m
Angel Di Maria midfielder/winger Real Madrid €75m
Daley Blind midfielder Ajax €17.5m
Radamel Falcao striker Monaco €6m loan

Some thought was clearly given to the problems at the back, with Thomas Vermaelen a key target for Van Gaal. But once Barcelona beat them to the punch for the Arsenal man, little consideration was given to bringing in one of the top quality defenders on the market.

Bayern Munich snapped up Mehdi Benatia from Roma, with United making no move for a man who was begging them to sign him over a year ago, while Liverpool snapped up Dejan Lovren and Ezequiel Garay cost Zenit St Petersburg only €6m. Top defenders were there to be bought, some at bargain prices, but the Old Trafford decision-makers refused to show their hand.

All of which leaves Rojo, Smalling, Jones and Evans as their four main candidates for the three centre-half positions. Even if Van Gaal eventually switches back to a four-man back line that he has been infinitely more at home with over his coaching career, that far from solves his issues. It is a far cry from the Manchester United side of Sir Alex Ferguson, which had leaders such as Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra within its defensive ranks.

Going back even further, dominant leadership from the back line was key to all incarnations of Ferguson’s brilliant reign. While many observers pointed to their great midfields as the basis for their success, huge characters like Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Jaap Stam, Ferdinand, Denis Irwin and Gary Neville laid much of the foundation from which United thrived. Evans et al, try as they might, will never be cut from the same cloth.

This is not the first time Van Gaal has overloaded his attack, with his great Ajax side of the 1990s having a similar modus operandi. But that Champions League-winning outfit was crafted superbly, and not thrown together as is the case with United 2014.

The triumphant Godenzonen side included seven starters who had begun their career at the club, learning their trade, being guided in the ‘Total Football’ craft that was Ajax’s trademark. Over time, Danny Blind, Edgar Davids, Jari Litmanen and Finidi George were added to the ranks to round out a team of tremendous attacking potential.

It was not a knee-jerk reaction to failure, rather a long-term vision being realised. And the current United squad looks a lot like the former rather than the more desirable latter.

Given the talent now available to Van Gaal, it shouldn’t be beyond the Dutchman to return the 20-time kings of England to the Champions League for next season. But is that enough, given the costs incurred?

For around €200m, they have recruited a host of big names but have seemingly overlooked their main issues. Faced with a hole in the roof, they have laid a brand new lawn. The club can afford the outlay involved thanks to their huge new sponsorship deals with Chevrolet and Adidas, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get value for money.

With so much money having been spent this summer, United should be gunning for the Premier League title again. But one look at their defensive stocks suggests they’re just as close to another spectacular failure as they are to a 21st coronation.

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