Manchester United: Louis van Gaal paying the price for small squad

Credit: Sky Sports
Credit: Sky Sports /

Two more injuries in a dismal defeat to Bournemouth illustrated why Manchester United’s current struggles are in part down to having a small squad.

Louis van Gaal inherited an unbalanced and oversized group of players at Manchester United – but right now he is paying the price for streamlining his squad too much during the last year.

In the 2-1 defeat to Bournemouth, nine of the 18 players involved had fewer than a dozen Premier League appearances to their name.

A deepening injury crisis slightly skews that statistic, but too often in recent weeks United’s matchday squads have been worryingly short on experience.

Against Bournemouth, both full-backs were making their full Premier League debuts. The three attackers had an average age of just 21. The two main substitutes in the game were 19 and 21 years old, respectively.

It was therefore unsurprising that United fell so timidly to defeat in the second half when Bournemouth upped their pace and intensity. Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini aside, every other outfield player struggled to cope with the home side’s energy.

More from Red Devil Armada

And yet the blame for such a young and inexperienced squad must fall squarely with Van Gaal. On the one hand, it’s encouraging that the Dutchman is so willing to hand academy players a chance. On the other hand, however, it borders on negligence to have spent a quarter of a billion and be left with such a raw and unproven selection of players when injuries strike.

Chris Smalling’s absence, which United fans have long feared, left Paddy McNair and Daley Blind struggling against the speed of Joshua King and Junior Stanislas. Even though United have conceded the fewest goals in the league this season, Van Gaal’s decision not to target a top-class defender in the summer was bewildering.

The same was true of his decision not to sign a proven striker. Anthony Martial was the only forward in the squad to face Bournemouth, while the only other No. 9 – Wayne Rooney – is injured and in rapid decline.

That goes some way to explaining why Juan Mata, United’s top scorer in the Premier League nearly midway through the season, has just four goals. Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson, who hasn’t played since September due to knee ligament damage, has five goals. It’s a quite frankly embarrassing statistic for a club of United’s stature, especially given the financial investment during the last 18 months.

Yet it also perfectly reflects the club’s confusing approach to recruitment.

More from Manchester United News

An incredible 28 players have left the club on a permanent basis during Van Gaal’s tenure, with 14 players signed in the process. The majority of those departures made sense, but at least half a dozen players could – and perhaps should – have been retained.

Injuries, of course, are complex and difficult to understand. Some, like the horrendous leg break suffered by Luke Shaw, are way out of a manager’s control, while others suggest a wider problem with training and preparation.

Irrespective of the cause, United have now picked up 139 injuries of some description during Van Gaal’s 517 days in charge of the club. That works out at just under one every four days.

What’s particularly concerning about United’s current injury crisis is that the majority of them are muscular problems. In fact, five players have suffered a muscular injury in the last three games. Even Ashley Young, despite not featuring in United’s last few games, was reported to have a hamstring issue on the bench at Bournemouth on Saturday.

The point is that United’s current struggles are not in any way surprising.

Van Gaal’s decision to opt for a smaller squad when injuries have been a near-constant factor during his short tenure has backfired. United’s defeat at Bournemouth was ultimately evidence of that.

Next: Carrick: No excuses for defeat

Entering a busy festive period with so many injuries, even with a kind fixture list, is going to test a frail-looking squad.

The last month has felt like the beginning of the end for Van Gaal, and if he is indeed sacked this season or at the end of it, his decision to battle for four trophies with such a small, unbalanced and untested squad will be chief among the contributing factors to his failure.