Every now and then we all make a huge mess of our jobs. Something that is second nature falls into a vacuum of complacency. Ultimately you get bitten on the backside. Manchester United did this on Sunday against Arsenal, turning up to the office in dress-down clothes, while everyone else came suited-and-booted.
Sunday bore witness to how a philosophy can get in the way of actually playing football, and how tactics can make a World Cup winner look lost and misplaced. Louis van Gaal’s decisions didn’t just lose United the game against Arsenal, but highlighted his natural limitations—despite being a world-class coach.
Van Gaal decided the way to snuff out the Arsenal threat was to play high up the pitch. The Dutchman appears to have noted Arsenal’s predilection for not ‘getting in behind’ very often, opting instead to play the ball to feet. In response Van Gaal offered up huge areas of space to Arsenal to make his plan work.
His strategy spectacularly backfired.
Bastian Schweinseiger has been asked to bomb up the field and close down the opposition’s defensive midfield and centre-backs in each game he has started. Michael Carrick played the role earlier in the season as well. It’s a strategy that works against Liverpool: a team who want to play the ball out of the back, but are so bad at it that the manager gets sacked.
This high press is also typical on the continental; Barcelona has used it for years. Pep Guardiola’s best teams pushed high up the pitch, wining the ball in midfield, and then killed the opposition. But there is also a reason why teams do not use the high press on Barça in reaction – because vacating space enabled the Catalans to thread the ball through an eye of a needle and create chances.
Sir Alex Ferguson noted this in his many European battles, and forced his teams to be more conservative against such opponents. This is also why he had great success when facing Arsenal.
Van Gaal gave Wenger everything he needed to win the game in a small window of play, and as expected, United then made Arsenal look like Barcelona.
In fact, the Gunners didn’t do anything extraordinary on Sunday—they simply went through the motions and played the natural Arsenal game. But there is a reason why they have failed to win the title in a decade. Teams have learned that if you sit deep, and pack the midfield with hardworking players, and use the counter attack, you will have success against them.
It seems that Van Gaal didn’t do his homework or believed he could deconstruct Wenger in a less industrial manner.
United set up in a conventional 4-2-3-1, but within this two players were playing “false” positions: Schweinsteiger and Wayne Rooney, who consistently swapped territory in the first half. It prompts the question: why?
With the Germany captain pushing up and vacating midfield, the England captain should have dropped back to the halfway line, filling the space between Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil. That didn’t happened. It is incredulous to believe Van Gaal asked his side to vacate the midfield completely against a team who are one big midfield with no strikers!
Schweinsteiger was clearly following orders, but it seemed the flaw in the system was Rooney and Memphis Depay’s positions.
For whatever reason in those first 45 minutes United’s attack and midfield simply didn’t do its job correctly. To stretch the analogy: they turned up at the office in flip-flops and a bermuda shirt.
It was clearly evident on the manager’s face as the half progressed he was shell-shocked. This led him to profess after the game it was the worst he had seen them play under his tutelage, but he should have reacted quicker than he did.
“When you start like that you can never win a game, we lost every duel, every second ball, not tight on their midfielder, and they can play they are a fantastic team when you let them give them that space it is difficult,” Van Gaal claimed. “That was the worse United have been under me, we were not able to give a normal performance. I have never seen that of my team, that is the question I put to my players.”
The second half was much better from United, retaining 72 per cent possession after bringing on two ‘less technical’ players in Marouane Fellaini and Antonio Valencia. Rooney and Schweinsteiger were pushed into wider areas, choking the Arsenal supply line, leaving the home team with only a much more direct ball to Theo Walcott. If you are Daley Blind it is so much easier to defend when you are facing the traffic.
Memphis made way after 45 minutes because he simply isn’t showing the mental application to be a United player at present. He is undoubtedly talented, but he looks like Raheem Sterling did for Liverpool last year—fully aware of the expectation, but not quite happy to do the defensive part of his job.
Memphis is built like an ox and shouldn’t have issues with the physical nature of the Premier League, so it can only be presumed that the problem is in his head, with a skewed idea of what it takes to be a top professional. This isn’t the Eredivisie.
Luke Shaw’s injury has forced the manager to play Ashley Young at left-back – and while Blind and Chris Smalling look solid together there is no case to move the Dutch player to full-back. But if Young is to be a success in a defensive role, Memphis needs to adjust his game fast, or Van Gaal has to drop him. The alternative is to move Matteo Darmian—who is suffering a bad spell after a fine start—to left-back, and allow Antonio Valencia—who was poor against Wolfsburg—to play at right-back.
Neither of these are ideal scenarios, but the issue lies further up the pitch, and not in a defence that has – up until Sunday – conceded few goals this season. Smalling continues to look like Rio Ferdinand’s heir apparent, but it was United’s defending as a team was the issue at the Emirates.
The most peculiar fact of Sunday’s defeat was the omission of Morgan Schneiderlin, who would have pressed and tackled Cazorla better than anyone else at the club. The Frenchman was bought to break up play and dominate central midfield – it is odd that Van Gaal decided to leave him on the bench and trust a core of 30-somethings instead.
Van Gaal is not far away from having a very good team, but the manager has to find a plan B and C to back up his A game. The Dutchman can mix it up, as he did in the second half, but it is his failing that he didn’t start the game in this manner.
Anthony Martial continues to look like a hero-in-waiting in a United shirt, but if Rooney and Memphis do not fulfil their function, Van Gaal’s team will drop more points.
All is not lost and the club is not in a panic just yet; Van Gaal’s side just needs to wear a suit and tie to that next meeting.