Kevin Palmer: Can Manchester United cope without Anthony Martial?
He was the player Manchester United could not afford to lose heading into a hectic run of fixtures that could define their season, but there are now fears that striker Anthony Martial could be set for a spell in the treatment room after he picked up a foot injury playing for France.
The sight of Martial hobbling out of Wembley on crutches after he played his part in a 2-0 defeat for his national team would have alarmed United chiefs, with the latest injury blow coming days after their experienced midfielder Michael Carrick was carried off after picking up an injury on England duty.
United are awaiting the results of tests on Martial’s damaged foot as he underwent medical checks at the club’s Carrington training base, but the injury served to highlight the fragile nature of the squad Van Gaal is working with this season.
After off-loading some high profile strikers last summer and failing to attract suitable replacements, United’s reliance on transfer deadline day signing Martial in recent weeks has confirmed that Van Gaal lacks the squad depth he needs to challenge for major honours this season.
The United boss initially suggested 19-year-old Martial would be introduced into his team gradually, but he has been an ever present in a line-up that has turned to the Frenchman time and again to give them some attacking spark.
So if Martial is banished to the recovery room for the next few weeks, what are the options open to Van Gaal as he looks to sustain a challenge in four competitions?
1) GET MEMPHIS DEPAY BACK TO HIS BEST
United fans had high hopes that summers signing Memphis Depay would be their talisman for this season, with the vast sales of his No.7 shirt confirming that he quickly became the most popular name in an all-star cast list assembled by Van Gaal.
Yet after a promising start, Depay has dropped off the United radar in alarming fashion over the last few weeks and his mentor Van Gaal needs to find a way of rebooting him in double quick time.
After conceding he had put on some weight in his first few months in England and that he has struggled to adapt to the pace of the English game, the 21-year-old is facing up to a huge challenge to prove his worth at United.
This raw talent has given a hint that he can play in a central striking role during his days at PSV Eindhoven, so Van Gaal may be tempted to deploy Memphis in a 4-2-3-1 formation that would feature skipper Wayne Rooney in a deeper midfield role. With his options on forward players so thin, it is a prospect he will have to consider.
2) GIVE JAMES WILSON A RUN
Van Gaal rejected the prospect of sending United’s 19-year-old English forward out on loan this season, as he suggested he had a role to play in his first team and yet he has made just one Premier League appearance this season.
It may be that the United boss does not like what he is seeing from Wilson on the training ground, but the club’s supporters would welcome the chance to see one of the rising stars of the Old Trafford club get another chance in the first team.
Former United striker Teddy Sheringham suggested last week that captain Rooney needed a strike partner to flourish once again and Wilson could be a decent foil for the soon to be veteran goal getter. We will never know unless he gets a chance to prove his worth.
3) TIME FOR ROONEY TO STEP UP
United No.10 Wayne Rooney is on course to break every scoring record available to him in the next year, yet many have concluded that he some way past his best and needs to be edged out of Van Gaal’s plans.
Deploying Martial in the lead striker’s position has been the demand of a majority of United fans in recent weeks, but the stubborn United boss has stood by his misfiring skipper who has scored a desperately disappointing six Premier League goals in the whole of 2015.
It’s not just the lack of goals in Rooney’s game that have been a point of concern, as his failure impact games has been a constant theme of his disappointments in recent months and even at the relatively tender age of 30, it seems as if his days a lone striker are at an end.
The trouble for Van Gaal is he does not have a proven striker who can slot into place alongside Rooney and until that problem is resolved, he will have to rely on his fading leader.
4) TURN TO THE CHEQUE BOOK
Manchester United will play seven games between now and the opening of the transfer window and Van Gaal could push his employers to make a couple of attacking signings in the opening days of January.
Such an ambition will be tough to execute. Signing top players in the January window is a virtually impossible task and while they may believe that a big money splurge to try and capture Southampton’s Sadio Mane may bring some joy, it’s hard to see any of United’s top targets arriving at Old Trafford on mid-way through the season.
Any thoughts of enticing Neymar, Gareth Bale or Thomas Muller to Manchester will have to wait and that means any signings that are confirmed in January may well be stop-gap captures rather than long-term investments.
Yet with Van Gaal having just 18 months left of his coaching career by the time we reach the turn of the year, long-term planning may not be at the forefront of his mind. Spending may seem like the quickest and most likely route to glory.