Capitulation at Arsenal – why Van Gaal got it so wrong

October 5, 2015 Tags: , Reads 28 comments
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Every now and then we all make a huge mess of our jobs. Something that is second nature falls into a vacuum of complacency. Ultimately you get bitten on the backside. Manchester United did this on Sunday against Arsenal, turning up to the office in dress-down clothes, while everyone else came suited-and-booted.

Sunday bore witness to how a philosophy can get in the way of actually playing football, and how tactics can make a World Cup winner look lost and misplaced. Louis van Gaal’s decisions didn’t just lose United the game against Arsenal, but highlighted his natural limitations—despite being a world-class coach.

Van Gaal decided the way to snuff out the Arsenal threat was to play high up the pitch. The Dutchman appears to have noted Arsenal’s predilection for not ‘getting in behind’ very often, opting instead to play the ball to feet. In response Van Gaal offered up huge areas of space to Arsenal to make his plan work.

His strategy spectacularly backfired.

Bastian Schweinseiger has been asked to bomb up the field and close down the opposition’s defensive midfield and centre-backs in each game he has started. Michael Carrick played the role earlier in the season as well. It’s a strategy that works against Liverpool: a team who want to play the ball out of the back, but are so bad at it that the manager gets sacked.

This high press is also typical on the continental; Barcelona has used it for years. Pep Guardiola’s best teams pushed high up the pitch, wining the ball in midfield, and then killed the opposition. But there is also a reason why teams do not use the high press on Barça in reaction – because vacating space enabled the Catalans to thread the ball through an eye of a needle and create chances.

Sir Alex Ferguson noted this in his many European battles, and forced his teams to be more conservative against such opponents. This is also why he had great success when facing Arsenal.

Van Gaal gave Wenger everything he needed to win the game in a small window of play, and as expected, United then made Arsenal look like Barcelona.

In fact, the Gunners didn’t do anything extraordinary on Sunday—they simply went through the motions and played the natural Arsenal game. But there is a reason why they have failed to win the title in a decade. Teams have learned that if you sit deep, and pack the midfield with hardworking players, and use the counter attack, you will have success against them.

It seems that Van Gaal didn’t do his homework or believed he could deconstruct Wenger in a less industrial manner.

United set up in a conventional 4-2-3-1, but within this two players were playing “false” positions: Schweinsteiger and Wayne Rooney, who consistently swapped territory in the first half. It prompts the question: why?

With the Germany captain pushing up and vacating midfield, the England captain should have dropped back to the halfway line, filling the space between Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil. That didn’t happened. It is incredulous to believe Van Gaal asked his side to vacate the midfield completely against a team who are one big midfield with no strikers!

Schweinsteiger was clearly following orders, but it seemed the flaw in the system was Rooney and Memphis Depay’s positions.

For whatever reason in those first 45 minutes United’s attack and midfield simply didn’t do its job correctly. To stretch the analogy: they turned up at the office in flip-flops and a bermuda shirt.

It was clearly evident on the manager’s face as the half progressed he was shell-shocked. This led him to profess after the game it was the worst he had seen them play under his tutelage, but he should have reacted quicker than he did.

“When you start like that you can never win a game, we lost every duel, every second ball, not tight on their midfielder, and they can play they are a fantastic team when you let them give them that space it is difficult,” Van Gaal claimed. “That was the worse United have been under me, we were not able to give a normal performance. I have never seen that of my team, that is the question I put to my players.”

The second half was much better from United, retaining 72 per cent possession after bringing on two ‘less technical’ players in Marouane Fellaini and Antonio Valencia. Rooney and Schweinsteiger were pushed into wider areas, choking the Arsenal supply line, leaving the home team with only a much more direct ball to Theo Walcott. If you are Daley Blind it is so much easier to defend when you are facing the traffic.

Memphis made way after 45 minutes because he simply isn’t showing the mental application to be a United player at present. He is undoubtedly talented, but he looks like Raheem Sterling did for Liverpool last year—fully aware of the expectation, but not quite happy to do the defensive part of his job.

Memphis is built like an ox and shouldn’t have issues with the physical nature of the Premier League, so it can only be presumed that the problem is in his head, with a skewed idea of what it takes to be a top professional. This isn’t the Eredivisie.

Luke Shaw’s injury has forced the manager to play Ashley Young at left-back – and while Blind and Chris Smalling look solid together there is no case to move the Dutch player to full-back. But if Young is to be a success in a defensive role, Memphis needs to adjust his game fast, or Van Gaal has to drop him. The alternative is to move Matteo Darmian—who is suffering a bad spell after a fine start—to left-back, and allow Antonio Valencia—who was poor against Wolfsburg—to play at right-back.

Neither of these are ideal scenarios, but the issue lies further up the pitch, and not in a defence that has – up until Sunday – conceded few goals this season. Smalling continues to look like Rio Ferdinand’s heir apparent, but it was United’s defending as a team was the issue at the Emirates.

The most peculiar fact of Sunday’s defeat was the omission of Morgan Schneiderlin, who would have pressed and tackled Cazorla better than anyone else at the club. The Frenchman was bought to break up play and dominate central midfield – it is odd that Van Gaal decided to leave him on the bench and trust a core of 30-somethings instead.

Van Gaal is not far away from having a very good team, but the manager has to find a plan B and C to back up his A game. The Dutchman can mix it up, as he did in the second half, but it is his failing that he didn’t start the game in this manner.

Anthony Martial continues to look like a hero-in-waiting in a United shirt, but if Rooney and Memphis do not fulfil their function, Van Gaal’s team will drop more points.

All is not lost and the club is not in a panic just yet; Van Gaal’s side just needs to wear a suit and tie to that next meeting.


Anna_MUFC - October 5, 2015 Reply


rawjaw - October 6, 2015 Reply

I am sick of the manky philosophy a load of old pony dressed up as tactical sophistication football to make your eyes bleed

Rachit B Sahgal - October 5, 2015 Reply

1. Carrick was too slow with his passing yesterday 2. If Rooney doesn’t score goals it will put pressure on Martial

Rachit B Sahgal - October 5, 2015 Reply

which will hinder his development

David Hennessey - October 5, 2015 Reply

good piece. Memphis needs a rest, been a passenger. Suspect Schnedelin will play v City

Red Man - October 5, 2015 Reply

Hindsight is 20-20. He should have done this…he should have done that. Everyone is a world class tactical analyst after the fact. If his high pressing worked the columnists would have been leading with ‘…United didn’t allow Arsenal to play their usual passing game…’ etc.
I think it was as you have mentioned, the lacklustre display or mental state of the players coming into the game. This could have stemmed from the manager so he is definitely not free of blame.

Super-bearded - October 5, 2015 Reply

Nice paper. Totally agree.

Schneiderlin should have started. Tome, Carrick+Schweini is the same issue than Smalling+Jones in a way that they’re not complementary, they’re too similar.
It works when Carrick+Morgan or Basti+Morgan, or with Herrera.
+ It give a 2d flow when one enter as sub (carrick or basti)

I’ll add one thing about Valencia:
It did well last year against Sanchez. Darmian is not good for 3 games now. Ecuador vs Chili is a motivation for Valencia. I think it could be positive to start with him.
+ in my eyes, he’s a good one, techincally reallly poor, but strong and with pace. Need to prior this against high winger enemies.

MJC - October 5, 2015 Reply

@_Rob_B excellent that, Bobby B

Haresh - October 5, 2015 Reply

great analysis. Would be great for Morgan and ander to get more game time now.

Sivanesan-pillay - October 5, 2015 Reply

Great read Ed, it was sickening to watch the united players watch Arsenal playing. As you rightly said the usual way to beat them is to out work them and “mix it up a bit”. I was very annoyed with the lack of effort of our players but i guess the managers strange tactics were also to blame.

Anyway rather we get a “wake up call” now and hopefully do something about it than later when there isn’t enough time.

Hope you enjoyed sunny South Africa and didn’t let Andy Townsend’s commentary ruin your visit 😀

drib - October 5, 2015 Reply

well written perfect assessment

DayusDred. - October 5, 2015 Reply

At the begining of the season i said our success will depend on choices made by Lvg. Yesterday will lost the game as a result of wrong choices made by him. To play the two oldest and slowest midfielders in the club againgst a team full of fast paced midfielders while Morgan.S was on the bench for 90mins was criminal. The choice of Young as a full back when we have Jones who can pair Smalling while Blind switches to the left is another fatal call he made. As a result of these two decisions, we had a midfield with no pace, no energy and out numbered because Depay and Mata were not coming back to help the full backs especially Young who is not a natural defender. Lvg gave the game away and should be man enough to take responsibilty. He must stop playing players out of position if he wants the best out of them. He took Arsenal for granted and he paid dearly for it. He was so shell shocked that it to him 45mins to recover. That again is criminal for a so called world class coach. Hope the loss will bring him down to earth and be less arogant.

denton davey - October 5, 2015 Reply

“Memphis needs to adjust his game fast, or Van Gaal has to drop him. The alternative is to move Matteo Darmian—who is suffering a bad spell after a fine start—to left-back, and allow Antonio Valencia—who was poor against Wolfsburg—to play at right-back.”

I don’t understand why Paddy McNair doesn’t get time at right back – even MrJones couldn’t be worse than AV25,

The old adage is that “goals change games” – so do non-goals, which makes me wonder what might have happened if Anthony Martial’s shot in the 45th minute had got past Petr Cech’s out-stretched foot. 3-1 down at the interval would have offered a glimmer of hope; 3-nil with everything not working meant that the second half was going to be impossible for UTD and what was essentially time-wasting by TheArse, who were largely happy to run out the clock.

Even more than the strategy-points made in this fine analysis, what was so starkly revealed by this match was the sheer difference in quality of play between TheArse’s one-touch pass-and-move and the plodding, ponderous “possession philosophy” prized by LvG.

Also, TheWayneBoy was just awful in the first half and barely competent in the second half. KidWilson looked lively when he came on after the result was a mere formality.

AND, if I hear anyone say anything good about AshleyBloodyYoung …….. He runs fast but is hopelessly mediocre with absolutely no end-product.

Olly Wood - October 5, 2015 Reply

An excellent summary, and fits in with all the murmers going around OT, well the fans at least

Nikunj Kanodia - October 5, 2015 Reply

I Cannot express how i feel after reading this. If i’m not wrong, an Indian United fan has written this. Trust me guys, if i was earning, i would have definitely liked to contribute into this website. AMAZING Article !

Not Negative. Not Deluded. Just plain & simple stuff which is important.

I do however wanted to consult this – With Luke Shaw out for the season, the lack of Squad depth doesn’t give us any other alternative other than Young or Valencia at the one of the Fullback position. Varela can surely be considered as he’s highly rated by Zidane.

bari buksh - October 5, 2015 Reply

LVG should start getting up of his Arse and try to instruct players on the pitch with tactical solutions n stop scribbling

Olly Wood - October 5, 2015 Reply

I actually agree with all of this, and more, I wrote a very similar piece right after the game,

In there I stated that we in fact started the game five men down, and by that I mean players either out of position, or not playing how you would expect them to.

You have to assume that the players on the bench were match fit, so why play Young at left back, when Jones is sat twiddling his thumbs on the bench, the first two goals came from the left hand side.

Move Blind to left back where he played well lat season and put Jones in the centre with Smalling, better still drop Smalling from the North Stand so that he can never play again, and put McNair in there, Smalling is fine against teams like Sunderland, but once again Arsenal prived that he is well out of depth at United when faced with top players, he was left marking open space for both of the first two goals.

It’s also time to drop Rooney, 1 goal and no assists in the prem is not automatic place performance, he is being picked on reputation, not performance.

It would have been no worse had Young or Valencia played with Mata tucked in behind Martial.

We also needed a ball winner in midfield, not two playmakers, why wasn’t Schneiderlin picked to play alongside Carrick, who at least was fresh, Sweinsteiger at his age cannot be expedted to recover after midweek exertions in the ECL.

Myself I said I would give LVG a chance, but all this philosophy rubbish is starting to wear thin, his win percentage at all his clubs, apart from Barca has only been 57%, thats not good enough to win the Prem in what is normally a four horse race.

Olly is Admin @

denton davey - October 6, 2015 Reply

“better still drop Smalling from the North Stand so that he can never play again,”

Only three UTD players came out of that match with any credit – DDG, Anthony Martial AND BigManSmalling. I guess that you saw a different game.

Subterranean Steve - October 6, 2015 Reply

Can’t believe you’re slagging off Smalling.

Fusilli Jerry - October 5, 2015 Reply

Cesspool about to get Klopp. We have to stomach another 20 months of Butt-head.

Subterranean Steve - October 6, 2015 Reply

Are there people out there who still think that the emperor is wearing a fine new set of clothes?

ForeverRed - October 6, 2015 Reply

Very objective analysis Rob!

If yesterday was an alarming wake-up call, another looming concern for me is that we are only 1 or 2 injuries away (esp in defence and up front) from a truly worrisome situation given how agressively the squad has been trimmed down. I’m really not sure that LvG really grasps the intensity of the Premier League that goes without a break all winter, added to the Carling Cup, FA Cup and Champions League. He’s complaining of tiredness at the beginning of October(!) yet is failing to rotate even the limited resources he’s left himself. This will hurt us all the more when injuries hit and we’re forced to throw in the reserves who have not had any game time and expect them to hit the road running. The lack of balance and squad management is bewildering for a manager who has so much experience.

Arsenal are the first genuine title contenders we’ve faced and we failed miserably, but it doesn’t surprise many of us after a number of unconvincing if victorious performances against lower teams. On this evidence, 4th will be a good achievement come the end of the season; anything better would be a welcome surpise to me. I just don’t think this would be the level of progress that we might have expected with the money spent 2 years into LvG’s tenure, especially with precious little entertainment to offset it.

Lucas - October 6, 2015 Reply

I feared the worst when I saw the midfield pairing of Carrick and Schweinsteiger, against a pacy Arsenal attack. It was a no-brainer that Schneiderlin should have started. He is perfect for games likes this when you need fast legs in midfield. Beating Arsenal is one of the easiest things to do in the PL, ever since Fergie prepared the template to do so, a template most other clubs started following, and LvG screwed it up. It is time LvG bins his philosophy and follows United’s philosophy of attacking, exciting football. We are not fighting for the title this season, and we will struggle to finish 4th again. I am worried Liverpool might be boosted with the impending arrival of Klopp, and will mount a strong fight for the 4th place.

Memphis needs time to adapt to the PL, and he needs to learn to release the ball quickly and not take on too many defenders. Pereira should be brought into the team in his place and given a run. Play Jones/Rojo and Smalling in central defence, and move Blind to LB. Rooney should be benched and since LvG won’t do that, he can be moved to the left wing (he did a decent job there in the 2nd half against Arsenal), and play Herrera at number 10. Wilson should be given more opportunities. Maybe, in the league cup match against Boro, we can try playing in a 4-3-3 formation with Pereira-Wilson-Martial upfront supported by Basti-Schneiderlin-Herrera in midfield.

denton davey - October 6, 2015 Reply

D’ya think that LvG is reading this ? I sure hope so !

MunroeL - October 6, 2015 Reply

@_Rob_B Had he asked Giggsy how to play against Arsenal Im sure he would have given him chapter and verse.

Daniel - October 6, 2015 Reply

Excellent analysis, as always. I could not believe it when I saw Basti pressing so high. LVG definitely got the tactics wrong here. Also, very good point re: Memphis.

Biggish Mouth - October 6, 2015 Reply

scary ting he did same last yr but got lucky by garbage arse finishing

James Ryddel - October 6, 2015 Reply

A few things. Rooney continues to let the team down, LVG needs to address this soon, how I’m not sure apart from benching him and bringing in Wilson, that or playing Mata in the 10 role. I disagree that Arsenal weren’t that special; They cut us apart with fast incisive football, the way we have played against them at OT from time to time. An odd thing: in his post match interview, LVG flatly denied that Bastian was charging up front in the first half… Watching a different game? One of the most relevant comments post match, IMO, came from Carragher who asked if playing three 30 years was a good idea – they could not cope with Arsenal’s pace – I agree with that totally. Depay cannot beat a man by going to the line, he has been found out and he’s struggling badly. Both fullbacks were left exposed by the players in front of them and Mata is every bit as bad as Depay when it comes to defending. Mata is not best suited to to that wide role – we are accommodating him and he has been great going forward but are we really getting the best out of him? Playing Mata on the wing is a compromise one that is not helping us defensively when the need arises.

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