Louis van Gaal’s project at Manchester United has managed to show some improvement this season, exhibiting more coherent performances, and slightly better numbers in the Premier League. However, the Red Devils’ ambitions took a huge blow this Tuesday as the team got knocked out in the group stages of the Champions League.
At Volkswagen Arena, Manchester United managed to open the scoring in the early minutes of the match against Wolfsburg. However, defensive mistakes and poor finishing eventually led to a 3-2 loss.
With zero points to show for their last group match, Manchester United finished the group stage with eight points, and were overtaken in second place of Group B by PSV Eindhoven, who simultaneously managed a turnaround 2-1 win at CSKA Moscow.
Fans will surely be disappointed by their team’s elimination; however, perhaps they might be even more worried by their side’s performance. Manchester United looked shaky in defense and, despite creating several good-looking chances toward the dying minutes of the match, never looked like a strong offensive force, particularly for a team that had nothing to lose.
“We created a bunch of chances. Unfortunately we didn’t score. The goalkeeper got a great save; the defenders as well,” midfielder Marouane Fellaini told Fox Sports after the match.
In defense of van Gaal’s men, it is important to note that the team had a few important absences for the game against Wolfsburg. Particularly, forward Wayne Rooney and midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin – two of the pillars of the current system – who were unavailable due to injury.
As a result, Fellaini had to be played outside of position in a central midfielder role. While the Belgian provides an essential offensive threat for Manchester when playing closer to the opponent’s box, when tied by defensive responsibilities in the middle of the park, he becomes not only a much-less effective player, but also a liability for his team.
Fellaini struggled throughout the match to provide clean, organized balls to his teammates, as well as to backtrack in order to cover some of Wolfsburg’s attacking zones. And without Schneiderlin or Michael Carrick (on the bench throughout most of the match) to support his efforts, Bastian Schweinsteiger looked unable to create a fluid playing-context on his own in central midfield.
For Manchester United, in a game in which Chris Smalling acted as captain (yes, that Chris Smalling), there weren’t many positives, but amongst the few bright spots were the performances of Juan Mata and Anthony Martial. The former was absolutely key for United’s broken midfield, as he kept dropping deep in order to pause the game and to look for the latter with his clever passes.
The first goal, and many of United’s chances, came that way, from some combination of the Spaniard’s vision and the Frenchman’s ability to find spaces and receptions all over the attacking third. Their performances confirmed that they will, undoubtedly, play some of the most important roles for United as they attempt to salvage their season.
But some of the more concerning takeaways from Tuesday’s loss for United might actually lie away from those important roles. While United’s best players might be finding a strong form, the squad remains short in terms of depth and possible replacements. Fellaini is unable to adequately replace Schneiderlin, Ashley Young is too far outside of Van Gaal’s plans to even come on as a sub, and the list goes on.
Surely no one will argue against giving young players chances in the first team, but when you are Manchester United and you find yourself facing the biggest game of your season with Guillermo Varela, Nick Powell, Jesse Lingard and 18-year old Cameron Bothwick-Jackson on the field at the same time, you are clearly need to reconsider whatever it is you are doing.
Manchester United will need to regroup and carefully consider going after reinforcements during the January transfer window, particularly as scrutiny over Van Gaal’s position continues to intensify. His transfer policy, in fact, will probably be one of his critics’ topics of discussion, particularly in the light of the recent lack of squad-depth.
“At the moment I cannot defend myself because we are out of the Champions League,” Van Gaal told reporters after Tuesday’s match. “Every word I say is the wrong word.
But the Dutchman knows that, more than words, he needs results, immediate ones, in order to buy the time that might just allow him to complete the super-team he’s been promising since his arrival at Old Trafford.
“When you see the facts we went further in the Capital One Cup, we qualified for the Champions League group and we have played all these matches and we are still in a very good position in the Premier League. The facts do say we are better than last year. That’s my answer because I can only give facts. But I’m also disappointed that we are out of the Champions League,” Van Gaal added.