Man United 2 Wolfsburg 1: Three talking points as Juan Mata impresses

Three talking points as Manchester United edge past Wolfsburg at Old Trafford

Adapting tactics in Europe

Louis van Gaal said in his recent media conference that Manchester United can win the Champions League by 2017. Judging on the performance against PSV Eindhoven two weeks ago that seems an optimistic claim but Van Gaal has a very good record in the competition. He has played 96 games, winning 61 and has only lost 20 games. Van Gaal’s success has largely been thanks to his tactical nous. Games in Europe tend to play out like games of chess – particularly in the knock-out stages. The value of the away goal means that teams often prioritise defensive solidarity and structure over attacking flair. Van Gaal’s style of football is perfect for European football because he favours control and domination. His version of ‘control’ means dominating possession of the ball. The idea is that they build structured phases of play hoping to pull opposing defences out of position. It also has a secondary benefit as it drains the opposing team because they are continually chasing the ball. Examples of this strategy could be seen in the game against Wolfsburg. They came back well after the initial setback of conceding an early goal and starting to create numerous chances.

Who should play in the defensive midfield positions for Man United?

United haven’t rotated in attack or defence unless injuries have forced Van Gaal to do so, but he has changed who plays in defensive midfield on a regular basis. We have seen quite a few combinations in that position but to assess who would be the best you would have to look at the balance. Occasionally we have seen Ander Herrera drop back in alongside either Bastian Schweinsteiger or Michael Carrick. This works quite well as Herrera is able to link up play as well as join in with attacks, however, the Spaniard also wanders around the pitch looking for space which can leave the defence exposed. It can leave United open to counter-attacks with only Schweinsteiger or Carrick there to protect the defence. We have also seen Morgan Schneiderlin operate next to Carrick but the partnership appears to be quite one dimensional. Both of them offer similar qualities in breaking up play/initiating attacks, but they also like to take up similar positions deep in midfield, leaving a huge gap between the attacking players and themselves. Out of all the players at Van Gaal’s disposal, Schweinsteiger seems the best option as he can dictate the tempo of games, as well as offer defensive protection. His fitness was initially a concern for Van Gaal but he seems to be progressing well – but who plays alongside him is the dilemma currently facing the manager. Schneiderlin seems the most obvious choice as his pace and dynamism allows Schweinsteiger the freedom to influence games much further up the pitch. He showed that against Wolfsburg and was very disciplined in terms of the positions he took up on the field.

Man United still vulnerable to the counter-attack in Europe

The first 10 minutes set the tone for Wolfsburg, they employed a high press and played with energy and desire which yielded the opening goal for Daniel Caligiuri. They then sat back with numbers behind the ball and looked for opportunities to break. Until Juan Mata’s penalty the game-plan was working perfectly as Wolfsburg created numerous chances on the break. Max Kruse and Julian Draxler were picking up space just in front of the defence and looking to thread passes through to runners. United were exposed on countless occasions as Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin were constantly running back towards their own goal. The goal changed the complexion of the match as it forced Wolfsburg to change their mind-set but the space afforded to Wolfsburg’s players will be a concern to Van Gaal moving forward.

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