José Mourinho’s side never recovered from October’s international break, or more specifically, autumn’s momentum was shattered as the Portuguese sent his high-flying team out to defend at Anfield on 14 October. In the interim Mourinho’s side has failed to convince in any of the six league and cup fixtures since the bore draw on Merseyside. Victory over Tottenham Hotspur was hard-won, but defeats to Huddersfield Town and Chelsea have left United well off the Premier League pace. As November’s break comes to a close, the Reds face 13 fixtures between now and the end of the year. It’s a period that won’t make United’s season, but it could certainly break it.
This season represents many things, some of which might be unrepeatable on these pages. For all the negative and frustrating moments over the past few months, it is also a season that represents another Manchester United attempt at lifting a European title. This Wednesday offers United a unique opportunity to add a trophy that, for better or worse, has eluded a burgeoning cabinet thus far. Europa League victory might well represent the ‘bare minimum’ this season, but would help José Mourinho achieve his season’s goal of returning to the Champions League.
It’s been a lean year in Manchester. Whether Red or Sky Blue, struggles abound in England’s North-West. Rivals for more than a century, the Premier League’s two most financially powerful clubs share the common trait of suffering through on-the-field issues that are not easily fixed. For all the money on show neither side seems capable of buying its way up the table, nor capturing fourth place and with it the Champions League.
How Manchester United fans have missed that feeling: late winning goals in huge fixtures such as the FA Cup semi-final. Anthony Martial’s superb winner against Everton on Saturday has granted the 11-times FA Cup winners another final appearance in May; a chance for a first FA Cup trophy since 2004. It begs the obvious question: if United secures the cup, and potentially fourth place in the Premier League, does Louis van Gaal have a future at Old Trafford after all?
What does Manchester United stand for? The United way. The Arsenal way. The Liverpool way. It is one of the most recognisable clichés in the colourful vocabulary of the football fan. Bandied around in equal measure both in times of prosperity and hardship; supporters will either revel joyously in witnessing the game being played “our way”, or pine for its return amid periods of despair.
Its usage often extends no further than being an attempt to distinguish ones club from another, to establish a stylistic superiority over a perceived inferior rival. Yet, despite becoming a somewhat platitudinous statement, it remains vitally important to fans. And rightly so.
The sheer longevity and success of Sir Alex Ferguson’s 26 year reign at Old Trafford has allowed United to establish this identity in a way seldom witnessed elsewhere. It is not uncommon for the words “empire” or “dynasty” to be used liberally when describing Ferguson’s tenure, and it is because of that unrivalled sense of self that he developed within the club that its sudden disintegration has been all the more pronounced.
It is telling that the biggest critics of Louis van Gaal’s increasingly vague philosophy are those who formed the backbone of the Ferguson era. Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Roy Keane, Rio Ferdinand – these were the players who brought their manager’s vision to life on the pitch, and as much as their negativity has become repetitive, it clearly pains the quartet to watch the club’s ethos fade away.
However, the identity crisis that has now enveloped the club had taken root before Van Gaal, or even David Moyes, arrived. In his twilight years, Ferguson infamously allowed United’s midfield to fall into alarming disrepair, overseeing the departure of Paul Pogba, whilst the likes of Anderson continued to command a considerable wage.
It is also easy to forget that in the final few seasons under the legendary Scot that, despite reaching a Champions League final in 2011, the quality of football on display bore little resemblance to his two truly great sides that won the competition in 1999 and 2008. The euphoria of a 20th league title in 2013 papered over cracks that had been visible for some time. Crucially, though, the drop in the overall calibre of play never precipitated an abandonment of United’s attacking principles.
But Ferguson did choose Moyes as his successor. It was a decision that will be analysed, dissected and analysed again for years to come – forever remembered as the moment that catalysed a chain of events leading United into this period of depressing uncertainty. Perhaps Ferguson saw something of himself in Moyes, a Glaswegian who had paid his dues at Everton over an extended period. It was a romantic notion, but ultimately a misguided one.
Moyes proved woefully inadequate in carrying on the traditions laid down by his illustrious predecessor. Sacked within a year, the idea that he should have been afforded time to grow into the role holds little credibility. Had the former Everton boss maintained even a mildly acceptable standard during his disastrous nine months at the helm then perhaps he would have been deserving of some patience – a seventh place finish fell way below that particular threshold.
It is arguable that achieving the minimum standard is perhaps the only area that currently distinguishes Van Gaal from Moyes. The Dutchman has, to use the phrase of the moment, “steadied the ship”. The issue with that particular analogy is that the majority of United fans have never known their side to be a steady ship, nor do they want it to be. The terraces are used to accompanying their team on swashbuckling adventures, not meandering listlessly from match to match.
Yes, it is undeniable that United needed a period of stabilisation post-Moyes, but a manager of Van Gaal’s pedigree should be providing so much more than is currently on offer. For a man so obsessed with the idea of philosophy, he has shown little regard for the identity of the club that entrusted him with the task of self-rediscovery.
Some have argued that Van Gaal is simply making do with the inadequate tools at his disposal, deploying a conservative system to compensate for the deficiencies in the squad. But is that really an acceptable defence considering the money that has been spent on new players since the Dutchman’s arrival? Despite that eye-watering financial outlay, Van Gaal’s United continues to play a woefully uninspiring brand of football.
Blooding youngsters, such as Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira, is spoilt by the bizarre treatment of others – Adnan Januzaj and James Wilson. United have lacked a player of Januzaj’s directness, and although he would likely be no more than a backup, the lack of goals being scored makes Wilson’s loan move to Brighton & Hove Albion seem more than a little odd.
By all accounts, Van Gaal’s methods encourage a rigid, mechanical style of play – completely at odds with everything that is held traditional at Old Trafford. It is futile to continue longing for the halcyon days under Fergie, as his like will never be seen again, but it is not unreasonable to expect continuity of attacking traditions that he established.
Instead, Van Gaal has become so fixated with dominating possession that scoring a goal has almost become an afterthought. The result has been an exasperating volume of goalless draws, a somewhat alien concept to United fans. The style of play appears the very antithesis of supporters’ perception of the “United way”, and there is a distinct impression that the fluctuating results would be less exasperating if there was simply some modicum of entertainment.
Furthermore, many players simply do not seem suited to Van Gaal’s formulaic approach. Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Anthony Martial and Memphis Depay will likely never adapt fully to the robotic style of play. It is obviously not in that quartet’s nature and together they possess enough talent that it seems folly to ask them to play in such a fashion.
Whether these players are truly capable of re-establishing United as an attacking force remains to be seen, yet they deserve to at least to have their shackles removed and be permitted to follow more natural attacking instincts once more.
Van Gaal brought United back from the brink of meltdown last season, and for that he should be commended, but for a club of this stature that alone is not enough. There has been a smouldering dissatisfaction among the support this season, tempered only by the club’s promising league position.
However, the disastrous Champions League exit in Wolfsburg has fanned flames of frustration – at just how unrecognisable United has become. Defeat at Bournemouth on Saturday has exacerbated this sentiment. Ironically, the fire that Van Gaal must now surely notice rising steadily beneath him may only be extinguished by throwing his safety first approach out of the window.
In a relatively short space of time United have become a club that has lost sight of itself. The longer the identity crisis continues the harder from which it will be to recover. The “United way” risks becoming nothing more than a memory.
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.
The campaign’s start could not have been more inauspicious. Defeat at PSV Eindhoven on Champions League matchday one proved painful in more ways than one. It was Louis van Gaal’s first return to his homeland since taking over at Manchester United; and the night on which Luke Shaw’s right leg was snapped crudely in two by Hector Moreno’s reckless challenge. Read More
Should Manchester United fail to score against a CSKA Moscow in the Champions League on Tuesday night it will be the first time in 23 years that the club has gone four games without a goal. Louis van Gaal surely has no wish to join David Moyes in securing ‘the wrong kind’ of club record post- Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
The Dutchman, who has been the subject of increased scrutiny over his team’s style since United limped to a third goalless draw in succession on Saturday, says that “the players, the manager and the staff” are working hard to install the attacking football demanded by ever more frustrated supporters.
Yet, there are no guarantees against a CSKA side that is now on a 21-game unbeaten streak in domestic competition, albeit a period in which the Russia side lost at VfL Wolfsburg on Champions League match-day one and in the away-leg of the qualifying round at Sporting Lisbon.
Still, Leonid Slutsky’s team remains in good form coming into match-day four. CSKA drew at Terek Grozny and then beat FC Ufa since United’s 1-1 draw in Moscow two weeks ago. In between Van Gaal’s side has, with must consternation, failed to score against Middlesbrough, Manchester City and Crystal Palace.
Indeed, United registered just one shot on target at Palace – Wayne Rooney’s limp free kick – and made just three opportunities from open play. It is a pattern that Van Gaal claims his team is ready to break.
“Until now there is always progress. I can remind you of the fact that you were saying, “Defending, defending, that is the problem,” said Van Gaal on Monday
“Now we are the best defenders of the Premier League, you are saying that we cannot attack. No, it is not true. It is only a moment in the process. We have stood first in the Premier League. Now we have a bad period because it is a bad period when you do not score goals. You have to score goals because that makes the difference.
“I hope that we shall score against CSKA Moscow. But I know that it is very difficult because they are very organised. They shall play more defensively than Crystal Palace for example. So it shall be very difficult but still we try to score goals.”
Despite United’s struggles in front of goal, Van Gaal is not yet ready to drop his captain, with Rooney having scored just six this season – four of Rooney’s goals came against Club Brugge and Ipswich Town. Rooney’s movement, first touch and attacking penetration were once against questionable during United’s draw in South London, although Van Gaal says that the 30-year-old “gives us more than only scoring goals.”
“He is our captain but also an example for the whole team,” said Van Gaal. “He has more credits than any other player. I have explained that to the group already, one and a half years ago. I still have confidence in Wayne Rooney.”
It means that French striker Anthony Martial is once again likely to be deployed from the left, while his manager also talked up the prospect of using the teenager on the right in future games. Martial scored in Moscow – a fine diving header to equalise – but it remains his only goal during a seven-game period in which Van Gaal has shunted the former Monaco player out to the wing.
Meanwhile, Slutsky’s team is looking to pick up its first result on the road in this season’s Champions League in what is proving to be a four-way competition for qualification from Group B. The Russian side has developed an effective counter-attacking game and is likely to sit deep at Old Trafford, using the pace of Ivorian striker Seydou Doumbia, together with Ahmed Musa and former Red Zoran Tosic, on the break.
“Manchester United are Manchester United,” said Slutsky. “They remain a club of top quality. This team is obviously very good with possession so we will play a counter-attacking game. When a team has players like Juan Mata, Anthony Martial, Wayne Rooney and so on, they can score at any time and against any opponent so their recent blanks don’t provide much comfort.”
After the past fortnight’s games United’s supporters may not hold the same level of confidence. Still, it is in fans’ support that Van Gaal believes his side will find the confidence to attack on Tuesday. At the weekend more than 3,000 travelling supporters chanted the name of Van Gaal’s recent critic, Paul Scholes, while urging the team to “attack, attack, attack.”
The Dutchman’s team will need to find the front-foot on Tuesday, lest the mini-rebellion instigated at Selhurst Park, should spread to Old Trafford.
“We have had a dip in our results and we have to come out of that dip,” van Gaal admitted. “That’s why we need the support of the fans. I hope, in spite of a lot of discussions, they shall support my players. The fans have always done that and I hope they will be the 12th player tomorrow again.”
Team news and line-ups
Van Gaal is unlikely to offer Rooney a rest, despite the forward being one of the few players who has not been rotated this season. Would the Dutchman consider changing this policy to take his captain out of the limelight for a week? Perhaps, although not this week.
“I have done that for all my players,” Van Gaal replied. “For example, Paddy McNair had a week in Ireland last week. When we think it is for the best, I will do that. It is not a big issue for me because even when I was a very young trainer-coach I did it with Jari Litmanen. It is more a big issue for the players; they are not so easy to convince.”
Elsewhere, Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young may be competing for one place in Van Gaal’s side. In defence Phil Jones is available after sitting out games against Middlesbrough and Palace, while Matteo Darmian will start at right-back only if Antonio Valencia remains injured.
Meanwhile, Memphis Depay has not been selected for Tuesday’s squad. The £31 million forward was also dropped by a highly critical Dutch national coach Danny Blind this week, with the 54-year-old questioning Memphis’ value as a ‘team player’.
“Every player needs a boost when he is out of the team and Memphis is not an exception,” added Van Gaal. “The consequence of not being in the national selection is because he is not playing that well. It is always the same – a player always has to perform well, otherwise there will be other players compared and the coach will make a choice.”
CSKA defender Aleksei Berezutski and midfielder Roman Eremenko are both doubtful for the Russian side.
United subs from: Romero, Blind, Pereira, Tuanzebe, Carrick, Fellaini, Herrera, Valencia, Lingard
CSKA subs from: Chepchugov, Nababkin, Chernov, Cauņa, Milanov, Golovin, Makarov
Match officials (POL)
Referee: Szymon Marciniak
Assistant referees: Paweł Sokolnicki, Tomasz Listkiewicz
Additional assistant referees: Paweł Raczkowski, Tomasz Musiał
Fourth official: Radosław Siejka (POL)
United 1-0 CSKA