Last time when Manchester United visited Wolfsburg in a Champions League was exactly 6 years ago today. United had a make-shift defense which consisted of Park, Carrick, Fletcher, Evra and Kusczack. Only one proper defender and the second choice keeper coming to Germany to play against the then- German Champions at their home. A Michael Owen hattrick and United won comfortably 3-1 on that night.
Cut to today and what the world has seen is something that had been coming. Louis van Gaal’s “Red Army”, “bored” of watching a series of 0-0 draws, couldn’t have asked anything more from the match. The only glitch was the scoreline, as United crashed out of the Champions League into the Europa League, 3-2 against the German side who were clearly better than the Red Devils on the night.
The dust storm is currently raging on social media and it will take some time to digest everything that went down in the Volkswagen Arena. In the meantime EssentiallySports analyzes what is there is to be taken from an eventful night in Germany.
1. Martial proves why Rooney shouldn’t walk into the team
The beauty of United’s first goal was as much in the incisive slid through ball from Mata as was in Martial’s brilliant run in behind the Wolfsburg’s defense, something we haven’t seen at all from Rooney this season. Mata is the kind of creative player who needs someone in front of him making such runs to play a through-ball to and Martial did exactly that. Also, capping the rare but brilliant United move with a cool finish was the icing on the cake for Martial and maybe another nail in the coffin for an already out of sorts Rooney.
2. Julian Draxler knocking on the doors of the elite group in Europe
Julian Draxler was arguably the best player on the pitch tonight. The way he made Wolfsburg’s second was eye catching even for Louis van Gaal, ghosting away from Bastian Schweinsteiger, exchanging passes with Max Kruse then teeing up Vieirinha. He almost scored right at the stroke of half time, only to be foiled by David de Gea after expertly making space for himself but overall his delicate footwork, intricate change of pace, neat balancing and his overall display on the night must have put several “Big Clubs” on Red Alert.
3 United’s defense is porous/Smalling had an off day
And all this while, Morgan Schneiderlin or Schweinsteiger or Carrick or a combination of 2 players from the above 3 were present there to plug the holes. With Louis fielding a more attacking side in this must win tie, with only Schweinsteiger playing as the holding midfielder, the defense was obviously exposed. Add to the fact that United had no experienced full backs and Smalling’s (who has been United’s best player this season) blip in form in such a crucial game didn’t help United’s cause at all. Smalling was horrendous in the game and was at fault in giving away Wolfsburg’s opening goal as he was nowhere to be seen near Naldo and was also caught out of position again later in the half to allow Julian Draxler a shot on goal. On that occasion, luckily for him, David de Gea bailed him out with a fine one-on-one save.
He looked unsteady and a bit shaky against West Ham on Saturday too and United fans will be hoping that this drop in form is merely a “blip” and not a “flat line” in Smalling’s otherwise scintillating defending- that’s if the ankle injury he sustained doesn’t sideline him for too long.
4. Van Gaal’s youth policy a positive.
Varela was handed his first first team start against Wolfsburg, with Van Gaal opting to play the 22-year-old at right-back instead of Ashley Young. And when Matteo Darmian limped off with a hamstring, everyone was surprised to see him throwing Borthwick-Jackson onto the arena. Another decision to bring on Nick Powell for Juan Mata must have baffled the fans as well but in the end, with Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Memphis Depay also named in the starting line-up, it clearly shows how Louis van Gaal trusts and believes in his young guns and that is a plus.
The only solace United fans can take from an otherwise forgettable night is the knowledge that the future of Manchester United is in the hands of some talented, although “unpolished”, players and the experience they’ll gain from an outing in the Champions League will ultimately help them in the long run.
5. Dearth of goals could prove costly for Van Gaal’s future
Ultimately Wolfsburg away was the hardest of United’s games and the result was no disgrace. It was infact, one of the better away performances by Manchester United in the Champions League this season. Had the result of this match been inconsequential, a 3-2 loss away from home would still have been considered a decent game. Most importantly, and given the recent stick Louis van Gaal had been receiving from the media and the fans alike for the lack of goals and attacking flair, this would have been a perfect reply by van Gaal to his critics with his team scoring 2 goals away from home even after being plagued by numerous injuries (Luke Shaw has been sorely missed by United this season). But it wasn’t so. Football isn’t played on “ifs” and it was a must win match for United. And they lost.
The mistakes that cost them qualification was their defeat in Eindhoven, their draw in Moscow, and, worst of all, 0-0 at home against PSV. Almost one quarter of United’s games this season have finished 0-0 and those are the results that are strangling United’s season. This was always going to be a difficult task, given the opposition and United’s own injuries. But they had left themselves no margin for error. Van Gaal might not have much now either.