Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal suggested his side are being affected by fatigue after they battled to a 2-1 Champions League victory over Wolfsburg at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
United were somewhat unconvincing as they registered their first Group B points with the win, having to come from behind after Daniel Caligiuri’s fourth-minute strike and then, following Juan Mata’s penalty and a Chris Smalling goal, hanging on towards the end.
Van Gaal was pleased with the result and some aspects of the performance, but felt United got lucky when they were awarded the 34th-minute spot-kick for a handball by Caligiuri, and criticised them for being careless in possession.
He claimed the number of games United have played of late – this was their sixth in 18 days – is taking its toll.
Van Gaal, whose Barclays Premier League-topping team play Arsenal away on Sunday, said: “We scored at once (in the second half to make it 2-1) but after that it was suffering.
“A lot of players are very tired because of the accumulation of a lot of matches.
“We had given a lot in the first half, and also, (it is about) the accumulation of the matches in the last weeks because I cannot understand (otherwise) why we would give the ball away so easily.”
Van Gaal said his side had deserved to win overall given the amount of chances they created, and praised the spirit they had shown to secure the result.
But he stressed there is still plenty of room for improvement for United, who have now won four games in a row in all competitions since losing their Group B opener 2-1 at PSV Eindhoven.
Van Gaal said: “We have to keep our feet on the ground and we have to improve a lot to be at the top of Europe.
“We have beaten Wolfsburg, I am very happy and the players are very happy, but we have to improve on the second-half performance and we have to know that, and I have said that also to the players.
“We could have won this game in a better way.
“However, I think we deserved to win because we created much more chances that Wolfsburg.”
Van Gaal felt United got lucky when they were awarded the 34th-minute spot-kick for a handball by Caligiuri.
And the Dutchman suggested overall that United’s team spirit had been a key factor in the win, while also claiming bad luck and tiredness had been to blame for some of their sloppy play.
“There are referees who are not whistling for such an incident so then you are lucky that he is whistling,” Van Gaal said of the handball.
“But in the first half I was very pleased. We created so many chances – but then you don’t finish them, and that is unlucky.
“Then in the second half we continued with our game spirit and made a beautiful goal.
“But after that it was not good anymore, which is remarkable because keeping possession is something we have done very well for the last five or six matches.”
Mata won as well as scored the penalty and provided a delightful tee-up for Smalling’s 53rd-minute sliding finish in an eye-catching performance by the forward.
But when asked about Mata’s display, Van Gaal said: “I don’t speak about individual performances but I have seen Mata playing better than today.
“I can say as a manager he played very well and I agree with you – but I don’t agree with you.”
— Juan Mata García (@juanmata8) September 30, 2015
Van Gaal also emphasised it had been his call that Mata would take the penalty over Wayne Rooney, adding as he said he had spoken to the latter about it: “I communicate always with my players – but I make the decisions.”
The manager did have praise for Smalling, saying: “I think he played a very good match, especially defensively, and the way he scored a goal was outstanding.”