Despite the almost daily Jose Mourinho ‘exclusive’, Manchester United’s managerial situation is presumably pretty simple. If United finish in the top four, then Louis van Gaal has a chance of keeping his job. If they don’t, he doesn’t.
If that is indeed the case, you can probably send Van Gaal’s P45 to print and leave a couple of cardboard boxes ominously positioned in the corner of his office. United’s late arrival to White Hart Lane might have been unideal preparation for a high-profile Premier League fixture, but Van Gaal’s own tactics sealed the sorry deal. Plus ca change…
United started the game particularly well, but peaked at around 20 minutes. They ended it at their lowest recent ebb, drubbed 3-0 and four points from the top four. “You nearly won the league,” taunted the away end during the first half. “Champions League, you’re having a laugh,” the home fans responded after three goals in six second-half minutes. Touche.
Van Gaal’s record in exactly this type of fixture was the only reason to have any continued faith in the manager’s ability to address the slide. Before the game began, United actually had the best points-per-game record against the Premier League’s top seven sides. They lost that title to Leicester over the course of the following two hours. Having survived early pressure, Tottenham made United look lifeless.
As ever during this miserable United season, the players played their own role in their downfall. Timothy Fosu-Mensah was excellent at right-back, but his departure through injury saw the introduction of Mateo Darmian. Almost immediately, the Italian failed to close down Christian Eriksen. The Dane’s ball found Dele Alli, who scored on the eve of his 20th birthday. Daley Blind and Chris Smalling competing for the same header and yet both managing to lose the aerial duel started the move.
Within six minutes, United had been drawn and quartered. Lax marking from a set-piece allowed Toby Alderweireld to head home, before Erik Lamela was left free in the area to slide the ball past David de Gea. If United’s goalkeeper does stay at Old Trafford beyond this season, he must have masochistic tendencies. Both central defenders were appalling when it mattered most.
Yet any embarrassment of United’s players was overshadowed by Van Gaal’s own bizarre strategies, both pre- and mid-game. At one point during the second half, United had a centre-back at right-back (Fosu-Mensah), a centre-back at left-back (Marcos Rojo), a left-back at centre-back (Blind), a right winger at No. 10 (Jesse Lingard), a No. 10 at right wing (Juan Mata), a centre forward on the left wing (Anthony Martial) and a left winger up front (Ashley Young). One only hopes Van Gaal was surprised by United’s subsequent lack of cohesion, because nobody else was.
It was that final tactical tweak that will anger United supporters most. Young played as a striker for the U21 side in midweek and did play as a forward in his early days at Watford, but is no longer suitable for the role.
“I wanted more running in behind, because in the first half we didn’t have an attacking point there,” was Van Gaal’s explanation of the substitution. The obvious response from United’s supporters (presumably screamed at the top of their voices) is to enquire what Martial has to do to be picked in such a role. Young has scored two Premier League goals since January 2014; there’s only so much “running in behind” can do.
Under Van Gaal, Young has now played for United at right-back, left-back, left wing, right wing, central midfield and up front. Just as you think you’ve seen it all, Van Gaal surprises you once again. Only the result was predictable. Young had no shots, created no chances and had no touches in Tottenham’s penalty area.
As the image (via Opta) shows, United were guilty of being lop-sided during the first half. If all your attacks come down the same flank, you become predictable and easier to contain. So what’s the worst way to make yourself less reliant on the left wing? Bring a left winger on up front, of course. In the first half, 61.7% of United’s attacks came down the left third of the pitch, with 19.9% down the right. In the second half, the split was 73.5% vs 17.4%. Juan Mata was a passenger, his average position further back than that of Morgan Schneiderlin and Rojo.
“I think we were equal team,” was Van Gaal’s post-match claim, as laughable as the number of players picked out of position. The more realistic conclusion to make is that Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham have become everything that Van Gaal’s Manchester United should have been. There is only stagnation and confusion where pace and dynamism should be.
Jose Mourinho might not solve all United’s problems, but Van Gaal has certainly forfeited his own right to try. The Dutchman has turned an inviting opportunity into a failed experiment. The Iron Tulip needs dead-heading before more lasting damage is done.