Sunday, 23 August 2015

UNITED SERVE UP FRUITLESS DISPLAY AT HOME


Louis van Gaal opened himself up for criticism at the end of a listless performance at home against Newcastle when he suggested that it was one of his better games in charge of the club. In truth, the single-minded Dutchman was right but his answer also gave leeway to questions over his much vaunted philosophy in the aftermath of two points dropped vs one point gained.

On Team News
Bastian Schweinsteiger was handed his first start of the season in a sort of 'promotion' having been excellent in all his cameos so far. The German captain replaced Michael Carrick but the rest of the team was similar to the one that had taken to the pitch for the opening couple of fixtures. Which, I should add was a shame, not in terms of structure or formation, but personnel.

At home against mid-table Premier league opposition, van Gaal does not have to go with more than one midfield anchorman. Whereas Bastian can burst forward from the middle to complement attack, he is more likely to keep within the out-skirts of the penalty area than in it. It follows therefore that in Morgan Schneiderlin and the German, United were again, unnecessarily, very secure defensively.  

On The Match
True to expectation, the match quickly turned into an exercise of defence vs attack. With the excellent security behind them, the front four of Adnan Januzaj, Memphis Depay, Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney went about prising Newcastle open. Except that there seemed to be a genuine failure to execute in the final third, in part because of their wastefulness but also because the final ball often times went begging. That essentially was the theme of the game.

The final whistle was met with a further inquisition about the lack of firepower in United's attack and yet closer scrutiny reveal that that conclusion does not necessarily address what went wrong yesterday. It's hardly that United lacked the personnel to put away the chances, far from it. The penetration on offer though was decisively blunt.

Louis van Gaal's philosophy seeks to eliminate risk as much as possible. It's why for instance Ander Herrera cannot be preferred at the expense of one anchorman as opposed to the expense of one forward. The manager mentioned last week that Ander was not in the team because Adnan, a second striker of sorts, was a better option in the hole. By placing Adnan and Ander at odds for a place in the team, the manager is effectively taking the argument away from his two holding midfielders.

Granted, United probably do not have the defensive personnel to play with just one anchorman, but there are games when United can easily get away with it. Yesterday was one such game. Newcastle were so busy defending their six yard box that United could have sacrificed one extra anchorman for a goal-scoring midfielder sat on the bench but deemed a risk deployment by the manager.

So whereas United, like the other games played so far this season, 'dominated the opposition', there was not much about the most important statistic in a game of football. The criticism Louis van Gaal opened himself up to was in a satisfaction with the domination in a manner that suggested there was nothing about his philosophy that was flawed on the day. Granted, it's admirable that the Dutchman seems steadfast in applying long-term solutions to the club by working his methods so consistently that at some point, United will 'subconsciously' click but there is an immediate dilemma to contend with: The pressure of a title challenge.

Logic dictates that if United are to win the league or even mount a title challenge, games like Saturday are a must win. Winning them will require either a tweak of the philosophy to allow for more risk taking or more luck than the club have already enjoyed this season. Indeed winning the first couple of games was down to the latter. There was always the danger in inquest would follow when results dipped to performance levels.

On The Positives
There is however a need not to lose context and perspective here. The only thing wrong about Saturday was that United did not score, which is why all post match mourning is centred around the box. And not for a lack of trying! Indeed, it was by margins more than anything else. On another day, the linesman does his job and Wayne scores in the 4th minute and from that point, you can bet United would have turned it into a rout. On another day Juan Mata catches that second half volley on the meat and ripples the net open. On another day, Javier Hernandez buries that one on one chance. On another day, Chris Smalling heads that stoppage time corner into the net instead of the goal post. There were always going to be games like this. Thankfully, we didn't suffer the total punch because Newcastle came closest in the first half when Alexssander Mitrovic found the crossbar with a looping header. Worse, Papis Cisse, with a lot more composure could have completed a remarkable smash and grab with a last minute breakaway attack.

I think its worth a pint that defensively United have not been bothered three games into the new season. Sergio Romero must be thinking to himself what the fuss was all about keeping goal for Manchester United. 35 more clean-sheets and he could also win Player of the Year. Chris Smalling though might just beat him to it!

On The Sub-Plots
There were boos ringing around Old Trafford at the final whistle. I'm one of those that thinks it's an embarrassment to boo your own team no matter how bad the day turns out to be. It should be a pleasure to watch them every week regardless the circumstances in which you do. I don't get how you can boo individuals one week and then celebrate with them the next. Good times are not always a given. Sometimes you need the bad times to appreciate the good times even more when they come around.

United tailed off mid-way through the first half when Bastian suffered an injury. He seemed to walk it off but it was telling how his influence dropped from the moment he hurt himself. Was it a case of playing brave to avoid the inquisition into his fitness levels that would follow? Michael Carrick replaced him on the hour-mark and the Geordie seemed back to his best with an impressive last half hour. His pass to locate Chicharito for the late chance was his usual sublime. United seemed to pick up again when he joined further attesting to the midfield resources we have at our disposal in the middle.

Speaking of which, there were plenty of calls for Fellaini on Social Media site Twitter to be brought on as a late substitute. The poor souls were obviously oblivious of the fact that this was the third and final match for which the big Belgian is suspended. I guess it's true what they say about absence and the heart and fondness.

On The Bottom Line
Every season, a title challenger is let off with a couple of 'stinky' home results, if only you can make it count in the return fixture. United have used up one of theirs. It's only August and there's some way to go before we can start ruling out teams for the title, but it's in games like this that United relinquished their bid last year. It cannot happen again that United fail to be consistent. Consistency is what sustains challenges. More accurately for the benefit of Louis van Gaal, consistency in results more than consistency in performances!  

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