SPECIAL REPORT: The Dutchman has yet to make up his mind on two of his summer arrivals because they have struggled to stay fit, but there are others fighting for their futures
By Sam Lee
For most Premier League clubs, FA Cup clashes are increasingly an opportunity to try out youngsters and run the rule over fringe players. For Manchester United right now, they’re an opportunity to work out how good the first-teamers are.
Understandably, given the state of the club last April, there are doubts over a number of Louis van Gaal’s players, and not just academy graduates or ageing midfielders.
Luke Shaw, whose £30 million summer deal was largely put in place during David Moyes’s tenure, has endured a stop-start season. So far the Dutch coach is not convinced, purely because he has not had the opportunity to be.
It is a similar story for Marcos Rojo, despite being very much a Van Gaal signing. Is he good enough to be first choice next season, or merely a squad player? Right now, nobody at Carrington is entirely sure.
That is a prevalent theme at United currently. One well-placed source describes it best: “there’s a sense of a purge in the air”.
But while Shaw and Rojo are not in danger of being shown the exit door any time soon, the same cannot be said for most of the club’s other defenders.
Rafael, still deemed too rash after a number of years in the first team, will be allowed to leave this summer. He has failed to capitalise on his stand-out 2012-13 campaign, and other targets are being assessed as the club plan another summer spree.
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None of the club’s three established centre-backs are assured of their places next season, either. Talks to extend the contract of Phil Jones, once described as having the potential to be the greatest player in United history, have gone cold in recent months, setting tongues wagging around Carrington. He, like many others, has battled with injuries and been beset by maddening lapses of concentration.
Chris Smalling has recovered well from his derby red card in November but has been the subject of long-term interest from Arsenal. To highlight the Gunners’ intent, they not only tried to include the England defender in last summer’s proposed Thomas Vermaelen switch, but also in the 2012 deal for Robin van Persie.
With Van Gaal able to select from a full squad, minus Ashley Young, for the game against Southampton earlier this month, Jonny Evans, last summer’s tip to establish himself as the club’s top defender, was left out. The Northern Irishman has perhaps been the most frustrating performer, in between his own injury struggles, given that his promising displays in recent seasons clash so markedly with the scatter-brained showings of the past months.
Links with Valencia defender Nicolas Otamendi, who United tried to sign from Porto last January before he moved to Mestalla, surfaced in Spain this week but the Red Devils insist he is not a target. Mats Hummels, however, remains a priority and attempts to bring him to the north west are inevitable in the coming months.
There is uncertainty in midfield, too, and the constant links with Kevin Strootman tell their own story, especially where Ander Herrera is concerned. The Spaniard, another costly signing, has looked very capable in his fleeting opportunities to impress, but continually struggles for game time, especially since Michael Carrick’s return to fitness.
With Van Gaal still wrestling to get to grips with his players, having already shown Javier Hernandez, Nani and Wilfried Zaha the door, he has been given a lot to mull over. He appears to have made his mind up over Darren Fletcher, however.
The Scot, an excellent United servant and a key player in the club’s especially triumphant years between 2007 and 2011, could even make his exit this month. It is an amazing achievement to have battled back from chronic ulcerative colitis to play Premier League football again, but it seems his United days are numbered. The fact he was substituted at half-time against Aston Villa in December because he wasn’t moving the ball quickly enough is an especially damning indictment given Van Gaal’s happiness with his team’s recent performances, deemed slow and predictable by many fans and pundits.
Radamel Falcao’s recent marginalisation did put the striker’s nose out of joint, as widely reported. That is to be expected of almost any big-name, established footballer, highlighted by the recent troubles surrounding Lionel Messi at Barcelona. The ongoing uncertainty around his position, and worries about his sharpness, are inevitable given he had barely played for Monaco since recovering from the serious knee injury he picked up a year ago. His own fitness troubles have further stalled his progress and the decision to omit him altogether, despite being fully fit, did not sit well with the player’s influential camp.
But these are transitional times at Old Trafford. Given the problems at the time of Moyes’ exit, it can only be expected that the new manager, whoever he may be, would need time to run the rule over what he has inherited, let alone the signings needed to plug the many gaps in the squad.
It speaks volumes that the team and playing style are under such scrutiny from fans and media alike despite having lost just once in 13 matches. A year ago, supporters would have killed for a comparative record.
There will be victims, though. Adnan Januzaj is exhibit ‘A’ on that front, having been told that he currently has no place in his manager’s plans, and will have to wait until the end of January to seal a loan move.
The arrival of Victor Valdes highlights Van Gaal’s willingness to build a squad capable of winning the league – and also how highly he can value players with whom he has already worked. The Spaniard has been fully fit since before Christmas and is ready to make his debut on Friday night against Cambridge.
His arrival, of course, has meant Anders Lindegaard is free to leave, but he is due a significant pay-off which is currently holding up a move away, with a number of clubs, mainly in Spain and Italy, interested in the Dane.
And this is exactly the point. Manchester United are rebuilding, new players will be coming in and space will be made to accommodate them. There is constant pressure for players to prove their worth, and they need to take any opportunity to do so. An FA Cup clash against Cambridge United is as good a time as any.