It is as if the gripes and frustrations of several million Manchester United fans across the globe must now vent. Following another harrowing defeat at the hands of Swansea City – the second of the season – questions have unsurprisingly arisen regarding the direction of Louis van Gaal’s regime. The club may have lost just twice in the past 20 matches, but considering the team has taken only 16 points from a possible 30 in the previous 10 league fixtures, there is clearly something wrong.
With Arsenal and Liverpool capitalising on the club’s weekend loss, United’s chances of a top four finish appear to have suffered a significant set-back. With United’s opponents finally picking up the pace after relatively slow starts to the 2014/15 domestic campaign, the Old Trafford faithful could face an unwelcome surprise come May: a second successive season outside the realms of European football.
Qualifying for the Champions League is the sole priority this season. However with just three points now separating the Red Devils in fourth and Tottenham Hotspur in seventh, the club’s chances of attaining a top four finish are jeopardised. If results do not improve, the club faces the prospect of slipping beyond the European qualification places altogether – an unthinkable scenario.
Considering the club’s dominance under Sir Alex Ferguson United’s demise is incredible. Earlier this year, Chelsea travelled away to the same Swansea side and put an impressive five goals past the Welsh side in a comprehensive victory. Two years ago this would have been a similar scenario at United.
Bereft of confidence Van Gaal’s side faltered to a devastating defeat in a game United should be winning. But who, in all honesty, is naïve enough to expect three points against middle-ranked teams. Such has been the story of the club’s season; defeat was always a possibility.
Against a Swansea side that has won just once in the league since Boxing Day, fans witnessed an improved performance. There was coherence in United’s play, movement in the middle and a degree of dominance down the flanks, but the Reds remained vulnerable at the back and found it hard to conjure up a final ball of note. On the odd occasion Van Gaal’s side did it lacked the finishing touch.
Van Gaal’s side may have maintained a 64 per cent share of possession against Swansea; it may have recorded 12 shots at goal; and have completed 86 per cent of total attempted passes, completed 10 dribbles and won 10 tackles; but ultimately, none of these figures meant anything.
Unfortunately for the Dutchman, dominating statistical leaderboards will not guarantee European football next season. Come matchday, winning three points remains the only real concern for the club and its fans. Footballing aesthetics will come in time. Results must come first.
It is tempting to conclude that the Red Devils are the worst side occupying the top six, with very few signs of improvement, or even a readiness to change. Touted as the man to steer the sinking ship to safety, Van Gaal has done little to date more than enjoy use of the club’s chequebook.
Fans are growing increasingly concerned and somewhat frustrated by his ineffective and bizarre tactical decisions. Van Gaal’s decision to provide Phil Jones with a role as United’s corner taker is perhaps the pick of the bunch so far.
The Dutchman has failed to capitalise on poor starts from both Arsenal and Liverpool, and with just 12 games left to play, it takes the brave to predict the final league standings. United must play five of the Premier League’s top seven before May – Arsenal (H), Tottenham (H), Liverpool (A), Manchester City (H) and Chelsea (A). It is an extremely difficult run-in.
Continuous injury problems once offered a convenient excuse for the club’s poor form, but now, with almost the entire side fully fit, the overriding issues are becoming increasingly prominent. Van Gaal’s stubborn nature and unwillingness to make changes appears to be the crux of the club’s disappointing form. From the Dutchman’s choice of starting personnel, or the tactics he opts to deploy, something is categorically wrong at Old Trafford.
Indeed, Van Gaal can have very few complaints regarding the squad at his disposal. He had full control during the summer window when he spent over £150 million. In January Van Gaal opted against strengthening the side when many believed that he would.
An experienced centre-back had been highlighted as a necessity by even the most causal of viewers, with a long list of potential recruits produced by the media in the months preceding the winter transfer period. Yet, Van Gaal defied expectations. The signing of free agent Victor Valdes represented the club’s solitary piece of business.
Eight months into his three year contract with the club and the manager still appears to unaware of his best starting line-up, or even his side’s most effective formation. He has flitted between a 3-5-2 and 4-1-2-1-2 formations throughout his debut campaign; neither of which has proved particularly effective. United fans are crying out for the Dutchman to play to the squad’s strengths and deploy a 4-2-3-1 system, but for now he looks frustratingly reluctant to oblige.
Van Gaal’s refusal to play with wingers is perplexing. Angel Di Maria may have excelled in central midfield for Real Madrid, but he is just as adept on the left flank. Meanwhile, Antonio Valencia, United’s Players’ Player of the Year during the 2011/12 season, is still a highly capable option down the right hand side – he was unstoppable against Liverpool in this role back in December.
The Dutchman has the option to play with wide men, and doing so would aid his side’s exploits in an attacking capacity – stretching opposition defences, while allowing the club’s full-backs to overlap and contribute in the final third. After all, the side has been hopeless in its attempt to play through the middle in recent months. Something has to change.
The pedestrian style of football the supporters have been forced to tolerate this term, is far from the standard expected. This statement echoes the view of club legend Paul Scholes, who has publically criticised the Dutchman in recent weeks. The former midfielder, who accrued over 700 appearances for the Red Devils, has not been impressed by the brand of football being played under the 62-year-old this season. In his column popular column for The Independent, Scholes criticised the current crop for not taking enough risks, nor playing in the “traditional United way.”
The Old Trafford faithful are no longer able to enjoy flowing attacking football witnessed during Sir Alex’ days. Instead, they have fallen victim to Van Gaal’s obsession with a possession-based game. Furthermore, the counter-intuitive way in which the Dutchman has resorted to long ball tactics in the latter stages of matches, particularly when United are chasing a lead, is disgraceful.
While Van Gaal is evidently encountering issues when it comes to deciding on a regular system, his attitude towards team selection is perhaps even more baffling. Having used 31 players, the former Bayern Munich head coach has changed his starting line-up on more occasions than any other Premier League team this season, and yet he is still unable to find a winning formula.
The Dutchman’s apparent favouritism towards certain individuals is also proving costly. By contrast Van Gaal has ignored others, with Ander Herrera and Juan Mata both growing increasingly familiar with life on the substitute’s bench. Herrera’s return to first team for Saturday’s fixture was greeted with gratitude on the terraces. It marked Herrera’s first league start since the beginning of December and fans were instantly impressed with the fluidity he added to the team. The Spaniard’s opening goal epitomised his play, and having now scored twice in his past two appearances, many expect Herrera to retain his place for United’s upcoming tie against Sunderland. That would be logical, but this is Van Gaal.
Robin van Persie, on the other hand, was abysmal in South Wales, just as he has been for much of the season. Describing the 31-year-old as a fraud is extreme, but the disinterested striker who lined up to face the Swans on the weekend showed few similarities to the 26-goal striker who starred throughout Ferguson’s final campaign at the helm. With 10 league goals this term Van Persie is the club’s top scorer to date – this is very telling of the season as a whole – but, considering his £9.6 million annual wage some might conclude that he is stealing a living.
Van Persie had seven shots at goal in United’s defeat, more than any other player, but hit the target just once. He also looked off the pace and unmotivated – and yet Van Gaal persisted with his countryman.
Rather than removing the Dutchman, Van Gaal opted to withdraw 19-year-old Paddy McNair – who now must be shot of confidence – for Antonio Valencia at half time. Next in-form Luke Shaw was removed, despite the full-back enjoying a tremendous afternoon, for Ashley Young in the 58th minute. Finally, Angel Di Maria – United’s most creative player on the day – came off Juan Mata with 10 minutes left to play.
It was only when he sustained a match-ending injury that Van Persie was finally taken off, leaving United to fend with 10 men through the closing stages. Van Gaal is clearly reluctant to drop the 31-year-old and it is becoming increasingly difficult to understand the justification for it.
Van Persie’s latest injury may be a blessing though. Playing James Wilson up front, alongside Wayne Rooney, would provide a real transformation. The teenager offers pace, while he has already proven his ability in front of goal. Failing that, an extended run in the first team for Radamel Falcao, alongside someone other than van Persie, could prove a masterstroke. It hasn’t quite worked out for the Colombian yet, but history suggest he has plenty to offer.
Despite this lengthy rant there is no campaign to oust Van Gaal. The Dutchman deserves the courtesy of time, but results need to improve. The club has won just three of 13 away matches this term, and despite improving performances, the team finds itself slowly slipping out of the Champions League places.
Liverpool, Southampton and Tottenham are hot pursuit and there is a tricky set of fixtures on the horizon. It will take a tremendous turnaround to guarantee a top four finish. Ultimately, European qualification is in Van Gaal’s hands, but until he is able to discover his winning formula, it is vital that he drops this stubborn front.