7 hours of football, not a single goal. Manchester United were embarking on their longest ever run without a goal since 1992 and might even have broken that record had Wayne Rooney not intervened to end a drought of his own against CSKA Moscow. It is impromptu to go back to the Sir Alex Ferguson era every time something goes wrong around these parts, yet the question that applies to every incommodious situation Old Trafford seems to face remains. Would it have happened under Sir Alex?
People often forget that Sir Alex played football the United way, not the other way round. “Attack, attack, attack” was the policy way before the Glaswegian took over. Van Gaal’s style of play- keep the ball and tire the opposition- has focused more on not conceding than putting the ball in the back of the net at the other end. It is no coincidence then that the massive drop in form from Wayne Rooney and Memphis Depay up front has coincided with the sudden rise and maturation of Chris Smalling as a leader at the heart of the defense.
One tends to think back to happier times. Times when United just couldn’t stop scoring. Jamie Vardy has scored 10 goals in 10 games straight and shares the record with United legend Ruud van Nistelrooy. He has the chance to break that record against United as well as Vardy’s Leicester welcome the Reds to the King Power Stadium on Saturday . When you look at the United of today, you cannot imagine any member of the squad achieving such a feat. Maybe Rooney could, Martial might, but neither are playing the way they want to play and they aren’t receiving nearly enough support.
They currently lie 2nd in the Premier League table and only a solitary point stands between them and league leaders Leicester City. Suddenly, however, the Premier League may soon be the only competition United are in apart from the F.A Cup which hasn’t even begun yet. They are facing a do or die scenario in their final game against Wolfsburg in the group stages of the Champions League. Should they fail to collect all 3 points and PSV Eindhoven beat Moscow, United will be dumped out of the competition.
After the incredibly drab encounter at Old Trafford against the dutch club, Michael Owen was quick to criticize Louis van Gaal’s men saying a Sir Alex Ferguson team would have blown the group away.
“It’s not the greatest of groups either, the Manchester United of old would blow that group away,” said Owen. “We qualified after four games. It is the story of the season, the majority of the time they’ve played like that and managed to nick a goal, a 1-0 here and a 1-0 there. Yes they’ve improved in recent weeks but only really two or three really good performances. In general, that’s been the state of affairs and it’s just amazing how they’re still in with a shout of qualifying and flying high in the Premier League.”
He has a point.
United have been struggling with so many issues but the results they have been getting through boring, uninventive, lackluster football have just papered over the cracks.
To begin with, United need to focus on their attack. The very mention of the word attack brings Wayne Rooney and his poor form to mind but people need to realize that Manchester United’s attack doesn’t just consist of Wayne Rooney. He is past the age where he can do things all by himself. He has carried Manchester United year after year since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo and never gave up even when United had their nightmare of a Premier League season under David Moyes. It’s about time he got some support.
Juan Mata started the season brightly but despite nicking a goal against West Brom, he has faded in recent weeks. Ander Herrera has been in and out of the squad and hasn’t been able to inspire much of late. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Michael Carrick are key to Manchester United’s midfield but they just do not have the legs to add any sort of speed to United’s play. Jesse Lingard’s entrance into the first team has already reaped rewards. Whenever he is on the pitch, United seem faster, their play more urgent. He takes risks and much to the surprise of everyone who knows him, van Gaal likes him.
On that note, a question can be put forward. Is creativity really a problem for Manchester United? In my opinion, it isn’t. To be creative, one must be able to take risks. Much to the vexation of fans who pay bucket loads for season tickets, Louis van Gaal just isn’t that type of manager. His “philosophy”- a word that makes fans groan every time it is uttered- is built around slow build up play.
All that is fine and dandy, but you know it has gone too far when your goalkeeper has the ball in the last few minutes of a game where your team isn’t ahead and has hardly managed to muster a shot on target. It is this lack of flexibility from van Gaal that is not allowing players like Mata, Depay and Herrera to play to their strengths. It is sucking the adventure out of their game. This was also a reason Di Maria struggled for form after a great start to life at Old Trafford. However, it wasn’t the only reason, which brings us to our next point.
Play your best players in their best positions.
Last season, Wayne Rooney was played as a defensive midfielder. It was ridiculous, to the point where fans joked around saying Rooney would soon end up replacing de Gea between the sticks. di Maria made a brilliant start to his career as a United number 7 and looked like he would own the position for years to come, but when he returned to the team after a minor injury kept him out, van Gaal switched his position. It prevented di Maria from being able to find space and exploiting it, probably the best part of his game. Due to this, he never took to van Gaal or his tactics.
This season, Anthony Martial has been brilliant so far. Yet, his performances have slightly dipped after suddenly being shunted out to the left wing. Juan Mata is not a winger, and this is a well known fact. He has no pace, and again, his biggest asset is being taken away from him. Mata is a player who thrives in the center. His eye for a pass is absolutely world class and he loves using the width of the pitch. When he’s out on the right, he’s forced to cut inside and look for a pass. He also tends to disappear in games and his position is a key reason as to why that happens. Depay was also used as a striker for the first few games of the season.
The point is, van Gaal cannot expect to get the best out of his team when he doesn’t give his players the chance to play with the freedom that made them the players they are today. They need a new lease of life.
Their luck is sure to run out eventually. You cannot afford to play such boring, dire football and manage to get away with it consistently. United still have a long way to go this season. It would be foolish to rule them out so early. However, with the form Leicester, Arsenal and Manchester City have shown in the last few weeks, they know they will need to improve their performances massively if they are to stand any chance of winning any sort of silverware this season.