Author Nikhil Sreekandan

Author Nikhil Sreekandan

Above all a team

February 15, 2015 Tags: , , Opinion 7 comments
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Outclassed, out-passed and creatively out-imagined at home by a side struggling to break out of the relegation zone –  last Wednesday Old Trafford witnessed Sean Dyche’s Burnley outplay Manchester United in almost every way. Yet, amazingly, it was Louis van Gaal’s side that earned three points at the end of the night to leapfrog Southampton back into third.

Burnley was the latest in a series of unlikely results this season, with United on a run of 18 matches that includes just a single defeat. It’s a series that includes United’s 2-1 away triumphs at the Emirates and St. Marys, and home victories over Everton and Burnley. None of which United deserved to win. Add shocking results at Leicester City and Milton Keynes Dons and it becomes clear that Van Gaal’s side deserves far less than it has achieved this season. Perhaps Van Gaal did sign something far more valuable than another player in his £150 million summer shopping spree: Lady Luck.

If anything, the lavish summer spree has been more of a hindrance than a positive. The purchases of a range of attacking talents has seemingly thrown the team into disarray and Van Gaal looks incapable of nailing down anything close to a cohesive XI after eight months on the job. Truthfully, the Dutchman has not even been able to draw the minimum expected from huge talents such as Angel Di Maria, Wayne Rooney and Adnan Januzaj. That trio is now reduced to playing the roles of square pegs in round holes.

That said, United’s formation is at least something Van Gaal seems to have settled, with the Reds now playing a 4-4-2 diamond regularly. But the misguided use of personnel contributed much to the miserable show versus Burnley last week – a performance Van Gaal described as “shocking.” United’s defence was a shambles once again, with Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans flapping at centre-back, the latter proving once again that he is a player that barely deserves to make the reserves let alone Van Gaal’s first team. Luke Shaw’s suspension left Marcos Rojo at left-back, and although he made a decent job of it, the Argentinian was sorely missed at the heart of United’s defence.

The night was not helped by Jones’ early injury, which will put him out for the next two weeks – another setback for United. But the injury had one benefit by placing Chris Smalling in the equation. The man-of-the-match performance included a goal within 20 seconds of his entry – the fastest goal by a substitute in Premier League history. He went on to play one of the best games of his time at United, with a headed brace that gave the home side a 2-1 lead at half-time. And there was one more defensive positive against Burnley – at right back, McNair is beginning to make himself a mainstay in the defence, again performing better than his counterparts in the position.

Chris Smalling’s goal scoring proved a lesson for Van Gaal’s forwards, who again struggled in the final third. It is a pattern across the entire campaign. The team boasts more than a fair amount of possession every game, yet there have been matches this season when United registered zero shots on target. The obvious conclusion is that United’s strikers are underperforming. For further evidence Falcao was again nowhere near his potential last Wednesday, with the Colombian struggling to find his first touch for most of the game. Meanwhile, Van Persie is only slowly recovering after more than 18 months of intermittent form.

Perhaps, though, the actual problem lies elsewhere. In United’s previous fixture, away at West Ham United, the Hammers pressed well through Diafra Sakho and Ener Valencia and Van Gaal’s side was unable to get the ball past their half-way line for long periods. United’s back-four struggled to find an outlet and was often left without an but to miserably hoof it up the field. Or to passing it all the way back to David De Gea who did the same. It was a game riddled with back-passes and ‘no other option’ long balls as if United was playing without a midfield at all. It is the story of United’s season – the absence of a proper midfield engine, with players such as Rooney and Januzaj trying to create, but sticking out like sore thumbs in central areas.

At least part of United’s problem lies in the systems played this season, whether a 3-5-2 or the 4-4-2 diamond. Each uses a compromised form of width that does not play to the squad’s strengths. In the former, Van Gaal asks his wide men to double up with added defensive duties at wing-back; the latter utilises attacking full-backs. In truth United is short of both. The failure of makeshift wing-backs Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young in part contributed to United’s return to a 4-4-2 diamond, where Van Gaal has tried to overcome weaknesses at full-back by deploying Di Maria and Januzaj on either side of the diamond. It compromises two talent players; neither manages to gain a fair share of the ball within the narrow diamond, nor create from wide areas.

However, against Burnley Van Gaal was forced into substituting Daley Blind near half time, resulting in a very rare Ander Herrera appearance as the Dutch midfielder went down with a knock to the head. United shifted to a flat four across midfield in the second half, which made a huge difference, with more players deployed in their preferred roles. Rooney initially pushed higher up the pitch, supported by the excellent Herrera. In turn, Januzaj and Di Maria set up as wingers, enabling each to whip in crosses and penetrate a tired Burnley defence. It was noticeable that Di Maria improved as the game went on, running at Burnley’s players and working back well when United had to defend.

Yet, it was a game that raised more concerns about Van Gaal’s time at United. The Dutchman came to Old Trafford on the back of success at the World Cup with a much-discussed 3-5-2 system. It has taken more than six months for the Dutchman to realise that it doesn’t work well at United. And now, with the “mathematically ingenious” 4-4-2 diamond, he is trying to fit in players into a system who are finding it uncomfortable, while others warm the bench. Players perhaps more suited to the new shape.

It’s an observation that asks a question – is it time that Van Gaal stopped trying to reinvent players and instead play to their strengths? It might mean that the manager has to start dropping his favourites to make a system work regardless of price tag and pedigree. After all, how long can a team depend on individual brilliance to win games? Lady luck does not last forever. Ultimately, above all, it is the team that matters most.

Van Gaal’s quest for balance

February 4, 2015 Tags: , Opinion 8 comments
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Ushered in by a chilly January, snow finally hit Manchester this week, though Manchester United finally warmed up by winning two games on the trot. The Red Devils washed off the “bitter taste” of Leicester City’s 5-3 victory last September with a thumping 3-1 at Old Trafford last Saturday. It marked the return of the 4-4-2 diamond. And on Tuesday night Louis van Gaal’s side comfortably saw off Cambridge United in the FA Cup fourth round replay using the same formation.

After United’s drab FA Cup draw at the Abbey Stadium, Louis van Gaal fielded a 4-4-2 for a second consecutive match, although to much better effect against Leicester with United putting the game to bed before the whistle had blown for half time. It couldn’t have turned out better for Van Gaal, who fielded the same formation that had his “ass twitching” when United got crushed 5-3 at The King Power Stadium last September. Saturday’s victory will go some way to putting an end to the Dutchman’s affliction.

When United played Cambridge the week previously Van Gaal’s registered few shots on target. For a change it wasn’t the Reds’ chaotic defence to blame for a poor result, but attacking inefficiency in the final third. United’s 4-4-2 at Abbey Stadium was far worse creatively than the supposedly ‘safe’ 3-5-2 used for much of the season. Van Gaal’s midfield trio of Adnan Januzaj, Mourane Fellaini and Angel Di Maria mustered little from Michael Carrick’s distribution.

Yet, Van Gaal stuck with a midfield diamond at the weekend – this time formed of Daley Blind, Wayne Rooney, Januzaj, and Di Maria, with Falcao and Robin van Persie up front. At the back the Dutchman again fielded Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Antonio Valencia. It paid off, with the Reds pretty close to the high tempo passing game that Van Gaal demands.

The change has been a long time coming. Many supporters have long believed that this is the formation that will bring out the best from United’s squad. Van Gaal is concerned that a diamond is defensively weaker than a three-man defence, but results this season point to the folly of playing it safe and scoring fewer goals. In fact, the long list of draws is already weighing heavily on United’s top four ambitions as the chase for Champions League places tightens at the top end of the table. United may well have to win almost every game from now until May if Van Gaal’s side is to make sure of a top four finish. The weekend’s result surely confirms that a 4-4-2 system can bring the much coveted balance for which Van Gaal has searched all season.

The quest for this balance is not fully resolved, especially after witnessing the bizarre range of tactics on show against Cambridge. Yet, Van Gaal’s back four appears to be settling down, with as Rojo and Jones cementing places at centre-back in recent weeks, albeit with changes made on Tuesday. Each is comfortable on the ball and better in distribution than Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling. Meanwhile, at full-back Shaw and Valencia seem to be Van Gaal’s go to men with Rafael da Silva rarely fit, and not fully trusted, and Young only starting to make a comeback from a month-long injury with a late substitute appearance on Tuesday. Victory over Cambridge also brought the best out of Paddy McNair, who is maturing into a versatile defensive player. McNair has grabbed the opportunities thrown his way this season, with Van Gaal clearly impressed. The Irishman may well be United’s right-back solution to the season’s end.

Back in midfield, the diamond is a creative engine. At the base, with Carrick out, Blind is performing with the grace of his vice-captain. The Dutchman’s match winning performance against Leicester will help the former Ajax midfielder establish his place in the team, at least until Carrick is back. At the other end of the diamond the first choice behind United’s two strikers is currently Rooney, with Van Gaal reluctant to use his captain up-front for the time being. Rooney was deployed wide against Cambridge at Old Trafford and in both matches the Scouser’s poor distribution and – at times embarrassing – cheap loss of possession reinforce the belief held by many that he is a striker by trade. Rooney’s mediocrity at 10 only serves to highlight Juan Mata’s talent – a player who remains United’s most creative midfielder and a flamboyant goal scorer too. It’s a trait the Spaniard proved yet again on Tuesday.

Di Maria and Januzaj played on the right and left of the diamond against Leicester, both showing glimpses of what they can offer, but neither working to their full potential. Di Maria, who was the only United player to feature in the FIFA World XI this year, is an automatic pick despite a mixed season. This is not the case for Januzaj, who matched his more illustrious midfield partner for quality at the weekend. Januzaj’s youth means that game time is critical though – a scenario that is challenged in either of Van Gaal’s preferred systems. Time will tell, but United could perhaps have responded with a ‘yes’ when Everton came knocking for a season-long loan earlier this week.

Meanwhile, his fellow Belgian, Fellaini, has finally become the dominating figure in the middle of the park that United requires, although not a creative talent who will provide the clever passes in the final third that is sometimes missing. After all, someone needs to feed the collection of world-class strikers Van Gaal now boasts. It’s an observation that also posts a question: why has Ander Herrera been ignored by Van Gaal for most of the campaign? The Basque has started just six games this season and impressed in recent matches. After all, Herrera offers a balance of creativity, passing and energy that is not found elsewhere in Van Gaal’s squad.

Then there is Van Gaal’s forward line, which has come under heavy criticism in the past few weeks. It is a unit seemingly unable to score the volume of goals that is expected of such high quality players. The simple fact remains, however, that if the team provides then these strikers will surely deliver, as both Falcao and Van Persie did at the weekend.

Still, Van Gaal must find the balance if United’s campaign is to end in success. Tough choices lie ahead, especially when it comes to some of United’s star names. But this also points to some hope – if the Dutchman can get his talented squad playing close to its potential, with a consistent and balanced side, the quest for a top four finish will fall into place. Perhaps even more as United roll on in the FA Cup.

Van Gaal: a retrospective

January 14, 2015 Tags: Opinion 19 comments
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Manchester United’s defeat to Southampton last weekend was heavily criticised by the newspapers on Monday morning. No surprise there, but even after such a poor showing it is nonsense to argue that little has changed at United over the past year. Still, the Louis van Gaal’s side has managed to win just 10 out of 21 games this season, with a points tally of 37 – now 12 shy of the league leaders. It begs the question: how much has Van Gaal really achieved?

At the same stage last season United had gained the same number of points – and David Moyes’ side was only 11 points adrift of the then league leaders. The stats certainly don’t scream change, although – in a way – the league table has something very different to say. Compared to last season when Moyes’ side were struggling to obtain a Champions League spot in seventh, Van Gaal’s men lie fourth in the table. Just enough change some might say.

When Sir Alex Ferguson’s replacement lasted only 10 months in the job United’s hierarchy must have realised that a fundamental change in direction was required; a coach both more astute and more illustrious – with the kind of unparalleled self-belief and confidence that the job requires.

Yet, it’s been a long first six months for Van Gaal at Old Trafford whatever the Dutchman’s past. Home defeat to the Saints underlines the fact that Van Gaal has a lot of work left to be done before United will again challenge for the title, despite United’s recent 11 match unbeaten run. Hampered by a chaotic injury list – but aided by a poor run of form United’s rivals for Champions League qualification – it’s been a campaign with both it’s highs and lows.

United’s summer spending has provided plenty of ammunition: Van Gaal spent £150 million and yet the points total is only on par with Moyes’ performance. It’s a critique Van Gaal dismisses – and the Dutchman is savvy enough to know that if a club could guarantee titles with money alone Manchester City would have held the Premier League every year since 2008.

Van Gaal is bullish not least because everybody knew United had to invest once again, especially with so many veterans leaving last season – and with Chelsea and City pooling talent over the years. After securing Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez in the past two summers even Arsenal has joined the big-spenders now. United had to play catch up or would have fallen further behind.

Yet, after last year’s torrid season Van Gaal was left a group of talented youngsters with zero experience and clutch of world-class players with almost zero confidence. In the context the Dutchman has led United to a comfortable position halfway through the season, integrating new faces and attempting to build his so called philosophy.

Luck has played a part of course, especially in some very important games, such as victories over Arsenal and Southampton at St. Mary’s. Although many will argue that any luck is balanced out by the long injury curse that has haunted the squad.

There is hope too. Specifically five areas that point to Van Gaal heading in the right direction, despite Sunday’s defeat to Southampton.

The captaincy choice was the right choice
Among the first and perhaps most important decisions Van Gaal made last summer was to make Wayne Rooney captain when faced with the choice of trusting his compatriot Robin van Persie or extending the captaincy to the player who defines United’s past decade. The unstable relationship Rooney had with Sir Alex and Van Gaal’s regular arguments with players was a concern, but Rooney has taken up the role so pragmatically.

Youngsters are being given a chance
Van Gaal has used a group of youngsters this season, bringing them to the first team in the way Moyes did not. It is a policy that has benefited Paddy McNair, Tyler Blackett and James Wilson in particular. They are, if not household names, on the road to it. And the way this group has performed, given the lack of experience on offer, is commendable. Breeding youth talent is one of United’s core foundations and it appears to be in harmony with Van Gaal’s philosophy, leaving the future of the club in safe hands. But it would be amiss not to note that a few talents have been overlooked too – the sale of Danny Welbeck and the Adnan Januzaj’s situation in particular.

The team ethic comes first
Football is a team sport and Van Gaal appears to have little regard for a star name. In fact he recently said that he needs “balance in the team” and when asked about Rooney’s selection as he claimed the Scouser’s involvement is “dependable on how the balance in the team is.” It is becoming clear that the Dutchman cares less for individuals than the team as a whole. This is a good thing.

Reinventing fallen idols
Van Gaal has developed a reputation for exploring hidden talents in players and in the process reinventing them, much as he did for Bastian Schweinsteiger at Bayern Munich. There have been numerous examples of this trait in evidence already this season, with Marouanne Fellaini and Ashley Young – once considered outcasts – now playing pivotal roles in United’s campaign. Whatever else, when players who were once considered dead wood find some new vigour, something is heading in the right direction.

Van Gaal wants more from the team
Most importantly it’s the way that Van Gaal assesses United’s performance in this first half of the season that matters. His side is fourth in the league table and, albeit with some jitters, into the fourth round of the FA Cup. But Van Gaal understands that his team has not performed close to it’s capability yet, even if many of its failings could be pinned upon the long running injury crisis. But now with injuries coming to an end, Van Gaal should be able to play a more stable 11 in the coming games – perhaps pinning down a consistent formation as well.