Christopher Atkins looks at the man who could bring order to the new MUFC formation.
What had appeared so straightforward during an unbeaten pre-season campaign has proven rather difficult for Manchester United over the past few weeks, with two draws the sum total of their points haul from the opening three games of the Premier League season. Yet, despite those woes, there is positivity around Old Trafford at present following late transfer activity that sent out a significant statement of intent. The arrivals of Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao, in particular, were largely unexpected and, indeed, potentially season-changing.
However, for all the quality that new manager Louis van Gaal has brought in over the summer, it is perhaps the club's cheapest purchase of the window—Daley Blind—who could have the biggest impact on what the team can seek to achieve in the weeks and months ahead. The central midfield area has been an issue of United's for some time and, even in Van Gaal's 3-4-1-2 system—designed to lessen the burden on that department—it has proved a continued concern.
Much spotlight was put on the team's overeagerness to play long-balls against Burnley in United's last fixture, with just under 20 percent of all the side's passes hit long. Given Van Gaal's much stated preference for a high-tempo, possession-based system it was somewhat bemusing and supporters were rightfully concerned. Youngster Tyler Blackett was one player singled out as overly keen to play the ball long rather than seek a more simple option, but all too often there were few avenues available.
Of United's 10 most common passing combinations this season, nine comprise solely members of the six-man defensive unit (including goalkeeper David de Gea). The Red Devils have not had an issue retaining possession, averaging an impressive 58.9 percent of the ball, but it would seem they have struggled to move the ball out of the defensive line. That only six sides have created less clear-cut chances this campaign would also suggest that their more creative players have been far from involved in the right areas of the pitch.
That is not to let those attacking options off the hook and, indeed, the signings of both Falcao and Di Maria will do much to address what has been at times this season a slow and ponderous unit. However, such talents must still be given the ball in attacking quarters and defences must be stretched. United may not have been helped by injuries to both Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick, but those deputising in midfield should have offered far more. Van Gaal's is a system of stretching play by maximising the width of the field through fast passing exchanges. Thus far, it hasn't been implemented.
What the Dutchman saw in his opening competitive games must surely have convinced him that a move for Blind was a priority. The zest with which United had played on tour had been lost and, when put under pressure, the midfield was creaking. While attempts for a dominant Arturo Vidal or Kevin Strootman figure are on hold, Blind will do much to ease the burden on the defence when it comes to distribution from the back.
His task will be a simple one, to collect the ball from the centre-backs and bring those around him—the Matas, Herreras, Di Marias—into play in the attacking half of the pitch. A converted left-back, he was excellent in a defensive midfield role for Ajax last campaign and, when used there, for Netherlands at the World Cup. For what he lacks in pace, Blind compensates for in intelligence and reading of the game. By the way, this Guts bonus sports will boost your bets.
Whether United opt to remain in their current system or switch to a 4-3-1-2 diamond setup as has been suggested in some quarters, improving distribution will be key to unlocking the side's attacking potential. As previously unavailable players return, the side will inevitably improve but Van Gaal still saw the need to sign a new midfield anchor as he seeks to fully impose his philosophy at Old Trafford.
Blind, a pupil of his school of thought, will be central to that system and it is he, rather than the eye-catching signings higher up the pitch, who could be key to United returning to challenge at the top of the Premier League table. Given the significant investment they have made, a Champions League return next season has to be the minimum expectation for the season ahead.
You can find Christopher on twitter at @ChrisAtkins_Categories: Premier League , soccer