How suspensions and injuries helped Louis van Gaal find a winning combination at Manchester United
Louis van Gaal may have bemoaned injuries this season, but they indirectly helped Manchester United climb the table
It is time to replace the L in LvG from ‘Louis’ to ‘Lucky’ as Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal has to be among the luckiest managers in the Premier League this season. Usually injuries and suspensions are big concerns for most teams, but a series of such events have eventually led to him picking a balanced side, one he may not have picked if it weren’t for some crucial events spread across the season.
Manchester United started the season with many first team players on the treatment table and this forced the Dutchman to give youngsters a chance and, surprisingly, they performed above expectations. He didn’t have fit full-backs to play a back four during the initial phase of the season and opted to go with the three at the back, utilizing Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia as wing backs.
Even though he was forced into using players in unfamiliar roles, it worked and it helped them find form after a poor 2013/14 season. There were many other factors which forced Van Gaal to alter his system and these enforced decisions eventually showered him with extremely valuable points.
Rafael’s performance against Leicester City and subsequent injury
The Da Silva twins were destined for big things at Manchester United, but one of them is already playing for a Championship side and the other could be on his way out of the club this summer after a very poor season. Rafael’s first start of the season came in a league game against Leicester City – a game widely remembered for how Manchester United let slip a 3-1 lead and lost 5-3. And a lot of credit for Leicester’s famous win goes to the Brazilian full back.
Van Gaal started him in four more games after the mishap against Leicester, but his performances weren’t convincing enough. Eventually, an injury he suffered towards the end of October forced Van Gaal to try an alternate option and in came Antonio Valencia. The Ecuadorian successfully established himself as a full back at the expense of Rafael, whose poor performance and injury has surely drawn the curtains on his career at Old Trafford.
The Dutch ace is known to love stamping his authority on his team and dropping the underperforming Rafael and using Valencia helped Van Gaal to send out a message to the other players. Persisting with Valencia was his way of showing his need for control and the injury to Rafael helped his cause. After Van Gaal was forced into playing Valencia as a full back, Rafael hasn’t started a single league game even though he is fit and available for selection.
Jonny Evans’ spitting incident
Aged 27, Jonny Evans has definitely crossed the timeline to establish himself as a regular starter for Manchester United. Nevertheless, the Northern Irishman got a run of games in the latter half of the season owing to the consistent injury problems Manchester United had in defence. However, Evans blew his chance when he was involved in a spitting incident with Pappis Cisse and had to face a six-match ban.
This incident once again forced Van Gaal to rearrange his backline and Chris Smalling, who was another player who had endured a difficult season was given the responsibility of leading the backline in the absence of Evans. Van Gaal opted to use the combination of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling from thereon and it worked wonders for United as they helped the club get crucial results over direct rivals Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur.
The ban may have cost Evans his Manchester United career, but it helped Van Gaal finally get his centre back combination right and allowed Smalling to cement his place in the team and get a new contract.
The left-back conundrum and the Blind solution
Manchester United signed young Luke Shaw to replace the outgoing Patrice Evra, but the teenager struggled with injury problems in his first season with the club. In addition to Shaw, the other defender they could deploy as a left-back was another new signing, Marcos Rojo.
During the February-March period, Manchester United were forced into another change. Marcos Rojo was injured prior to the big games against North London sides Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur and was unavailable for selection while Luke Shaw had to be taken off at half time against Arsenal.
The only other player Van Gaal could use in the left-back position was Daley Blind whom the manager ideally wanted to play in the anchoring midfield role. Eventually, Blind played as a left-back against Tottenham Hotspur out of necessity and put in a brilliant performance as he combined with Ashley Young down the left flank, constantly troubling the opposition.
Moving Blind into defence for the Spurs game meant that someone else had to operate in his role in midfield and the unfortunate injuries to Shaw and Rojo eventually led to Michael Carrick returning to the starting lineup to occupy the position vacated by Blind. Carrick was fit and available to start in the previous games against Arsenal, Newcastle and Sunderland, but he was only used as substitute.
The veteran midfielder was like the final piece of a confusing jigsaw puzzle and his return to the starting lineup brought out a rejuvenated Manchester United side in the game against Spurs. Carrick scored one and assisted one in the game against his former club and then followed up his form in the game against Liverpool where he almost single-handedly nullified the threat of the Philippe Coutinho.
With Carrick in the team. United won four games on the trot of which three were against Spurs, Liverpool and Man City. And as soon as he was out injured United lost their next three games.
Injuries to the regular left-backs may have proved to be a season defining moment although many people may have missed it.