The Europa League has provided United fans with something resembling a welcome break from the disappointment of the Premier League campaign. After the now typical draw against Swansea City last weekend, attention turned to continental conquests, and the first European semi-final involving Manchester United in six seasons. Celta Vigo stands between José Mourinho’s side and the Europa League final, but for the moment the focus comes back to the Premier League and Sunday’s fixture against Arsenal.
As far as international breaks go the series of games this week could not have been timed any worse for Manchester United. Fresh from victory against struggling Swansea City, the Reds desperately need a run of positive results to build momentum in a stop-start season. Instead, José Mourinho’s players return from activity on three continents ahead of a must-win fixture against one of the club’s oldest enemies.
Perspective can be hard to find; near impossible in football. Louis van Gaal’s? Seemingly ebbing away. It is, says the Dutchman, not his side’s form that is erratic, but “the media that is inconsistent.” It was, he says, not such a bad thing that his team lost at 19th-placed Sunderland, but that the “media makes it bigger than it is.” It is, he claims, not another campaign racing towards the scrap-heap, but a season “not as bad as the media are writing or telling to the fans.” Presumably it is also the media’s fault that Van Gaal’s side has won just three of its past 10 Premier League matches. Read More
Louis van Gaal has undertaken ‘projects’ at some of the biggest clubs in the world. His popularity is certainly not universal at any of them, but there’s no doubt that the Dutchman left his mark at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now Manchester United. There’s no denying Van Gaal has provided the foundations on which some of those clubs stand today.
Pep Guardiola has followed in Van Gaal’s footsteps, and indeed improved on them, in Catalunya and Bavaria. Could lightning strike a third time in Manchester? It certainly should.
With Guardiola set to announce his plans for 2016 and beyond next week, rumours abound as to where the Spaniard will set sail next. England is the consensus, with the Manchester clubs seemingly favourites despite Jose Mourinho’s dismissal at Chelsea this week.
Questions remain, of course. Would Pep’s style adapt to English football; could he revolutionise the game in the Premier League as he has in Spain and Germany?
Yet, there’s the common misconception that Guardiola shares Van Gaal’s love of possession and, frankly, possession for the sake of it. Certainly, passing teams to death is the perception that supporters and analysts have gained when watching United this season. Leading the league in sideways pass percentage, backwards pass percentage and, of course, possession itself, United dominates the ball, but not the league table. In truth, the man who is leading Munich to another Bundesliga title shares little of that ideal.
“I loathe all that passing for the sake of it,” he said last year. “All that tiki-taka. It’s so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition’s goal.
“It’s not about passing for the sake of it. Don’t believe what people say. Barça didn’t do tiki-taka! It’s completely made up! Don’t believe a word of it!”
Guardiola’s Catalan side was a ruthless attacking outfit whose effortless possession of the ball cut up almost every opponent. Rather than Van Gaal’s sometimes pedestrian passing, the Spaniard’s version of the Blaugrana was arguably the best side of the modern era. Barça moved the ball quickly – United the victim in two breathtaking displays in the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals.
“In all team sports, the secret is to overload one side of the pitch so that the opponent must tilt its own defence to cope,” Pep explained. “You overload on one side and draw them in so that they leave the other side weak. And when we’ve done all that, we attack and score from the other side.
“That’s why you have to pass the ball, but only if you’re doing it with a clear intention. It’s only to overload the opponent, to draw them in and then to hit them with the sucker punch. That’s what our game needs to be. Nothing to do with tiki-taka.”
In May of 2011 Guardiola sat in the stands watching United in the Champions League Semi-Finals. Weeks later his side would destroy the Red Devils in the final.
“I like this atmosphere. I could see myself coaching here one day,” he told friend Manuel Estiarte as he watched United sweep aside Schalke. The sentiment was echoed by journalist Graham Hunter this week, one of the more credible sources of news in Spain. Hunter is adamant that Guardiola wants to try his hand managing United after a transfer to Old Trafford fell through late in his playing career.
“If the cards fall his way, his wish is to sample life at Manchester United for a variety of reasons,” said Hunter. “The move didn’t happen but when he’s come back to Manchester subsequently he’s looked at the Old Trafford atmosphere, the legends and he has felt ‘this is right for me’.”
This chips, it seems, could fall United’s way. Unfortunately for those who would like to see Guardiola arrive at United there are many more factors at play, and football is rarely that simple, especially when it comes to the Reds.
The Citizens’ move for Pep has been the “worst kept secret in football” for some time now. That said, with admirers from the rest of England’s giants also in play, perhaps Guardiola’s move to the Etihad is no longer so certain. City has always felt the presence of Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain in the management hierarchy gives the club an inside track in the pursuit of their man. The Blues’ unlimited chequebook and star-studded squad has to appeal, and the club has proven in recent times that it has a little more patience with managerial appointments. There’s certainly a strong chance that a deal may already be in place.
Mourinho’s departure from the Blues, with Guardiola’s future set to be announced, could be coincidental or perfectly timed. Chelsea’s admiration is long-standing, with Roman Abramovich rumoured to have dreamt that his side might one day resemble the footballing beauty of Barcelona in Pep’s pomp.
However, the Chelsea job does not offer the stability of others – since 2004 no manager has lasted at the club more than three years, while nine coaches in eight seasons is something of an embarrassing track record.
The north Londoners represent a dark horse in this race. Guardiola’s attractive football, sense of style, and knowledge of culture and history fits well with Arsenal’s proposition. Arsene Wenger’s time at the club is surely winding down, and the Gunners would certainly consider making his retirement date official if it meant landing the Spaniard. Arsenal doesn’t possess the financial clout of other contenders, but it’s a club with a money-making new stadium, while the new Premier League TV deal offers incredible spending power. Guardiola’s probable departure from Munich could have come at the perfect time.
Despite the debate about United’s incumbent manager and playing squad, almost anyone with an opinion on the situation agrees that the club has its share of problems. Rumours about the Dutchman’s future are rife, and there is no doubt that Van Gaal is under serious pressure to deliver results. Goals have dried up and the team is now without a win in the past five games.
Still, the club seems to be standing by the manager and is prepared to back him in the market in January. Yet, a growing section of the fanbase has already turned on Van Gaal and, if rumours are true, so have some in his playing squad.
Players are physically exhausted by the training regime, whilst some feel their talents are stifled by Van Gaal’s tactics. Ed Woodward has briefed that the club is prepared to back him with continued spending, but with every passing result the value of the investment in such bland performances comes into question.
Woodward has also briefed that he believes Guardiola’s future is already determined – one factor, perhaps, why the club is backing Van Gaal so strongly. Yet, with Carlo Ancelotti, Mourinho and potentially Guardiola on the market this summer, the club has some forward thinking to undertake if it is serious about progressing back into the élite.
Guardiola would certainly improve on the foundations the Dutchman has created. The Spaniard’s football would be a vast improvement, while Pep offers the promise of attracting high-calibre players.
Van Gaal’s progress has been slower than expected, albeit through a significant rebuild. But the club would surely be remiss not to consider the future. The right decision isn’t always clear, but to many Guardiola’s capture represents a no brainer.
Van Gaal has been a terrific manager over the past quarter-century; Guardiola is an upgrade.United cannot afford to miss out on his services for a second time.
Louis van Gaal’s reshaped side is ahead of schedule, topping the table domestically and having secured the first Champions League win of the campaign, but few inside the camp will be carried away at this stage. After all, the Dutchman’s Manchester United side faces six tough games before October is out; four away from Old Trafford’s comforts. It is a period that will not decide the success or failure of the campaign ahead, but will certainly shape it.
United’s visit to Arsenal this Sunday is followed by a trip to Everton after the international break, CSKA Moscow away, and then the derby with Manchester City at home. The squad completes a challenging month with games against Middlesbrough in the Capital One Cup and then an away trip to Crystal Palace. The solution, says Van Gaal is “recovery, recovery, recovery.”
Van Gaal’s squad enjoyed a hard-earned win over Wolfsburg in the Champions League on Wednesday, leaving his squad with 24 hours less recovery than Arsenal. The Gunners lost in morale-sapping style to Olympiakos at the Emirates on Tuesday night. Still, the first points of the European campaign add to a growing sense of momentum at Old Trafford – victories and goals have been flowing of late, with Antony Martial’s integration into the side adding a genuine catalyst to United’s attacking play.
The Frenchman failed to score against Wolfsburg, but put in another convincing display at number nine, leading the Reds’ attacking line and stretching play in a fashion that Wayne Rooney has failed to do this season. The United captain was poor against the German side; one more underwhelming display in a pattern this season. Yet, while Van Gaal may well refresh a tired side, Rooney is certain to start at the Emirates.
Rooney at least has a good record against Arsenal. He scored his first Premier League goal in October 2002, his first league goal for United two years later, and his 100th Premier League goal in January 2010 – all against Arsenal.
Rooney played the full 90 against Wolfsburg, at match in which Van Gaal’s side was forced to hang on for much of the final quarter of the game. The Dutchman blamed it on tiredness, although a rash of substitutions seemed to inhibit United’s outlook.
“The solution is recovery, recovery, recovery,” said Van Gaal on Friday. “That is why it’s so difficult to prepare for the match against Arsenal. As a manager, you want to prepare on the pitch and you cannot do it because you need freshness of the players, so then there’s also another solution – to change your squad.
“So we have to see how the evaluation is from my fatigue specialist. I cannot tell that because the press conference is one day after the match. Tomorrow, they have a day off because they’ve already had two weeks with no day off. We have to wait and see for Saturday and then I can make decisions.”
“Arsenal have one day more recovery but it’s also about the shape on the day because we are human beings and are not always at the highest level so that’s also important.”
Meanwhile, Arsenal must recover from a 3-2 defeat at home in the Champions League this week, which puts the Gunners chances of progress in real jeopardy. Arsene Wenger’s side also lost to Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia on matchday one and face Bayern Munich twice in a double-header over the next month. In the league, Wenger’s team has been similarly inconsistent, having lost twice in the opening seven games of the campaign.
Still, Van Gaal makes no secret of his admiration for Arsenal’s style of play, if not the club’s relative lack of silverware over the past decade.
“I think Arsenal are one of the best teams in the league, in a technical and tactical sense – maybe the best. I like the way they play,” Van Gaal told MUTV. “Nevertheless, they haven’t won so much so you have to look for that improvement with their team.
“We played a very lucky game at the Emirates last season. I believe Arsenal were better, but we were better in the game in the FA Cup and we lost. That’s football. You can lose even when you are the better team. We also drew at home so that shows that we are equal more or less. Arsenal is a very good team with individual players from a high level, I think.”
Luck or otherwise, United remains unbeaten in the past four away matches against Arsenal, although the club has never gone five without a loss away to the Gunners in the Premier League. Still, this is a fixture the Reds enjoy: Arsenal’s win rate of 24 per cent against United in the Premier League is the club’s lowest versus any team in the competition. And Van Gaal has lost just one of his five meetings with Arsene Wenger – in the FA Cup last season.
It all points to a positive United performance on Sunday.
“I think the balance in our selection is much better than last year,” adds Van Gaal. “But the most important thing is not only that I believe, but that the players are believing in that. When we win at Arsenal the belief will rise a lot.”
Team news and line-ups
Both sides are missing defenders for this fixture. United will be without Luke Shaw for the next six months, while Marcos Rojo is also out. Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny is missing with a hamstring injury, leaving Per Mertesacker to start alongside the youthful Gabriel Paulista. It is a weakness that Martial, in particular, will look to exploit.
The home side welcomes back Olivier Giroud following a Champions League suspension, but Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta are both out with injury. For United, Michael Carrick is fit again, but Ander Herrera in unlikely to feature. Carrick could come back into the side for Morgan Schneiderlin, while Ashley Young is putting pressure on the largely ineffective Memphis Depay, with the Dutchman having taken some time to settle at the club. Memphis’ place in the side may only be saved if Young is brought into the back-four.
Arsenal subs from: Ospina, Chambers, Debuchy, Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Campbell, Giroud.
United subs from: Romero, McNair, Pereira, Fellaini, Schneiderlin, Valencia, Wilson
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Assistants: J Brooks, L Betts
Fourth Official: R East
Arsenal 1-2 United
£1 bet club
Martial to score twice @ 15/1
Match graphic by @cole007
Europe it is then after Liverpool’s draw at Chelsea last weekend effectively sealed Manchester United’s position in next season’s Champions League; the Merseysiders’ home defeat to Crystal Palace on Saturday confirmed it. Louis van Gaal’s side is likely to finish fourth this season, although could yet sneak third should United defeat Arsenal at Old Trafford this weekend and the Gunners drop more points before the season concludes.
Fourth, says Van Gaal, was the target set for the campaign in a season that has ultimately proven more successful than last, although once again United will finish without silverware. Still, United’s return to the continent’s premier competition should enable the club to attract further talent this summer, with Van Gaal keen to rebalance a squad that has struggled to retain a core of fit players this year. Nor, it seems, enable the Dutchman to play a consistent formation each week.
In defence Van Gaal is seeking both an experienced central defender and a new right-back, while the club will also purchase a long-term replacement for the ageing Michael Carrick. Memphis Depay will add both assists and goals, but Van Gaal may also press his board for a new forward, with Wayne Rooney the club’s top scorer this season on just 14 goals.
By contrast Arsene Wenger’s side has been relatively free-scoring this season, with 16 more goals in the Premier League than United. It is a strike-rate that may just see Arsenal pip United to third place and avoid a mid-August European play-off.
Whatever the outcome, Van Gaal is keen to talk up a campaign of some progress, with United finishing at least three places ahead of last season’s dismal effort. With 68 points gained, Van Gaal’s team is four ahead of last season with two games to play.
“We sat together, myself and the board, and set the goal, which was to finish in the first four,” said Van Gaal on Friday.
“We have reached that two games before the end of the season, which is not bad I think. I think it was a big challenge. When I came here, there were a lot of players here and we have let go of 15 players and bought only five players.
“So, I think we did very good, but it is not good enough because, at the end, we want to be champions. Now we want to be third because that is still possible. We can put pressure on Arsenal. It is always tricky because we can say we have qualified ourselves for the Champions League, but it is not true. We have to play again before the entrance in the Champions League.”
Similarly, Wenger is keen to end any hope United retains of overtaking the Gunners. While Arsenal have regularly featured in the Champions League play-off round over the past decade, United hasn’t been forced to qualify for the group stage since beating Zalaegerszeg over two legs in 2002..
Wenger’s side holds a two-point lead over United with a game in hand. The north London side faces Sunderland and then West Bromwich Albion at home to finish the Premier League campaign, before taking on Aston Villa in the FA Cup final on 30 May. It is a run that should seal third place for the London outfit.
“It’s very important for your season preparations not to have that kind of stress of the play-off over your head from the first day you start again,” said Wenger.
“We know what it means and we know it’s always tricky, because you can play against teams who are in the middle of their championship when you are in preparation. It is the pressure and the consequences of not qualifying that are massive.”
On the pitch Van Gaal welcomes back Angel di Maria, Robin van Persie and Marcos Rojo, but the Dutchman is without a clutch of players including Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick, Rafael da Silva and Luke Shaw. The latter trio will not play again this season, while Rooney is at best an outside bet to make United’s final game of the campaign against Hull City next weekend.
Van Persie could start up front, though with his time at United running down Radamel Falcao is also pushing for a place. Van Gaal could push his Dutch compatriot into a deeper role or bring Di Maria into the side.
Meanwhile, Shaw has suffered a difficult season at Old Trafford, starting 18 games for United in all competitions, but missing out on more than 20 – mostly through minor injuries. The player is, says Van Gaal, approaching burn-out after playing in 35 Premier League games for Southampton last season and travelling to Brazil for the summer World Cup with England.
“He has over-crossed his limits this season. He’s 19-years-old – what do you expect? We have to protect him,” said Van Gaal, who wants the player to miss this summer’s European under-21 championships.
“You cannot avoid injuries like Rooney and Shaw because football is with physical resistance and also a little bit of luck, or you are unlucky maybe. In the second part of the season, I am satisfied. We have had in the first part of the season an average of 10 injuries a week and I could never line up the same team, so I’m happy with that now.”
By contrast Wenger boasts a largely fit squad, with only former Red Danny Welbeck missing out through injury. Welshman Aaron Ramsey returned to training on Friday and should feature.
The Reds haven’t lost at home to Arsenal in the Premier League since September 2006, winning six of seven fixtures in the process, although Arsenal won in Manchester in March, knocking United out of the FA Cup. Still, Van Gaal’s side boasts a strong home record this season despite losing to West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford a fortnight ago. Only Chelsea has secured more points at home this season and, despite a recent run of three successive defeats, Van Gaal’s side has won seven of its last eight league games at Old Trafford.
Wenger can point to a similar level of strength on the road, with his side picking up more points away from home than any side bar Premier League champions Chelsea. It is a record that owes much to Wenger’s decision to change the Londoners’ approach away from home to a more compact counter-attacking style. It should contrast well with United’s fervently patient – sometimes plodding – approach.
Indeed, Arsenal enjoyed a long unbeaten – at home and away – before Swansea City won at the Emirates on Monday night. It should make for a fascinating encounter even if, ultimately, it is a low key match.
United (4-1-4-1): De Gea; Valencia, Smalling, Rojo, Blind; Herrera; Herrera; Mata, Di Maria, Fellaini, Young; Van Persie
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Ospina; Bellerin, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Gibbs; Cazorla, Coquelin; Ramsey, Ozil, Sanchez; Giroud
United: Valdes, McNair, Evans, Jones, Blackett, Januzaj, Lingard, Wilson, Falcao
Arsenal: Szczesny, Chambers, Gabriel, Monreal, Arteta, Diaby, Flamini, Gnabry, Rosicky, Wilshere, Walcott
United 93 – Draw 48 – Arsenal 79
Referee: Mike Dean
Assistants: L Betts, S Long
Fourth Official: M Oliver
United 1 – 1 Arsenal
£1 bet club
Juan Mata to score first, 1-1 draw @ 45/1
Running total: £6.50 up
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Up for the cup? Manchester United’s FA Cup record in recent years suggests anything but. Now more than a decade since the club’s last victory in the world’s oldest tournament, manager Louis van Gaal says other priorities take precedent once again. Plus ça change each season for the past decade and more. Typically league and European titles take precedent; this time, with United in a five-way race for Champions League qualification, the Dutchman is insistent that the real prize is achieving fourth place in the Premier League.
The logic is sound, of course, as United simply cannot fail in pursuit of European football after missing out during David Moyes’ ill-fated reign. Not that, with just 10 games left in the league competition, the Reds’ schedule is packed and the players warrant a rest. In that the choice of cup glory and European qualification is far from mutually exclusive, although Van Gaal’s selection for Monday night’s fixture will say much for how the Dutchman is able to balance his priorities.
Still, this fixture stands for much even if it far from the first choice priority for United or Arsenal this season. This is, after all, the seventh time these clubs have met in the FA Cup since Arsene Wenger took charge of the Gunners in 1996 – and the 14th cup fixture between these sides overall.
There have been some modern classics too: United’s extra-time victory in the 1999 semi-final replay with that Ryan Giggs goal; Arsenal’s ill-deserved penalty shoot-out final win six years later; and United’s infamous 2-0 win at Old Trafford in 2011 in which Sir Alex Ferguson fielded seven defenders. The 2015 vintage may not match others for importance, but history says that drama is just as likely.
Still, with United facing a difficult March and April fixture list Van Gaal must find the balance between retaining fresh minds and bodies, and developing a sense of momentum that is so important as the season enters its final straight.
“Every match is just as important as the next, and every result can influence the next,” said Van Gaal on Friday.
“We are in a rat race in the Premier League and the Arsenal game is separate from that, but if we do well we would take the good feeling and confidence into our next games. Everywhere I have been I have always managed to win something in my first season, but the most important thing is the goal we have set, and that is the top four. If we do not achieve that we have failed.
“United and Arsenal are placed third and fourth in the league, so it’s almost like a final, I think. I think if we beat them it is a big blow for them, but if they beat us it is a big blow for us. It is very important game, not only for the FA Cup but also for the rat race.”
Van Gaal is fortunate to enjoy a largely fit squad, although striker Robin van Persie is again absent with an ankle injury. In the Dutchman’s stead misfiring Radamel Falcao should start.
Meanwhile, Jonny Evans begins the first of a six match suspension for allegedly spitting at Newcastle United’s Papiss Cissé last week. Luke Shaw could also miss out with injury, prompting United’s manager to deploy the 3-5-2 system that has only intermittently worked this season. In the young defender’s absence in-form winger Ashley Young could revert to left-wing-back.
Whatever the selection it remains unlikely United will be able capitalise on the strategy that has brought 11 victories from the past 15 matches against Arsenal: to outmuscle the north Londoners in midfield and seek opportunities to break at speed. After all, United’s lack of a combative midfielder and pace up front has characterised much of the season.
Meanwhile, the visitors are without new signing Gabriel Paulista who has a hamstring problem, although Wojciech Szczesny and Nacho Monreal return for the Gunners.
Wenger’s side has enjoyed victories over Everton and Queens Park Rangers since Monaco humiliated the north London side in the Champions League a fortnight ago. It represents a rapid return to form for a side that has secured eight victories from the past 10 league matches – and overtaken United in the race for European football in the process.
Despite the “rat race” for European places Wenger has much sympathy for his opposite number, with Van Gaal suffering an increasingly hostile media atmosphere during United’s inconsistent campaign.
“It’s like that,” said Wenger this week. “The rule is everyday you have to criticise somebody or you don’t sleep well overnight. Because we are in a public job, we have to accept that. It’s important you know well the players you have, and I believe that United are in construction, because they got many new players this year.”
Arsenal’s victory in the FA Cup last season represented the Frenchman’s first trophy in the decade since that 2005 final against United. Brief respite from circling critics. With Van Persie out of Monday’s tie Wayne Rooney is the sole survivor from a match that was decided on penalties after a scoreless 120 minutes.
“We have an FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal on Monday and that is massive for us,” Rooney told ManUtd.com. “We haven’t been to a final for a few years, we want to try to win that game. It is a massive trophy. It is a trophy that, growing up as a youngster, I used to love watching and I was fortunate enough to see Everton lift the FA Cup in 1995 when I was nine years old. It is something which I would love to do.”
In historical terms the past decade is lean, with the clubs participating in 36 finals between them and winning 11 FA Cups each over the past 150 years. Not that United’s recent record against the north Londonders is poor: the Reds have not conceded in the past four cup games against Arsenal, while United has lost just once in the past 15 matches against Wenger’s side.
Van Gaal, meanwhile, hopes that his side stretches that record to 16. He just wants Champions League qualification a little bit more.
United (3-4-3): De Gea; Jones, Smalling, Rojo; Valencia, Blind, Herrera, Young; Rooney, Falcao, Di Maria
Arsenal (4-3-3): Szczesny; Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Coquelin, Ramsey, Cazorla; Özil, Giroud, Sánchez
United: Valdes, Lindegaard, Rafael, McNair, James, Fellaini, Blackett, Januzaj, Wilson
Arsenal: Ospina, Monreal, Rosicky, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Chambers, Martinez, Welbeck
United 93 – Draw 48 – Arsenal 78
Referee: Michael Oliver
Assistant Referees: Jake Collin & Gary Beswick
Fourth Official: Craig Pawson
United 2-1 Arsenal
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Wayne Rooney to score the winning goal @ 5/1
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Manchester United’s bench said much. The list of those who didn’t feature speaks even louder. Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj – three of United’s most technically gifted players – were used for not a second of the Reds’ diligent 2-1 victory over Arsenal on Saturday night. This was Louis van Gaal’s first win on the road this season; it also came in a manner that the Dutchman has rejected for much of his career.
The veteran coach has long been more than a tactical innovator or training ground dictator. For the best part of 25 years Van Gaal has been a man firmly wedded, if not to any one tactical system, then a “philosophy” built on front-foot-forward possession-based attacking football. After this summer’s World Cup, and United’s smash-and-grab at the Emirates, it is tempting to conclude that there is a philosophy no longer. The Iron Pragmatist.
In Brazil Van Gaal’s late decision to implement a system based on three central defenders was controversial in his homeland, but drew nothing like the ire aimed at the Netherland’s sober ideology. In the spiritual home of o jogo bonito Dutch anti-football took a limited side all the way to the semi-final. Very little of it was beautiful as Netherland’s conceded possession and sought to attack on the break.
Similarly in north London United enjoyed just 38 per cent of the ball, while Arsenal created almost double the number of chances. Arséne Wenger called it “one way traffic” as United aimed to do little more than defend in numbers and then attack at pace through Wayne Rooney and Angel Di Maria. It wasn’t until Rooney’s 85th minute breakaway goal that United finally got a shot on target. José Mourinho couldn’t have done it better.
Few in the travelling camp were concerned with United’s style in the aftermath though. Amid a chaotic past 18 months expectations have been firmly reset both in the stands and the dugout. Points matter most even if style and victory are never mutually exclusive. Here, not for the first time it should be said, United was prepared to let the Gunners hog the ball while the Reds kept an eye firmly on the result. Little wonder Van Gaal was absolutely delighted with the outcome. So were 3,000 raucous away supporters.
“It was a fantastic result,” said Van Gaal on Saturday evening. “We had a lot of injuries and in spite of that we have won. In an away match, it is very difficult. Arsenal are a very good team, an attacking team and that I knew in advance. That is why I chose this strategy and at the end I can laugh, but at the same time, you can imagine that if Arsenal could have scored one of the four or five chances in the first half then maybe this would have been another game.”
Indeed, United’s back-three of Chris Smalling, Tyler Blackett and Patrick McNair appeared anything but a unit for much of the opening half. If Van Gaal had drilled the new system into the trio over the past four day’s training little showed on the pitch. It was period in which former Red Danny Welbeck and midfielder Jack Wilshere should each have scored for the home side, possibly placing the tie out of United’s reach long before half-time.
Arsenal’s profligacy cost the hosts, but as the match wore on it was United that increasingly gained control even if Arsenal continued to monopolise possession. Ridiculous though it might have been, as Di Maria raced clear seeking to score United’s third, the only shock was the inevitability of it all.
“We weathered the storm, especially in the first half, and then we knew we could hit them on the counter attack,” said Rooney.
“We knew they were vulnerable on the break and we did that. Our goalkeeper was fantastic but we hit them with two good goals. We knew we had to get as many players into the defence as we could and we did that by putting five at the back. We also knew we had the legs on the break, which we saw to good effect in the second half.”
Yet, for much of the past two decades Van Gaal has preached a philosophy of victory with style; the Dutch school codified only for local tastes at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Amid all the silverware the 62-year-old has claimed, very little of it was secured at the hands of pragmatism.
Even in north London this was a brand of prudent football in the extreme. United’s defensive injury crisis is profound – Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Rafael da Silva and Jonny Evans missed the trip south – but there is no shortage of attacking talent. Mata, Januzaj and Herrera sat on the bench; a trio that would have offered greater midfield control than United enjoyed on Saturday. In fact the Spanish duo now seem further away from Van Gaal’s preferred team than at any point this season.
But there is little argument to brook with the result. Van Gaal, as he claimed post-match, was completely right. Yet, in the wider picture Saturday’s performance also recalls a question about Van Gaal’s long-term plan for United. Is this the Dutchman of old in crisis mode, choosing to eek out results despite himself, or has the attacking zeal seeped away with the pressure bearing down at Old Trafford?
“We have to wait and see,” concluded the Dutchman. “It is the first away victory so the players were very excited in the dressing room but it is only one victory. We have to confirm that with victories in the next two games that we play at home.”
Those fixtures, against Hull City and Stoke City should bring a further six points and with it five Premier League victories on the spin. That’s momentum whatever United’s style and a genuine platform on which to build. Confidence, at a low ebb for months, now means so much.
Beyond the immediacy of victory, however, there is a rich attacking tradition at United that one suspects Van Gaal would like to emulate, even if Sir Alex Ferguson’s latter years and then David Moyes did much to airbrush the mystique. Van Gaal’s legend says he is at one with 130 years of United’s history. The past six months have demonstrated something very different. One will win out before the Dutchman leaves Manchester.
“If it wasn’t for bad luck,” penned Stax singer William Bell, “I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” It is, surely, a sentiment that resonates with Louis van Gaal. His squad has been decimated by injuries for much of the season, and yet the recent international break has brought little but further cause for concern. It is an annoyance that has become the story of a campaign. Yet, Manchester United’s opponents this season can point to a similar narrative – one that boasts attacking riches, including former Red Danny Welbeck, striving to find the right balance amid defensive chaos.
Van Gaal’s side travels to north London this weekend having lost Daley Blind during the break, while Michael Carrick, Luke Shaw, David de Gea and Angel di Maria must overcome relatively minor injuries to feature at the Emirates. Planning? Van Gaal can do little at all. Not least with much of the Dutchman’s first choice defence on the sidelines again this weekend. Neither Phil Jones, Rafael da Silva nor Jonny Evans are ready for first team action.
Meanwhile, striker Radamel Falcao will only resume full training on Sunday, with United admitting this week that the Columbian had not yet fully recovered from a calf injury.
“It’s difficult to say if anyone is back because we have to wait for tomorrow’s training session to decide if players are coming back,” admitted van Gaal.
“But the players are not coming back in the squad – that’s a different thing. My philosophy is that you have to train at least one week with the squad, but better two. But if you see our circumstances, we maybe have to bring players back to the squad early.
“Di Maria has trained today normally, but Shaw is a question mark. David De Gea is good, no problem. I think Michael Carrick I have to wait for the reactions tomorrow in the training session, but I expect also that he’s ready to play. Blind is not ready to play. He has now a brace on his knee, 10 days’ rest, then we have to make another scan and we can say more about his injury.”
Still, with United having regularly changed up not only personnel this season, but tactics, it is little wonder the side lacks consistency above all. There is talent in abundance, but the application seemingly changes from week to week. With United far from boasting a full complement of players Van Gaal may find little in the way of consistency this side of Christmas.
That the Reds remain in the hunt for Champions League qualification next season owes much to the volatility of others, not least Arséne Wenger’s side. The Gunners spent heavily once again in the summer, signing Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona and United’s own Welbeck. Yet, the Frenchman’s blindspot in defensive midfield and central defence seemingly continues; an achilles heal that has already eliminated Arsenal from the title race.
In defence Wenger has been without Laurent Koschielny for much of the campaign, leaving Per Mertesacker too frequently exposed alongside teenager Callum Chambers or left-back turned stopper Nacho Monreal. Little wonder the north Londoners have conceded winning positions to the tune of nine points this season.
In better news for the hosts, the French coach welcomes back countryman Olivier Giroud, who has recovered from a broken leg, while Mikel Arteta has also overcome a hamstring problem. However with Theo Walcott and Mezut Özil still out, Wenger is left to rue absences at both ends of the field.
Despite Giroud’s return former Red Welbeck will start unless a minor hamstring problem picked up on international duty intervenes. Welbeck has scored five times for the Gunners this season, while earning praise from his new manager for the progression made over the past five months. Welbeck appeared 142 times for United, although only 90 from the start, and far fewer in a central striking role.
Indeed, the move south, says Wenger, is the opportunity the 23-year-old needed in a career that has often stalled. It says something that United has missed the Longsight-born player with Robin Van Persie out-of-form, Falcao injured and Wayne Rooney yet to replicate international form for his club.
“I always respected Danny and I always felt that he had a great future” said Wenger this week.
“What he has achieved in the last few months has certainly allowed him to gain more respect, especially for the English national team as well – he’s now one of the main players in the national team.
“You can take every challenge in a positive way and that’s what Danny did. Louis van Gaal had not had Welbeck under his command for a long time, and it’s always very difficult to know the players well when you see them for three or four weeks. Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie have an exceptional goalscoring record – he had two quality players in front of him. What he needed was a chance.”
Welbeck remains a player to divide United’s support though, generating fierce loyalty from those who respect the talent and local-hero status, and criticism for a record that did not proffer enough goals from a striker of international standing.
“He is a Manchester lad so it is weird seeing him but that’s football and players move on,” Rooney told MUTV.
“I think, for Danny, and for his own personal career, it was probably the best move for him. He’s done great and scored a few goals and is playing well. Danny gives you what he always gives you – a good shift. He works hard for the team. At times, as I said to him, he works a bit too hard but he’s scoring goals and he’s doing well.”
It is a workrate that will certainly test United’s make-shift defence; one in which Chris Smalling and Tyler Blackett will likely be paired in the centre. If Shaw fails to make the starting team, Van Gaal may be forced to field Antonio Valencia and Reece James as emergency full-backs. It is a scenario that may just require a turn in luck if the Reds are to secure any points by Saturday night.
Then again, United has lost just one of the last 14 matches against Arsenal in all competitions. While Van Gaal was quick to praise “the way they play,” United’s coach will not have forgotten the robust approach Sir Alex Ferguson took to these fixtures. In contrast to Van Gaal it is, perhaps, not luck but a bad sign that Wenger must curse.
Arsenal (4-1-4-1): Szczesny; Chambers, Mertesacker, Monreal, Gibbs; Flamini; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilshere, Sanchez, Carzorla; Welbeck
United (4-2-3-1): de Gea; Valencia, Smalling, Blackett, Shaw; Herrera, Fellaini; Januzaj, Rooney, Di Maria; Van Persie
Arsenal: Martínez, Bellerín, Arteta, Rosicky, Ramsey, Podolski, Campbell, Akpom, Sanogo, Giroud
United: Lindegaard, McNair, James, Janko,Fletcher, Carrick, Anderson, Mata, Wilson
Arsenal 78 – Draw 48 – United 92
Referee: Mike Dean
Assistants: J Collin, D England
Fourth Official: M Jones
Arsenal 1-1 United
£1 bet club
Danny Welbeck to score the first goal @ 9/2
Running total: £(-)11
Perhaps it is a bit too early to write about the upcoming game against Arsenal. If Manchester United’s recent injury woes are anything to go by, there is good chance that key Reds will not make it to the Emirates after the international break. Still, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal has a distinct style and weaknesses that come with it; a tactician as keen as Louis van Gaal will certain try to exploit them.
This season United has been troubled by constant injuries to defenders, but Arsenal’s threat is one that even the current weakened United defence can cope with. Danny Welbeck is in a poor patch of form, despite scoring six times this season, and Paddy McNair, who handled the stylistically similar Romelu Lukaku well, should match the former United striker.
Alexis Sanchez, who has already scored eight goals this season, is a worry though. Van Gaal’s preference for a high line has left United vulnerable to quick balls over the top and Sanchez has the legs to punish the Reds. Rafael da Silva’s injury has put Antonio Valencia at right back of late and the Ecuadorian’s conservatism should negate at least some of Sanchez’s explosiveness down Arsenal’s left wing.
United’s midfield has not been functioning to its full potential, but it now boasts some quality at least. Perhaps, enough quality to match and exceed Arsenal’s midfield. Still, counter-attacking has always been productive against Arsenal and the pragmatic Van Gaal will probably choose that a similar strategy next weekend.
Arsenal’s standing weakness has been its dogged adherence to the passing game. Many teams have exposed the London side by pressing heavily and United, for the first time in five years or so, has the midfield to challenge Arsenal in the centre of the park. Ander Herrera, should he play, could be key due to his pace and aggression.
Mathieu Flamini, Arsenal’s holding midfielder, is highly similar to Danny Blind in that the Frenchman is slow and relies more on positional awareness than tackling. In this Angel di Maria’s forays into central areas could be influential. Unlike Blind, though, Flamini has a notable weakness in the air – he has attempted less than two headers per game so far – and Maroune Fellaini and/or Wayne Rooney could prove crucial should Van Gaal choose a more direct approach.
Another of the Gunners’ weaknesses is in defence. The summer acquisition, Mathieu Debuchy, has been laid off with an ankle injury, while first choice centre back Laurent Koscielny also set to miss the clash with United next Saturday.
In fact Per Mertesacker is the only Arsenal defender to have played with any regularity this season. It is, however, no coincidence that he is the only Arsenal defender to have played in all of Arsenal’s draws and losses this season. Perhaps due to his lack of pace, the German has only attempted 1.5 tackles per game this season. Mertesacker has also made a meagre 2.6 interceptions per game. Both figures are roughly half of Koscielny’s. This is indicative of a player rooted to the penalty box. With Flamini unlikely to come to rescue, and saddled with an inexperienced partner, Mertesacker will concede a lot of ground to United’s forwards.
It is an observation that Robin van Persie, in particular, should enjoy. Despite scoring three goals, Van Persie has come in for much criticism this season. He has suffered several sub-par games, but the suspicion is that Ramadel Falcao’s presence, or the lack there of, is adding to the weight of criticism. It is evident that Van Persie no longer has the dynamism that Falcao offers and one cannot help but wonder whether di Maria and others are being hindered from the lack of movement United’s lone forward now offers.
Indeed, Van Gaal’s shift to a 4-1-4-1 system has greatly hindered Van Persie, and by extension United, by isolating the Dutchman. Di Maria has been forced wide with little support and the Argentinian’s inherent profligacy has come to the fore.
Herrera’s return, with his dynamism, should help but the time is nigh for the diamond to be re-introduced. Arsenal offers little threat from out wide so the narrowness inherent in this formation is not be an issue. Di Maria will always have two strikers to chase his through balls and United will outnumber the Gunners in the middle – always a key area at the Emirates.
Crucially, injuries to defenders may dictate Blind plays as centre back again. Unless van Gaal chooses the brave option by playing Tyler Blackett alongside Mcnair, United will be short of a proper defensive midfielder, with Michael Carrick also injured. Thus deploying four through centre midfield becomes a defensive necessity.
Then there is the fact that Mertesacker is Aresenal’s most prolific passer this season. This is reflective of Arsenal’s tendency to play out from the back. United’s commitment to pressing this season could force a mistake or two in north London. Van Persie is unlikely to be a constant nuisance to Mertesacker, whereas Falcao will be if fit. The Colombian has also created two assists this season by drifting into wide areas and the his lateral movement should stretch an already vulnerable Arsenal defence.
There is, of course, no guarantee that Falcao will be ready the game given his injury problems. There are other options though. Adnan Januzaj has been frequently considered a forward by Van Gaal and the recent Golden Boy nominee could partner Van Persie up top. Another, and possibly more likely, option is James Wilson’s introduction. The academy graduate has already been trusted, albeit as a substitute, in big games.
Van Gaal is too canny a manager not to have held the entire season in mind when he became boss at Old Trafford. The 3-4-1-2 system that started the season quickly became a 4-4-2 diamond, and although the make-up of that midfield shape has changed, the narrow formation persisted. It suggests that van Gaal sees four in midfield as a necessity. It certainly makes sense against Arsenal.
Graphic from LineupBuilder.com