Morgan Schneiderlin has now been left out of three key Manchester United games. He deserves to be trusted more by Louis van Gaal.
There is an anecdote about Morgan Schneiderlin’s determination to succeed in England, relayed by former coach Francois Keller in an interview with the Daily Mail but widely known at Southampton. Desperate to learn English as soon as possible and so assimilate with his new team-mates, Schneiderlin banned French television in his house, watching old episodes of Only Fools and Horses on repeat in order to pick up phrases. In the summer of 2011, he lost 4kg in order to increase his mobility. Southampton’s coaches immediately noticed the difference.
On France duty this week, Schneiderlin will get plenty of chance to ponder everything, but even seven days of thinking time won’t feel as long as the 90 minutes he spent on the bench at the Emirates on Sunday afternoon. Having again stepped up his workrate in order to flourish at Old Trafford, this was his first significant setback since famously missing out on a move to Tottenham in August 2014.
Signed for £25million this summer, Schneiderlin seemed the perfect solution for United’s cavernous gaps in central midfield. “He is the type that I think can play in our system and in our philosophy,” Louis van Gaal said upon signing the Frenchman. “Morgan is a very talented player with great energy and ability.”
Three weeks after arriving in Manchester, Schneiderlin gave an interview in which he admitted that Van Gaal was a “hard man to satisfy”. That issue has still not been resolved. Having been left out of United’s side against Liverpool and PSV Eindhoven, Schneiderlin spent the entire match against Arsenal watching from the bench.
An away trip at Arsenal was meant to be Schneiderlin’s time to shine. For so long this summer he seemed the logical fit for Arsene Wenger’s own midfield holes, only for Wenger to eventually decide against an approach. This was the perfect opportunity for ‘look what you could have won’; Arsenal were the ones left crowing.
In reacting to their 3-0 defeat, Van Gaal expressed his surprise at the manner in which his side were unable to deal with Arsenal’s fluent attacking shape. “I didn’t expect that,” Van Gaal said. “I was surprised – not performing to our gameplan, not the will to win. So I was surprised, amazed – maybe that is a better word. When you give a team like Arsenal so much space to play football, then you know you will lose.”
United’s shape in the first half at the Emirates was verging on catastrophic. Bastian Schweinsteiger was tasked with pressing Santi Cazorla high up the pitch, but the Spaniard was able to wriggle free with ease before playing simple passes into Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. Schweinsteiger only won possession twice from any Arsenal player in the entire match.
If Van Gaal was surprised by the ineffectiveness of his plan, it might have been worth consulting his squad. In The Times, James Ducker wrote that United’s players had been left ‘baffled’ by the Dutchman’s tactics for the match.
“They were not aggressive,” Van Gaal explained when asked to detail just where it went wrong. “And you have to do it not only with the two in midfield but as a team. You have to be more compact. You need aggression at the moment you have a duel and Arsenal were much more aggressive.”
That assessment only makes Schneiderlin’s omission all the more strange. “On the pitch, he wants me to repeat my performances with Southampton – that I play with the same aggression and that I win the ball back,” said Schneiderlin, mentioning the very characteristic Van Gaal had referred to.
“Aggression”, “closing down space”, “winning the ball back” – these are precisely the traits that attracted United to sign Southampton’s midfielder in the summer. Part of the side that won 1-0 at Old Trafford in January, Schneiderlin dominated the midfield at Old Trafford that Sunday. He intercepted six passes and gave the ball away just twice in 90 minutes. The audition had been a glorious success.
Schneiderlin has already proved fit for purpose in the spoiling midfield role. He has averaged 3.7 successful tackles per 90 minutes in the league this season, a far higher figure than Schweinsteiger (3.0) and Michael Carrick (1.6). His total for interceptions (3.3 per 90 minutes) is also significantly higher than those two team-mates (2.5 and 2.6) and he has covered more ground too. Against Aston Villa in August, Schneiderlin covered the second-most ground of any individual in a match this season. Not only did Van Gaal opt for a questionable strategy against Arsenal, he also ignored its best exponent. Arsenal greedily took advantage.
Having seen his Schneiderlin-less midfield overrun, Van Gaal will surely be wary of repeating his mistake. Missing humbling defeats can be as useful for a player as being part of glorious victories. A reputation has grown in absentia.