Louis Van Gaal was granted a reprieve following an unconvincing performance but vital result for Manchester United against their arch rivals from Merseyside. Rooney scored from United’s only shot on target in what turned out to be an underwhelming match that has typified Van Gaal’s approach this season. Before the Liverpool match, United had won one of their previous eight matches in the premier league. United had registered some questionable performances before the Liverpool match that reached its nadir against Sheffield United in the FA Cup, when United’s first shot of the match, which was off target in the 66th minute, was greeted with ironic jeers from the Old Trafford faithful.
Against Liverpool, United’s lack of ambition was in evidence in the first half. De Gea continually rolled the ball to Blind, who passed sideways to Smalling, who in turn passed to Young before receiving the ball in return, in order to stroke the ball back to the goalkeeper to be punted forward. The midfield could not gain a foothold and on the rare occasion that United found a way through Liverpool’s midfield via Martial or Lingard, the options in the box were slim. Rooney found himself isolated and marked by two centre backs every time United surged forward. That Rooney has declined and lost the pace that once threatened the best defenders in the world is not in question; however, the lack of support he receives from midfield runners only serves to highlight his fall from the exceptional to the ordinary.
Van Gaal’s desire to control the flow of a match has resulted in impotent performances, characterised by a team lacking in dynamism and ambition. A safety first approach has seen United control possession but fail to get behind opponents. Van Gaal wants United to control matches and wait for an opening or for opponents to make a mistake to capitalise upon. United’s first half performances serve to underline the softly-softly, patient approach that Van Gaal favours. No United player has scored a goal in the first 40 minutes of a home match this season. Players must hold their position and back up the play, rather than join the attack and risk getting ahead of the ball. This puts a strong onus on United’s attacking players to create something with little support; it has been a burden that United’s front men have failed to manage. So far this season United have averaged 7.9 shots per match in Old Trafford, this compares unfavourably to United in the 08/09 season when they averaged 15.16 shots per match.
United’s lack of intent and flair in attack could be tolerated if results had been favourable this season. However, United’s failure to progress from a Champions League group which consisted of Wolfsburg, PSV Eindhoven and CSKA Moscow was indefensible. United will have to battle to finish in the top four, but a finish outside of a champions league place would see Van Gaal depart Old Trafford with some regrets. His decision to sell Hernandez in particular was a curious decision, United are blunt in attack and Hernandez has scored 19 goals in 22 matches since his move to Bayer Leverkusen for a paltry £7.3 million.
A top four finish may not be enough to save Van Gaal in the summer as United supporters have been frustrated by the brand of football on show; and are not far from calling for the manager’s head. Recent results at Old Trafford have been met with a chorus of boos. With the spectre of Jose Mourinho looming large, a master pragmatist who promises results and trophies; Van Gaal has a tough task not just to attain results but to do so with panache.
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