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Three areas United must strengthen in

Southampton-v-Manchester-United-Premier-League (4)Louis Van Gaal’s first six months at Old Trafford have been difficult to judge. It feels as if United are still to fully reap the benefits of the summer spending spree, as injuries have hampered all the new arrivals, forcing Van Gaal to constantly reshuffle his team, though after a difficult start United are unbeaten in 10 games in all competition and sit third in the table.

However, while the unbeaten run has included seven wins and United are on track to achieve their target of returning to Europe next season, their performances have been unconvincing and have betrayed a vulnerability that must surely be addressed if a title challenge is to be mounted next season.

Van Gaal has been tight-lipped over United’s transfer business in January but the feeling is that he’s unlikely to bring in new faces this month, which means United could be set for another overhaul in the summer, albeit not one as drastic as the one in 2014.

Here’s three areas United must strengthen in.

1) Centre-back

Orange is the new black, 30 is the new 20 and centre-back is the new central midfielder. At least as far as United are concerned, that is. United’s defensive deficiencies this season have been all too well documented and ruthlessly exposed and while only City, Chelsea and Southampton have conceded less this season, that is due to David De Gea’s outstanding form, rather than to defensive solidity.

Jonny Evans has regressed enormously and must now be classified as a liability, while Chris Smalling remains too prone to making mistakes and struggles against physically stronger centre-forwards. Phil Jones has looked the more assured of the senior centre-backs – a telling fact in itself – but has managed only nine appearances, one less than Marcos Rojo, who succumbed to injury just when he was starting to look more at ease in his role.

Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair have got potential but remain too inexperienced at the moment and while Michael Carrick has done an outstanding job when asked to fill in at centre-back, that deprives United of having him where he’s at his most influential.

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United have been repeatedly linked with Mats Hummels, with the Borussia Dortmund centre-back looking more likely to leave the Westfalenstadion than he did in the summer, largely because of his side’s horrendous form this season. However, Hummels would command a fee in the excess of £25m and while he’s a world class defender, his injury record could go against him, while it is unlikely Real Madrid would part way with Raphael Varane.

Miranda, Ron Vlaar, Bruno Martins Indi and Winston Reid might not be stellar names but would surely represent an improvement on the current options and United will not get anywhere unless they address the black hole in the middle of their defence.

2) Right-back

Van Gaal’s insistence in deploying a three-man defence has attracted criticism as United defenders have looked hopelessly incapable of adapting to the system, but the transition hasn’t been helped by a catalogue of injuries and a paucity of options at Van Gaal’s disposal. The centre-back position might be the main priority but United need a new right-back too, for Antonio Valencia is too mono-dimensional and Rafael simply can’t be trusted, because of his injury record as much as because of his lapses in concentration.

While Luke Shaw and the rejuvenated Ashley Young have been good at both ends of the pitch – Young more so than Shaw, who’s still to justify his price tag given his injury record – things haven’t gone so smoothly on the other flank, with Valencia forced to fill a role he’s clearly not too familiar with, while Rafael has amassed a grand total of six starts so far.

The Ecuadorian has done better than expected and has shown flashes of his 2011-12 form, but remains too reluctant to take his man on and tends to overcomplicate things each time he gets the ball, while the Brazilian has regressed in the last two seasons. Regardless of whether Van Gaal intends to stick with a three-man defence or whether he wants to adopt a more traditional back four, United will need a right-back this summer, though their options might be limited.

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Seamus Coleman has been singled out as United’s number one target in the position and the Everton man would be an excellent signing, for he already has bags of Premier League experience despite being only 26 and has played in a 3-5-2 system before. Nathaniel Clyne has impressed for Southampton this season and was linked with a move to United when he was still at Crystal Palace, but will the Saints be prepared to sell if they finish in Europe this season?

Dani Alves has also been mentioned as a player United have monitored and with Barcelona seemingly in turmoil, the Brazilian might be lured away from the Nou Camp. However, he no longer is the force he once was and United would be better off pursuing other avenues.

3) Winger

Despite his fitness problems, Angel Di Maria has been a breathe of fresh air for United, as they had lacked a player capable of inject pace into the team as the Argentinian does. The former Real Madrid man’s direct approach and his incisiveness were sorely missed when he was out injured, particularly in games in which United had to stretch their opponents.

Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Ander Herrera are capable of split defences open with a pass, but the distinct lack of pace in United’s ranks makes their job incredibly more complicated as they’re often forced to pass the ball sideways, rather than forward.

Of course, the problem could partly be solved by having two established wing-backs bombing down the flank but the feeling is that United should a winger to their side, or else, for all their attacking weapons, they risk becoming too mono-dimensional in the final third of the pitch.

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Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale are nothing but click-bait rumours, while United would have to fend off strong competition to land Marco Reus if the German leaves Dortmund. Nani has been in excellent form since returning to Sporting Lisbon on loan, but whether he’ll be given a chance next season remains to be seen.

However, considering Van Gaal’s emphasis on adopting a high tempo game and the importance he places on wide men, expect United to be in the market for a winger in the summer. Who that will be is anyone’s guess.

Dan

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