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United need much more to compete with Chelsea

John Brewin | ESPN FC
July 28, 2014
Van Gaal unhappy with United victory

"If we pay to a 19-year-old boy what we were being asked for, for Luke Shaw, we are dead," said Jose Mourinho. "We kill our stability with financial fair play. We kill the stability in our dressing room."

Chelsea's manager had headed down a familiar route. Little Chelsea, unable to compete with the big noises at Manchester United, all while conveniently forgetting that Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa have joined, while instead of Shaw the excellent Filipe Luis has been signed. And when was the last time a teenage left-back was key to success, anyway?

It was the first flicker that Mourinho is once again wary of United, having spent last season being awfully nice about them. As David Moyes went through his long, dark nights of the soul, Mourinho was publicly supportive. Now, the friendship he shares with Louis van Gaal is put under duress by Premier League rivalry.

Not that van Gaal is entering open hostilities himself. "I don't think I have to discuss things with the media," he said in Denver at the weekend. "It's better to discuss it with Jose."

The approaching season sees the pals act given differing objectives. For Mourinho, nothing less than a Premier League title will do. Van Gaal, meanwhile, has the task of signposting a brighter future, minimum requirement a return to Champions League qualification. Last season saw England's top four given an easy ride into the continent's premier competition; only under-resourced Everton looked capable of upsetting the applecart. Of the hopefuls, United trailed in dead last, their disappointment making van Gaal's rebuilding job necessary.

It is barely two weeks since van Gaal's Dutch team won third place at the World Cup but the time in between has already raised expectation at United. Friendlies are a wholly unreliable pointer to what may happen in the season ahead, but crushing LA Galaxy 7-0 and then beating Roma 3-2 can only help. Glance back 12 months ago, and Moyes was having to explain away defeats to a Thai All-Star XI and Yokohama F. Marinos.

The American adventure is being enjoyed by a squad with just two new additions to replace several outgoing. Shaw has been joined by Ander Herrera, the inventive Spaniard whose name may give Moyes nightmares, considering that the Scot did not believe that Herrera was worth Athletic Bilbao's buy-out sum.

A clamour for more signings continues, hardly eased by executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward's grandstanding interview last week with club TV station MUTV. "We are not afraid of spending significant amounts of money in the transfer market," he said.

His reputation among fans already ravaged by his part in last year's transfer panic, Woodward sorely needs to match such big words. With £750 million of sponsorship from Adidas booked in, United have far fewer of the financial fair play concerns that Mourinho voiced, and with debt payments down to a mere 5% of revenue, there is now much less of a drain than that Sir Alex Ferguson had to deal with.

Pulling out an overpriced plum like Marouane Fellaini cannot be repeated. Van Gaal alone will not be enough to make United a force again. A glance through United's squad list tells a tale of imbalance and failed succession planning.

Shaw, at 18, is the only senior left-back available to Van Gaal, after Patrice Evra joined Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand in leaving the club. That dual departure leaves a coach who favours three centre-backs with only the same number of senior professionals in that position, with question marks against each of Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans.

Van Gaal has four players who can play the No.10 role - Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata, Shinji Kagawa, Adnan Januzaj - but, Herrera aside, there are few other reliable contenders for central midfield now that Michael Carrick has succumbed to a long-term injury. Tom Cleverley's big night as captain in Denver suggested once more that he is a player who no longer looks capable of carving a career at the club.

Meanwhile, United continue to be linked with swathes of superstars of the type of pricetags that Woodward says he is comfortable with paying. Is Arturo Vidal set to be this season's Cesc Fabregas? A player chased in vain, with every public utterance dissected for double-meaning when it is clear his arrival will be a long shot at best? Or will United finally add a player of power and cadence in midfield, the source of their most harrowing defeats last season?

Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham, Newcastle and Everton all strafed unhindered through the middle of Old Trafford last season. That Ryan Giggs, at 40, was the most creative and vigorous performer in midfield is most damning of United's season on the margins. Extra muscle is a must.

Even considering that there is no European football to distract, it will take far more than Shaw and Herrera for United to pose threats for Mourinho's Chelsea. Without significant further additions, he can be as nice to Van Gaal as he likes.

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