Manchester United fans have stayed patient with Louis van Gaal because he rejuvenated a team that looked lost following David Moyes’ disastrous tenure. He brought Champions League football back to the Theatre of Dreams and United now look a much more stable club than they did 18 months ago. However, Van Gaal’s ‘philosophy’ has come at a price because United look unrecognisable from the swashbuckling sides that won countless league titles under Sir Alex Ferguson. The Scot would encourage flair and excitement and this was reflected in their football. Robinvan Persie famously recalled a half-time speech by Ferguson in which he said: “‘Boys, where do I start? It’s boring! Imagine me, 72 years old, watching this kind of game? Excite me. Try a pass over 40 metres. Try a dribble. I don’t care if it goes wrong. I want to sit on the edge of my chair. Please excite me. And make the game quicker, please.” But under Van Gaal the formation, and shape of the side has taken priority – as a result the quality of football has suffered. This season, United have created just 81 chances and scored only 15 goals –but they are top of the statistics for passes backwards and sideways. United have always been known to play expansive football but with three consecutive draws the fans patience is waning – Van Gaal will have to find a way of keeping his side defensively sound while also bringing back good football.
Reaching the quarter-finals of Europe’s elite competition would represent a success in terms of pleasing the shareholders but anyone associated with United – such as the fans and former players – expect United to challenge every season. But the quality and depth isn’t quite there – especially in defensive areas where an injury to a full-back forces them into playing a winger in that position. You would imagine that teams such as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich would exploit those areas of the pitch ruthlessly and expose United in wide areas. Tactically, United also have a problem because there style of football is very predictable. They play possession-based football but it’s very methodical in the way passages of play are built up. All opposing sides have to do is stay compact, and sit deep waiting for the chance to counter-attack. United do have some incredibly gifted technicians in their side that are adept at keeping possession but the likes of Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger are exposed to pacey players. It forces them into an uncomfortable position where they have to retreat back towards their goal and this is another thing opposing sides will target.
United poured bodies forward in search of that elusive goal but were nearly caught out as Seydou Doumbia beat the offside trap to bare down on goal. David De Gea partially blocked the initial effort but it kindly ricocheted back towards Doumbia. The Ivorian looked destined to score when Ashley Young slipped but Smalling rescued the situation with a superb block on the line. A few minutes later, Rooney headed United into the lead – one which they would not relinquish. In such moments games are won and lost, but you feel that this could have a huge impact on the rest of United’s season. Rooney’s goal ended a United’s run of 404 minutes without a goal and there was a palpable sense of relief around Old Trafford. It puts United in a strong position in the group with seven points from four games and should they win against PSV Eindhoven at home – they should qualify for the last 16.
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