United must improve defence or forget about top four
Van Gaal can forget about even top-four finish if he doesn't bring in defensive reinforcements
Manchester United kept their second clean sheet of their tour of the United States yesterday morning (Singapore time), but Louis van Gaal knows that pre-season friendlies can be deceiving.
The Premier League will present a far greater test of his defence and, right now, it's a test his team will fail.
Put simply, they must strengthen the backline or, never mind a title challenge, they will struggle to retake their place in the top four.
Van Gaal has confirmed that he will be switching United to a 3-4-1-2 formation this season.
It's a bold and potentially brilliant move, with one minor problem.
As it stands, United have only three senior defenders - Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans.
Youngsters Tyler Blackett and Michael Keane have seen action in the US, but it seems unlikely that either of them will figure seriously in van Gaal's immediate plans.
But it is not simply a case of accumulating players to cover the existing staff.
This is a dramatic tactical shift, unprecedented in United's history.
The roster doesn't just need to be boosted, it needs to be improved.
The move to a back three is brave, but it's entirely in keeping with a growing trend across world football.
Van Gaal's Dutch side, of course, were highly successful in Brazil, creating a wall of defenders, flanked by sturdy, intelligent fullbacks.
Costa Rica raced all the way to the last eight with one.
In Italy, the back three reigns supreme where clubs like Juventus and Napoli have used it to great effect.
In England, Everton and Liverpool's occasional use of it has confounded opponents.
It allows a manager to either extend and strengthen the core of the defence, to leave a defender behind as a sweeper, to have him push up into midfield or, as Matthias Sammer used to demonstrate for Germany, a combination of all of the above.
So, this is no "hail mary" pass, but it is still something of a gamble, especially with British centre backs.
In the UK, young players still tend to revere the idea of a back four because it's all they've ever known. Some embrace the challenge, some resent it.
Over at Manchester City, Micah Richards publicly criticised former manager Roberto Mancini for his continued use of the scheme.
That's unlikely to happen at United.
Jones, Smalling and Evans are all smart enough to know that they either get with van Gaal's programme or get out, but whether or not they will be able to settle into the new system quickly is a different matter entirely.
It's a very different style of football and van Gaal will surely want to have at least one defender in the line with some experience of it.
Any hopes of luring his World Cup defender Stefan de Vrij evaporated this week when the Feyenoord man agreed a move, yet to be completed, to Lazio.
Efforts to bring Thomas Vermaelen in from Arsenal continue, though you can guarantee that Arsene Wenger will do his best to stop that from happening.
The top name on their shortlist, Mats Hummels, is an even more difficult prospect.
Borussia Dortmund have no intention of allowing their man to leave but, even if they yield, Barcelona are known to have identified him as their No. 1 target, too.
With United out of all European competitions, Hummels wouldn't have to think too hard about that decision.
Van Gaal is keen to move quickly and he has already acknowledged that the first three months of his tenure will be the most difficult as the players acclimatise to his methods.
But he can't do the job unless he has the right tools.
Identifying what United lack is the easy bit. United have to move quickly now and resolve the issue.
Then, and only then, will they have a serious chance of recovery.
A lot of players are playing intuitively and I want them to think and know why they do something.
— United manager Louis van Gaal, on his coaching methods
'Three months for United to adapt'
TAKING HIS CHANCE: Luke Shaw (left) impresses manager Louis van Gaal in United’s game against Inter.
MAN UNITED 0
INTER MILAN 0
- Man United win 5-3 on penalties
New Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal has set a three-month bedding-in period for his players to get used to his style and methods.
The Dutchman, brought in following the sacking of David Moyes less than 10 months after taking the job at Old Trafford, is introducing a new 3-4-1-2 formation and increasing the technical demands on his players.
United, who finished outside the European places in seventh last season, play Swansea City, Sunderland and Burnley in their first three Premier League matches but, despite a relatively comfortable start, van Gaal warned against immediate success.
"Every club where I have been, I have struggled for the first three months," van Gaal said, after the win over Inter Milan on penalties in Washington DC in the United States yesterday morning (Singapore time).
"After that, they know what I want, how I am as a human being and also as a manager because I am very direct.
"I say things as they are, so you have to adapt to that way of coaching. It's not so easy and also the way I train and coach is in the brains and not the legs.
"A lot of players are playing intuitively and I want them to think and know why they do something. That's a process that is difficult at first.
"When we survive for the first three months, it will be the same as at Bayern (Munich). After three months there, we were seventh (in the Bundesliga) and third in the Champions League (group stage).
"We had to win at Juventus, we did and that was the turning point."
Meanwhile, van Gaal was impressed with the performance of Luke Shaw, who played the second half of United's win over Inter despite going through a punishing training session on the morning of the match.
On the eve of the 5-3 penalty shootout win, van Gaal criticised Shaw for turning up for pre-season out of shape.
The United manager created a special individual training plan to get the player up to speed for the new season.
That plan included an intense fitness session on the morning of the International Champions Cup game in Washington DC.
Van Gaal had planned to bring Reece James on as a second-half substitute, but he introduced Shaw instead after the United youth product suffered an injury just before kick-off.
Despite a lack of preparation, Shaw performed well off the bench, much to van Gaal's happiness.
"I think he did very good tonight," van Gaal said of Shaw.
"He's working very hard. He was lucky today because I was going to play our friend Reece James but he was a little bit injured.
"And so I asked (Shaw), in spite of a very heavy training session this morning, (to play)."
The Dutchman hailed the win as the best of United's three-match tour but, despite an impressive showing from his backline, he admitted that he is looking to sign at least one defender before the transfer window closes.
"I am looking at the defenders we have first," van Gaal said.
"And when you see our three matches, we are doing well, I think, but it is right that we are looking for defenders because a lot of defenders have gone.
"We have to replace them, but I also like Michael Keane and Tyler Blackett." - Wire Services.
Simeone interested in United's Hernandez
Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone has admitted that his side are still interested in signing Manchester United striker Javier Hernandez.
The Spanish champions have already brought in forwards Mario Mandzukic and Antoine Griezmann this summer to compensate for the departures of Diego Costa, David Villa and Adrian Lopez, but Simeone revealed he is still looking for an extra forward.
Hernandez has started just 15 Premier League games for United in the last two seasons, and Simeone believes the Mexico international would be an asset to his side.
"He's a vertical player, he's great in one-on-one situations and he's someone who could be useful to any team," said Simeone.
"We are speaking to the sporting directors about the type of player we want and then it's up to them to bring the player in. We can't close any door until the transfer window shuts." - PA Sport.
Ancelotti won't rush Ronaldo back
Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti has admitted that he and his coaching staff are being careful with Cristiano Ronaldo, despite insisting that his knee injury is "forgotten".
Ronaldo has not played in either of Real's pre-season friendly games against Inter Milan and Roma in the US, as a result of the knee injury he picked up towards the end of last season.
Asked about Ronaldo's condition following Real's 1-0 defeat by Roma in Dallas yesterday morning (Singapore time), Ancelotti said: "We have to be careful. He is taking things very carefully, but the problem is forgotten."
The Italian coach, however, could not confirm whether Ronaldo would be able to face former club United in Michigan on Sunday morning.
"He is training well by himself and today he did a double training session. We are going to see over the next few days whether he can play against United." - PA Sport.