Is this the most boring Manchester United side in recent memory? Certainly, it is one in which Paul Scholes believes he could not thrive. The former Red kicked off a war-of-words with manager Louis van Gaal this week, saying that he “would not enjoy” playing for the Dutchman. It is a sentiment with which many United supporters agree and frustration with the team’s style is audibly building at Old Trafford.
“There’s a lack of creativity and risk,” added Scholes. “It’s a team now you wouldn’t want to play against because they’re tightly organised, but it seems he doesn’t want players to beat men and it’s probably not a team I’d have enjoyed playing in.”
United, with a strong emphasis on ball retention, ranks first for possession this season, but 18th for total number of shots. Van Gaal’s requirement to retain the ball means that his side has played more backwards passes than any other team in the Premier League, and ranks second in sidewards passing. Indeed, no other team makes more passes per shot or chances created than United.
“The hardest thing to coach is scoring goals and creativity,” adds Scholes. “I played with some brilliant centre forwards and I don’t think they could play in this team – the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Teddy Sheringham. [United] don’t get crosses into the box or midfielders looking for runs.”
Van Gaal, as has become typical of his increasingly defensive manner, reacted strongly to Scholes’ comments. The former midfielder “doesn’t have the responsibility so he can say everything,” said Van Gaal, with the Dutchman accusing Scholes of speaking out for personal and financial gain.
“Why is he saying something? Because of the benefit of the club or for the benefit for him? I’m not agreeing with his opinion but I don’t want to defend myself. He is a legend and he has a lot of resonance I have heard. When you are a legend, you have to speak with the manager or his friend, Ryan Giggs, or Ed Woodward but not this way, because he will be paid by the BBC or Sky. He is not a responsible man.”
Scholes’ comments came in the wake of United’s Capital One Cup defeat to Middlesbrough at Old Trafford on Wednesday. United’s penalty shoot-out loss means that, realistically, Van Gaal’s side is chasing FA Cup glory this season as the best hope of ending a two-year run without a trophy. The Reds could yet put in a title challenge, although a typical price of 6/1 seems reasonable in a race most pundits expect Manchester City to win. In Europe, United’s limitations have already been exposed.
Striker Wayne Rooney again came under fire for another ineffective performance on Wednesday. The 30-year-old has scored eight goals in 16 games this season, although few against the nation’s top sides. That he missed a spot-kick in the penalty shoot-out this week an all-too-predictable outcome.
Rooney has scored twice in the Premier League, but has come under widespread fire for performances that lack the verve of old. Indeed, in shifting Anthony Martial to the left-wing, Van Gaal’s determination to crowbar his captain into the side is having a detrimental effect on United’s performances – and results. Yet, Van Gaal blames Rooney’s troubles not on poor form, or the rapid physical decline many suspect, but on the player’s determination. Few buy the excuse.
“I was manager of Bayern, and there the striker was Mario Gomez, and he touched the ball nine times as an average in a game,” Van Gaal said.
“The highest was 14 balls but he scored every game and I don’t think that our strikers touch the ball less. It’s how the balls are coming to him, how he decides, how quick he is in dealing with the situation, it’s much more complicated than everyone is thinking. Players are human beings and they want to score goals but they maybe want it too much. You have to cope with that pressure.”
Meanwhile, this weekend’s opponents Crystal Palace, also lost in the Capital One Cup – 5-1 at the Etihad – to complete three defeats in succession. Palace began the season in fine form, pushing for a place in the top four, but Alan Pardew’s side has now lost four of its last six games. And if United has problems in attack, then so does Palace, with none of the Eagles’ strikers scoring in the Premier League this season.
It points to a game where shape and tactics, and not attacking flair, are likely to come to the fore, despite Palace’s attacking quartet of Jason Puncheon, Dwight Gayle, Bakary Sako and Wilfried Zaha possessing plenty of threat on paper.
“United’s long spells of possession could threaten to drive the atmosphere into a lull, but we need to keep the fans singing along,” said Pardew this week. “United aren’t getting as many shots off as they normally do, but defensively they’re always in a good shape. I expect it to be a fairly cagey game.”
Same as it ever was, it seems.
Team news and line-ups
Van Gaal is without attacking duo Memphis Depay and James Wilson after both suffered injuries against Boro in the cup. Antonio Valencia and Paddy McNair are also out, with Luke Shaw a long-term absentee. With Depay injured Ashley Young could come back into the side and Van Gaal could yet move Martial to the striking role in which the young Frenchman has excelled this season. Ander Herrera will miss out if Rooney drops into a deeper role.
“Willo was injured but also Memphis Depay was injured,” van Gaal confirmed on Friday. “It was a very bad game afterwards because we lost on penalties and also we lost two players.”
The home side could be without key midfielder Yohan Cabaye. The French international missed the midweek defeat at City because of injury. Pape Souare and Joel Ward also miss out, but Puncheon could play at number 10 after recovering from illness. Marouane Chamakh and Connor Wickham remain injured.
Palace subs from: Speroni, Mariappa, Delaney, Jedinak, Bamford, Mutch, Lee, Bolasie, Campbell
United subs from: Romero, Blind, Pereira, Carrick, Fellaini, Herrera, Lingard
Referee: Mike Jones
Assistants: M Mullarkey, A Nunn
Fourth Official: J Moss
Palace 1-2 United