Goodness me Manchester United are making a tough job of sealing that final Champions League place! Amazing the difference 3 weeks does to a narrative. Talk of a strong finish to the season and a title challenge next season has quickly been replaced by fears that United may yet be some way to recovering from the traumatic era of Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement.
The lazy opinion is that United have now been found out. It is becoming a bit of a theme that opponents from the alleged majestic echelons of Chelsea to the lowly ranks of West Bromwich Albion have readily worked out an adaptive style to nullify the threat that United pose. Not that it took them too much time to ponder over and crack. Defend deep, cede possession and hit on the counter is one of the oldest tricks in the book (if you honestly believe managers read about things like this in books) but it can work effectively against a side that tries the same thing over and over hopping for different results. And there's a word for such behaviour or such people for that matter.
There is not much variety to the approach that Louis van Gaal has ingrained into his players. At the moment, United are primed to play against opposition that comes at them in the same daring way that we come at them. It has already made us look like world beaters in the more difficult games of the season. The problem, as alluded to in the preview and indeed throughout this campaign is how to score when the opposition has two banks of 4 lined up infront of their goalkeeper.
Now get me right; it is not that Louis van Gaal's easy on the eye style cannot better those tactics, it can, but only with speed and precision. The kind you arrive at when the team has graduated to 'Unconscious and Capable' stage of the Philosophy. United are slow and predictable in attack so much so that even if the game was still going on now, the score would still be 0-1. In sticking with the philosophy of building from the back, United are granting defensive opposition the time to get back their shape and stop anything thrown at them. This is where the ability of Michael Carrick to quickly switch from defensive mode to attack has been sorely missed. Defensive sides do not keep their shape all the time, so the onus is on you to exploit the moments when they do, none moreso than when they launch counter-attacks. In recovering the ball from successfully defending a counter-attack, the speed at which you launch your next attack is often the most decisive variable in determining whether you score from it or not.
It is a truth that LVG recognised in his rather sombre post-match presser. He said it was the final process of the philosophy and so we can expect that United are still working on that. In truth, it might even require squad adjustment to solve it because speed and precision are not readily trained to a certain calibre of players at a certain age. Marouanne Fellaini and Ashley Young or even Juan Mata are not suddenly going to develop top speed in the way you can acquire it on a computer-game. But in essence, that is the scientific explanation to what happened at Old Trafford yesterday.
The other way of looking at it is purely from a superficial perspective. Sometimes football has a way of defying the laws of logic and science and so even science may not fully account for all the events in a football match.
Take this for instance: If West Brom are to only have 20% ball possession in the game, and spend it simply defending, with no real cutting edge of a counter-attack, United should at least get a point from the game in a 0-0 draw. If West Brom are to win a free-kick from their only meaningful attack in the second half, it would have to be brilliantly struck to beat De Gea. If West Brom are to get lucky and score via a deflection from a poorly struck free-kick and United are to then be granted a penalty to at least reflect their superiority, United would definitely score. If United miss the penalty, then one of the one million attacks launched at the visitor's goal in the last 20 minutes would yield at least one goal if only by the law of averages....It could go on and on, but the fact that each of those hypotheses can now be answered in defiance of logic and probability, then it leaves only superficial explanations to work with.
One such is
witchcraft! pure bad luck.
Moving on. It's scary to fathom that after all that we have been through this season, the last Champions League place has gone down into a dog fight with Liverpool. Three defeats in a row have allowed them to eat into a 7 point lead we had over them a couple of weeks back. And that is despite their own poor form. With 3 games of the season left, it is not unlikely that the nightmare scenario could come to pass. Goodness knows stranger things have happened like the
witchcraft pure bad luck at Old Trafford yesterday.
In all seriousness though, away at Crystal Palace now takes on more importance. It will be a difficult game but United cannot go to Hull on the final day of the season needing something as the Tigers could themselves be a different cup of tea on a day when they might need all three points to stay up. With Arsenal concluding business at Old Trafford on the penultimate weekend, it really is, in it's own minute way, 'squeaky bum time' for Manchester United. It shouldn't have come to this, but hey maybe it's the old adage that we have a knack of doing things the hard way.
It had better be a bluff, or we might have to get the
witchdoctors club Chaplain in.