Which United players must impress LVG?
As Louis van Gaal emphasised in his first news conference as Manchester United manager, he will judge a player based on intelligence and vision as opposed to reputation. Van Gaal's arrival at the club therefore represents a truly clean slate for every United footballer. The preseason is an opportunity for players either to stake or defend a case for prominence, and there are perhaps five players who will feel more anxious to take this chance than most.
1. Wilfried Zaha
Zaha, signed for 15 million pounds from Crystal Palace, was hailed as someone whose technical brilliance -- the ability to overwhelm defenders with spectacular dribbling skills -- would one day be key to his team's success in the UEFA Champions League. Sadly, that day looks very far away. Zaha barely appeared for the first team last term and then went out on loan to Cardiff City, where his fitful form continued.
- Zaha: I want to improve
It may be that van Gaal's arrival has come too late to arrest Zaha's decline, which is startling considering that he was, only two years ago, receiving fanfare similar to Arsenal's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Liverpool's Raheem Sterling. Zaha now trails in their wake. His hope must be that van Gaal will see qualities similar to those he saw in his marauding forwards of the Ajax days, Finidi George and Nwankwo Kanu -- players whose individual flair could, when correctly deployed, change the course of the tightest games. Zaha had an impressive preseason last year for former United manager David Moyes; to save a place at Old Trafford, Zaha most produce more of the same.
2. Tom Cleverley
The much-maligned central midfielder struggled greatly last year, with his performances becoming uncomfortably emblematic of the club's wider problems under Moyes. Roberto Martinez's contention, meanwhile, was that Cleverley was better suited to the continent, where fast passing and movement are perhaps valued more highly than in the Premier League.
With van Gaal, who has flourished as a coach in both Holland and Spain, Cleverley has the ideal man to perceive and develop his qualities. In a telling indictment of his recent form, it is central midfielders with whom the club is continually linked in the transfer market. Much will depend, then, on the chemistry that Cleverley is able to establish with Ander Herrera, recruited earlier this summer from Athletic Bilbao. It is a pivotal season for him, and it begins now.
3. Jesse Lingard
Jesse Lingard may not have another moment like this. The 21-year-old midfielder finds himself going on a tour where one of the midfielders chosen over him, Marouane Fellaini, has been left at home, and another, Michael Carrick, has succumbed to a long-term injury. Ahead of Lingard for a starting berth alongside Herrera are only the aging Darren Fletcher and the unconvincing Cleverley. Lingard, who was on loan last season at Brighton and Birmingham City, possesses excellent stamina and is ideally placed to advance his claim. Unafraid of robust challenges and with an eye for the smart pass, he stands to gain more than most from van Gaal's enlightened attitude to youth.
4. Danny Welbeck
The England forward is in an unfortunate position entering this season; he is third choice for both his club and country, and he might be casting envious glances every now and then toward Everton's Romelu Lukaku and Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge, strikers who have blossomed after being given regular starting roles for their teams. While Lukaku and Sturridge put in impressive displays here and there at the World Cup, Welbeck was largely left on the bench and perhaps left further to reflect on an Old Trafford career where his role as the main man has never been too visible on the horizon.
He, like Cleverley, is nearing his mid-20s and may be considering his options elsewhere. If Welbeck can take heart from anything, it is from the example of Patrick Kluivert, whom van Gaal developed into an exemplary leader of the line at both national and international level. If Welbeck finds a ruthlessness in his finishing, he may find himself with far more opportunities under van Gaal's leadership than he expects.
5. Shinji Kagawa
The Japan playmaker's fall from grace has been as slow and sure as that of a sycamore leaf. Signed from Borussia Dortmund two years ago as one of the most gifted creative forces in the Bundesliga (and indeed Europe), he has found himself as the club's fourth-choice No. 10 behind Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and even Adnan Januzaj.
How much that state of affairs will change under van Gaal is unclear given that Kagawa has regularly been producing disappointing performances for the past two seasons, though he has played out of position. His decision to stay at Old Trafford suggests that he has faith that he will one day succeed. It is essential that he discovers the scoring touch that made him as feared in the penalty area in Germany as Frank Lampard was in England.