Striking woes

December 7, 2015 Tags: , , Reads 9 comments
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“Quality,” read the motto framed in Louis van Gaal’s office at Ajax, “is the exclusion of coincidence.”  If anything it sums up the Dutchman’s philosophy: every eventuality is covered in the minutest detail; nothing is left to chance. If that’s the case then Van Gaal must be under few illusions that United’s current striking troubles are the result of bad luck, but of a system and ethos that doesn’t prioritise playing with pace.

Much has been said about the Reds’ performance against West Ham United at the weekend, where Van Gaal’s side enjoyed 21 shots in total, albeit with only one on target – in the 60th minute. True, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial spurned presentable chances in the latter stages of the game, but those opportunities were carved out as United became more frantic in search of an elusive goal. The total number of shots, in the context of the season, was probably a outlier.

In all likelihood had United scored the team would have sat on the lead rather than look for a second. After all, Van Gaal’s side was let off the hook more than once; had West Ham been more clinical the Dutchman would have been left to contemplate a painful and potentially damaging defeat.

Indeed, the frustration many supporters feel is precisely because Van Gaal possesses enough players for the side to play on the front foot all the time – and, on occasion, the team has demonstrated this ability when trying to rescue victory from the jaws of another mundane stalemate.

It doesn’t help Van Gaal’s case that Javier Hernández, James Wilson, Will Keane and Shinji Kagawa all conspired to score over the weekend. Even Angel di Maria weighed in with an assist for Paris Saint Germain.

Yet, the raw data doesn’t make for encouraging reading. Compared with United’s contemporaries in the Premier League Van Gaal’s side comes up short in key attacking metrics. Or, in other words, United’s league position is down to possessing the meanest defense in the division.

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Responding to criticism after drawing another blank against West Ham, Van Gaal complained that the fans “want to score every minute of this game.”

“I don’t understand,” he continued, “why they are shouting ‘attack, attack, attack’ because we are the attacking team, not West Ham, and it’s the same in every game because we are dominating more.”

Of course, to use an Obi-Wan-ism, Van Gaal’s observation is true ‘from a certain point of view’. Once again United bossed possession at Old Trafford, out-passing West Ham by almost four passes to one. Once again United failed to turn this ‘domination’ into goals.

Even in taking 21 shots against the Hammers, the pace of United’s attack was too slow. It is an observation that strikes at the heart of Van Gaal’s challenge. On the occasions when his team has played with tempo, the side look dangerous, but it is as if a hand is holding United back from playing at full pace all of the time.

United’s conservatism is heaping pressure on the players as well. Michael Carrick looked to force the issue when he came on for the injured Morgan Schneiderlin on Saturday. Yet, Carrick was often forced into attempting difficult eye-of-the-needle passes. Behind each pass was a desperation to spark United into life.

Memphis Depay offered another instructive example when the Dutchman had to motion Matteo Darmian into making an overlapping run. The result: Darmian got into a decent area and fizzed a dangerous cross in front of the West Ham goal. It was a moment to summarise the clash between a ‘philosophy’ and the ‘practical realities’ of United’s situation.

The solution may not be easy. Van Gaal believes that if United acquired strikers of higher quality, such as Sergio Agüero or Luis Suárez, they would score in this current set-up. Maybe so, although it is not really the point. For all the major squad surgery that Van Gaal has overseen at Old Trafford his only real striking options are Wayne Rooney, who is on the wane, and a talented but raw Anthony Martial.

Once again the print media is full of stories linking United to the acquisition of stellar names, with a huge budget to go with it. It is an admission that the Dutchman cannot coach the players at his disposal to be more clinical or attack with greater fluency. That, if you will, the philosophy can only be fulfilled in the transfer market, with a player who can produce something out of nothing in an otherwise no-risk approach.

If that observation rings true then the brand of attacking football United supporters crave is likely to be in short supply for as long as the Dutchman is at the helm. After all, the Glazer family is reportedly happy with the progress that Van Gaal has made – outside opinions matter little as long as the Dutch coach is meeting his basic targets. No change of style is on the horizon.

This, of course, is the greatest danger of all. For all the club’s traditions and history it is owned by a family that cares little for much but the bottom line. There is little concern over style in the Old Trafford boardroom so long as the ‘brand’ remains strong and a minimum level of success is achieved. In that the club’s hierarchy has appointed the perfect coach – one that will bear the brunt of any criticism and steer attention away from the owners.

Of course, Van Gaal’s ego dictates that he must win a trophy at United. But he also is safe in the knowledge that his paymasters are content with his work. It leaves just one question: whether the Dutchman most seeks to please his employers or the fans? If it’s the former, then supporters should expect little change in the team’s style any time soon.


Denton Davey - December 8, 2015 Reply

“the brand of attacking football United supporters crave is likely to be in short supply for as long as the Dutchman is at the helm.”

LvG has made a rod-for-his-own-back by cutting adrift so many useful – maybe not top quality attacking options. In particular, it was a kind of trigger-happy decision to jettison Chicharito even if he did want out. In my opinion, the treatment of Nani has been shocking – he’s a hugely talented player who has been “inconsistent” but when he’s on-his-game Nani lights up the game.

Instead, we have had to watch AshleyBloodyYoung produce the-square-root-of-sweet-fuck-all or “Lingered” flatter-to-deceive (by my count, Lingered has missed four gilt-edged chances in the last three matches).

It’s all well-and-good to bemoan the lack of quality in the attack but a lot of guys have been shuffled through Carrington in the last 18 months and sent packing. So, the question has to be on which players would UTD be wise to spend large. The most exciting team UTD have had on the field was the “whirligig” forward line of Rooney, Saha, and CR7 which was then changed as Saha couldn’t stay fit so SAF purchased Carlitos. That interchanging threesome was thrilling. Hopefully, with Memphis and Martial this scenario will repeat itself with the addition of another true-quality, fast forward.

My own opinion is that Leroy Sane would be a “better” purchase than, say, Aubemyang (or Mane from Soton) because his up-side is fantastic. When UTD spent large on Martial, LvG said that he was a purchase “for Giggs”; well, Sane is a German version of Anthony Martial. It might take a while for that threesome to gel/come-of-age but if/when it did then it would be a happy time for those of us who enjoy watching youthful excitement, speed, and athleticism.

Opti - December 8, 2015 Reply

Nani was an paradoxical underachieving underrated player… and when I see a wasteful Memphis, he reminds me of that Nani.

Nani, Rafael, and Chicharito could make it, were given plenty of time, like by most fans, but didn’t make it. I love Chicharito, but he does not at all fit the style of a passing/possession team and is much better off in a direct formation — even if he’d be a super sub for us at the moment to give us a plan Not-Fellaini, he is too good for super-sub status. I am happy for him. I miss the emotions of Rafael, but he was a red card waiting to happen (too often). Nani was wasteful and I lost interest in his during Moyes season when he somehow got a 5-year deal… is Nani lighting up Portugal now-a-days? I don’t think so.

Let’s see how LvG grows Memphis-Martial-Mata/Lingard/XYZ into the fearsome trio that has always been part of United’s attacking past.

Denton Davey - December 8, 2015 Reply

“when I see a wasteful Memphis, he reminds me of that Nani”

I understand that BUT if the alternative is the completely un-productive AshleyBloodyYoung then I reckon it is better to take the rough with the smooth because both Memphis and Nani could at least produce some “smooth”.

Denton Davey - December 8, 2015 Reply

Actually, Nani now plays in Turkey for Fenerbahce – and scored one of the “goals of the week” (see

Note that among those “goals of the week” there were others from KagawaBunga and KidWilson – two other UTD-rejects.

bobbynoble - December 8, 2015 Reply

Plus Chicharito ‘player of the month;’ in Bundesliga.

bobbynoble - December 8, 2015 Reply

Every single attacking player -bar none, has under-achieved during Van Gaal’s reign.

500+ games in and all we have seen is a mixed bunch of not-up-to-its.

Poor old Louis the unluckiest manager on the planet.

Nikunj Kanodia - December 8, 2015 Reply

Loved the Positive Content, unlike recent tweets from the Twitter account. Lovely article, this. But i definitely think that we’ll perform better without Wayne because of the terrible form he’s in at the moment.

NazManUnited - December 8, 2015 Reply

Use Matches 100% strike rate

bobbynoble - December 8, 2015 Reply

Bring back Januzaj.

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