Wayne Rooney wouldn’t necessarily be the automatic choice for a footballer to paint the perfect picture with his words, but after 85 minutes at Old Trafford our new poet laureate reflected the mood inside Old Trafford perfectly.
“F**k off,” Rooney shouted in the direction of referee Craig Pawson. “F**k off you s**t c**t.” As a writer often accused of using 50 words when 15 might do just fine, I can only doff my cap. It’s like John Cooper Clarke is in the room.
It all started so brightly. For the first 20 minutes Van Gaal’s side were rampant. Players moved into space to receive the ball, midfielders made overlapping runs, full-backs Matteo Darmian and Luke Shaw spent more time in Newcastle’s half than their own. United had four shots on target in the first 15 minutes – more than they had managed in their opening two games combined.
Yet it was to be a temporary exception to the uninspiring rule, the grey cloud over United’s league performances thus far. A midweek victory over Club Brugge brought reprieving sunshine, but Brugge are not even the best team in Belgium’s Jupiler League. Newcastle earned their point with some stout defending (and hit the bar themselves), but Tim Krul was forced to make two saves in the entire second half. This was a Newcastle side that had lost seven consecutive away league games.
Captain Rooney had scored 12 goals and assisted seven more in 20 Premier League appearances against Newcastle but, for the fourth game in succession, rarely looked likely to register his first goal of the season. The closest he came was when flagged offside after slipping the ball past Krul, a marginal call but the correct one.
Infuriatingly, the chance came with Rooney playing on the shoulder of the last man yet he then reverted to type, dropping deep to pick up the ball. Rooney’s average touch position was behind both Memphis Depay and Adnan Januzaj – is that really what you want from your lone striker?
Rooney was not alone, of course. Depay flattered to deceive after his midweek endeavours and he lost possession a whopping 35 times – more than any other player in a Premier League match so far this season. Januzaj was again wasteful and looks lightweight when marked closely by a combative defensive midfielder, whereas Juan Mata looks misused on the right wing. The Spaniard has many characteristics, but pace is not one.
Pace is very much Van Gaal’s mot du jour. “Whether we can win the title [in the next two seasons] is dependable if we can buy players with speed and creativity,” the Dutchman said on August 1, repeating that insistence a week later: “When I say I want more attackers with speed and creativity, Di Maria was one of those players so we have to look for those kinds of players.” Apparently Pedro didn’t make the grade.
However, there is a marked difference between having pacey players and playing ‘at pace’, something Van Gaal’s Manchester United are so obviously struggling to do. The arrivals in central midfield certainly make United look more secure, but the sense of lethargy remains.
For periods late in the first half, United’s forward movement from midfield amounted to virtual inertia. The ball was received, mulled over, considered, had a cup of tea made for it, and then played on. Newcastle took the opportunity to get bodies back to help out.
If there is one criticism of Van Gaal after such a disappointing result, it is his refusal to turn to Ander Herrera in such moments. The Spaniard was one of the brightest points of United’s late-season charge after initially being ignored by Van Gaal, earning him significant praise from a former United midfield great.
“Herrera’s been the one who’s impressed me most,” Scholes said at the end of last season. “He was another who struggled to get into the team early on but now he’s playing really well, really good football. He looks like he’s going to score goals, looks like he’s going to make goals, so he’s been a great addition.” If anyone would know, it’s him.
With United crying out for invention and flair in between central midfield and attack, Van Gaal instead chose to replace Darmian with Antonio Valencia; right-back for right-back. There are very few situations which scream out for a 30-year-old Valencia, and this was not one.
“I like a second striker in that position behind Rooney more than a third midfielder,” was Van Gaal’s explanation after the Aston Villa victory. “That is why, for example, Herrera is not playing but is always coming on as a substitute, because he is more of a controlling midfielder there.”
Yet “controlling” need not be a synonym for defensive. Indeed, if Herrera does indeed “control” United’s tempo, he does so with far more verve than that seen on Saturday lunchtime.
On Friday, Van Gaal vehemently denied talk of a rift with executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward. “Every day I am updated by him and I trust him,” the manager said. “I don’t think they [the fans] have to doubt Ed Woodward because he has proven already for many years he is the right person on the right spot.”
Whilst Woodward has ten days to prove Van Gaal right and us wrong, the manager has his own on-field issues to address. The concerning conclusion is that with three games of the league season played, it’s impossible to pick one player in United’s midfield or attack whose performance level has been above mediocre. It’s time for a swift back Ander.