Running to stand still
There are plenty of reasons to be frustrated with Manchester United’s 3-2 defeat away at Wolfsburg. There was, for instance, the slapdash defending, yet more players succumbing to injury, and some very odd substitutions. Perhaps the most galling of all is the illusion of hope, now shattered. After all, fate was a cruel temptress as she thrice teased United with the prospect of progress to the knock-out phase of the Champions League – only for belief to be dashed.
Anthony Martial’s clinical strike gave United the lead, albeit a brief one. Over in Eindhoven, CSKA Moscow went a goal up at PSV before the Dutch side levelled almost immediately. Finally, there was the farcical own goal by Wolfsburg’s Josuha Guilavogui that brought the match level at 2-2 and gave Louis van Gaal’s team a loose foothold in the knockout stages. Needless to say United slipped up and surrendered the advantage to the home side who deserved to win on the night.
To top things off PSV won 2-1, meaning that even if United had contrived to draw Europa League football was inevitable. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic; Thursday night football is on the cards and, in truth, Van Gaal’s side deserved everything it got.
In the wreckage of Tuesday’s 3-2 defeat it will be hard for Van Gaal’s men to take away any positives, although the result could prove cathartic. Defeat puts to rest the pretence that has overshadowed United’s season, exposing Van Gaal to some very basic analysis. That, in effect, this is a team ticking over, coasting through matches in a fashion that achieves little at an élite level.
Since United’s heavy defeat at The Emirates in October the team has gone on an uninspiring, but unbeaten run, winning just three of eleven games in all competitions before the dispiriting defeat in Germany. It was a run that papered over far too many cracks.
In fact, the reverse at Wolfsburg exposed a team stumbling to find an identity, even with injuries taken into account. Most importantly it is a team incapable of discovering a winning formula. Now 18-months into his tenure at Old Trafford, Van Gaal is yet to demonstrate his grand vision.
Tuesday’s loss, in what Van Gaal admitted was his biggest match at United to date, must serve as a wake-up call. The Dutchman failed the test when evidence that his philosophy has value is in scant supply.
The sequence of events that led to United’s exit from the Champions League, and inspired the fans to jeer after the Reds’ scoreless draw against West Ham United at the weekend, has stemmed from a deeply conservative mindset. It is one that has slowly and inevitably heaped pressure on the team. Indeed, the safety-first approach throughout United’s Champions League campaign paradoxically forced Van Gaal’s side into a change of strategy at Wolfsburg in a winner-takes-all match. The more open approach has become alien and the result, as at the Emirates, was all too predictable.
United’s injury situation is a mitigating factor, of course, but it is unfair for Van Gaal to expect raw youngsters, such as Guillermo Varela, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Jesse Lingard and Nick Powell, to deliver in such a high pressure game. Van Gaal’s lads deserved better and this season’s exit in Europe’s premier club competition could have been avoided.
If United’s 5-3 reverse at Leicester City last season forced Van Gaal to adopt a defensive approach, then defeat against Wolfsburg surely amplifies the need for United adopt a more fluent, pacier, sustained attacking outlook.
After all, the tools are there. An attacking quartet of Lingard, Martial, Juan Mata and Memphis Depay provides a dynamic and fluid front four that, if given time to gel, could provide a genuine attacking threat. United’s opening goal against Wolfsburg offered a small glimpse of what could be achieved with incisive passing, leading to a clinical finish.
However, the Reds’ midfield duo of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Marouane Fellaini were found wanting. If Van Gaal is after more enterprise from the middle of the park then Ander Herrera is a a must-pick alongside one of Schweinsteiger, Michael Carrick or Morgan Schneiderlin. While Herrera is sidelined with injury, Van Gaal’s relative lack-of-faith in the Spaniard has disturbed many supporters.
Moreover, the club’s hierarchy, together with Van Gaal, now need to map out a coherent strategy on and off the pitch. Whatever the briefing emanating out of Ed Woodward’s office in recent days, a long-term plan to reestablish the club at an élite level, whilst maintaining an acceptable level of success on the pitch, is necessary. United is an institution that can lie ‘in transition’ for only so long.
Yet, plenty has already been invested in Van Gaal’s plan to overhaul United’s squad. More is seemingly promised. No figure will enough, even with all the talk of stellar names joining, unless a post-Ferguson identity is established. The suspicion is that A-list acquisitions will be made with an eye on making United even more marketable, rather than with the balance Van Gaal needs.
The gossip suggests that United is now a club that seeks out established stars in the model of Real Madrid; a break from a time when the club sought the best young talents, fashioning them into superstars. Van Gaal has offered plenty of youngsters a taste of first-team football, but the scattergun approach to the transfer market in the wake of Ferguson’s exit suggests a make-it-up-as-you-go philosophy that offers little in the way of long-term identity.
With each week and every disappointing result there’s a growing feeling that a difficult situation is likely to come to an ugly head at Old Trafford. United’s result at Wolfsburg may not be a watershed, but it might not be far off. In the aftermath of Wolfsburg Van Gaal’s immediate goal is to chalk up victories in the Premier League, preferably convincing ones, to stem the growing tide of negativity.
Then, the club as a whole must figure out how it is going to achieve its larger objectives. Supporters will be patient as long as progress is visible, with a trajectory of development heading in the right direction. For that, however, there also needs to be a modicum of hope. Supporters cannot repeatedly witness it snatched away in, frankly, tragi-comic circumstances.
Tuesday’s result will prompt a significant amount of soul-searching, but if United’s manager reaches the conclusion that a change in tack is required, and a more incisive approach taken, then maybe some good can come from the club’s Champions League exit.
For Van Gaal’s sake the narrative must change; he has to prove all over again that his philosophy can take United forward. Right now his team looks like it is running to stand still.