After struggling for players to fill out his team at the start of the season, Louis van Gaal must now decide how to fit a relative array of riches into his lineup for a clash with Leicester City at the King Power Stadium on Sunday. An unbalanced squad was hit by a series of injuries in the early weeks of Van Gaal’s Old Trafford reign, prompting him to opt for a 3-4-1-2 system and hand starting roles to several untested or unfancied players. The results duly failed to impress, with United taking just two points from their first three Premier League encounters.
But on the back of a flurry of activity at the very end of the transfer window and an easing of the injury crisis, Van Gaal finally tasted his first victory as United boss by overwhelming Queens Park Rangers 4-0 last weekend. Loan arrival Radamel Falcao, who returned from a serious knee injury at the start of the season, made his debut off the bench in that impressive win and is now pushing for a place in a crowded forward line.
“I don't think that Falcao interferes with [Robin] Van Persie or that he interferes with Falcao,” Van Gaal said when discussing his forward options, reports Manchester United’s official website. “Falcao is a very good striker, I already said that when he came here in his first press conference. I like van Persie as well -- he is also a very good striker. Then we have Wayne Rooney and Adnan Januzaj, and we also have James Wilson. We have five players for the two striker positions and I have to choose.”
Van Gaal, who stated that Rooney’s role as captain makes him the only definite stater, will also have to make decision over which formation best suits the players now available to him. The former Netherlands coach opted for a back four and midfield diamond against QPR, citing injuries to Phil Jones and Chris Smalling as the reason he dispensed with a back three. But with Smalling now available he has another difficult choice.
“I started with another system because of the quality of the players,” he explained. “Now we have bought quality players in and so you have to look at these qualities and then want to perform the philosophy that we have. Then you are coming out in this system, but that can change also. It is not a fixed solution.”
Leicester go into the match on the same number of points as their illustrious opponents having made an encouraging start to their first season back in the Premier League. As well as giving Chelsea a hard time at Stamford Bridge, Leicester have taken points off Everton and Arsenal and got their first victory last weekend at Stoke City.
Key to those results have been the three goals of striker Leonardo Ulloa, who arrived from Brighton as Leicester’s biggest signing of the summer. On Sunday, he could be joined in the starting lineup for the first time by fellow Argentinean Esteban Cambiasso. The former Real Madrid and Inter Milan midfielder made his debut off the bench last week after arriving on a free transfer. Manager Nigel Pearson, who could welcome back goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel -- son of former Manchester United great Peter Schmeichel -- is eager for his side to test themselves against another of the Premier League’s big guns.
“For us as a Club it represents another great opportunity for our players to go out and play against a very good side,” he said, according to Leicester City’s official website. “They’ve certainly added quality to the players they already had. Potentially it’s a fixture which a lot of people look for -- Man United have been the dominant domestic club over the last 20 years. Although they’re going through a transitional period since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down they’re still a huge club -- they’re a massive world brand.”
Prediction: Manchester United played like a different side from the early weeks of the season against QPR, which is unsurprising since that’s exactly what they were. In particular, Daley Blind set the tempo in front of the back four with his quick passing, while Angel di Maria was exceptional in offering United the sort of pace and dynamism that has been sorely missing in recent times. Van Gaal will doubtless change his formation frequently during the season, but the diamond -- featuring Di Maria and Herrera either side of Blind -- looked good.
Of course, United were also helped by a QPR team that arrived at Old Trafford already waiving the white flag. Leicester are unlikely to make it quite so straightforward on Sunday. Pearson’s side have been well organized so far this season as well as providing a decent threat when breaking forward, helped by Ulloa’s immediate adaptation to the Premier League. They could well frustrate Van Gaal’s men for long spells at the King Power Stadium and also trouble a United defense that still looks far from solid. Ultimately, though, United’s greater quality might just shine through in a narrow win.
Leicester City 1-2 Manchester United
Kickoff time: 11 a.m. EDT
TV channel: CNBC
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra