As Manchester United look to bounce back from their defeat to Southampton, Louis van Gaal could do a lot worse than reinstate Wayne Rooney as his leading striker.
After last season’s seventh place Premier League finish under David Moyes, van Gaal has been tasked of leading the Reds back into the top-four and the UEFA Champions League this term. Despite rarely finding their best form, a 10-match unbeaten run – which included seven wins – meant only Chelsea and Manchester City could look down on the 20-times champions of England.
Indeed, this even sparked whispers of a potential and unlikely bid for title number 21 from the Dutch coach and some of his players. But when Dusan Tadic scored the only goal of the game at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon, during a 90 minutes in which the hosts failed to register a single shot on goal, realism has set and a reminder of the original objective was flagged up for all to see.
United, whilst still sitting in fourth position, are now two points adrift of the third-place Saints, just one above the Alexis Sanchez-inspired Arsenal, and three ahead of Tottenham Hotspur who currently occupying sixth. As for that potential surge for what would be an unlikely a title success as any since the inception of the Premier League, they now trail Jose Mourinho’s table-toppers by 12 points.
Much has been made of the problems van Gaal has had in his defence, whether playing a flat back-four or his increasingly maligned system of three at the heart. Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling appeared to be the strongest trio in this formation, yet all have been prone to error; the same could be said of young Tyrone Blackett and Paddy McNair, as promising as they are.
It is little surprise, then, that a top-class central defender is believed to be at the head of van Gaal’s priority during the January transfer window; whether he can land the player he feels befitting of such a role during the mid-season is another question. And besides, let’s not forget that only the three teams above them have a better defensive record than United this season.
Anyway, what about their attacking options?
Without wanting to press the panic button simply because of the failure to test Fraser Forster on Sunday – after all, Juan Mata really should have done better with two gilt-edged chances – this is an area in which you’d expect better from a team which includes the aforementioned Spaniard, Robin van Persie, Angel di Maria and, although absent against the Saints, Radamel Falcao.
And then there is of course Rooney. The England international has, in some ways, lost out following the lavish summer arrivals of di Maria and Falcao, and in some respects van Gaal’s eagerness to involve young James Wilson, as he has been deployed in a midfield role. This is a position he is more than capable of filling, but has he been shunted there ahead of his time?
For all his ability to pick out a pass from a deep lying role ala Paul Scholes, there is a valid argument that at 29, he should still be leading the line in attack. This is a player who has hit double figures in each Premier League season since he arrived in Manchester almost 11 years ago, and is on course to achieve this again after taking his tally to eight against Newcastle United last month.
Indeed, with Falcao still struggling to find his feet and van Persie still looking a little out of sorts, Rooney is not only United’s captain, but their most senior striker. Not only this, but playing him in a central role up top wouldn’t necessarily weaken the midfield now that van Gaal has a full complement to choose from as the league season enters the final 17 fixtures.
If the Dutchman were to revert to a back-four, this would allow him to play a diamond in midfield: Michael Carrick or Daley Blind at the base of his foursome, di Maria in his best position on the left, the under-used Ander Herrera on the right, and Mata in his favoured role as playmaker. This would then leave Falcao and van Persie battling it out to line up alongside Rooney in the starting XI.
With perhaps two or three reinforcements in the summer (one of which may need to be a striker, but that’s for another time), then perhaps talk of a title bid may not be so misplaced.
What is United’s best formation, and does it involve Rooney playing as a striker? Let us know what you think by joining in the discussion below.