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.