So that’s why Louis van Gaal favours a defensive approach.
If ever an evening encapsulated just why the Manchester United manager is the most frustrating in the business, it was at the Volkswagen Arena on Tuesday. A run of seven goals in 10 had seen pressure almost reach breaking point with regards to Van Gaal’s future at United, with his plodding, possession-based style splitting opinion between the club hierarchy and support. A trip to Wolfsburg, who had lost just once at home in 30 league games, was next, with a positive result needed to make certain progress in the Champions League.
Within 10 minutes in Germany, United were ahead. Daley Blind passed to Juan Mata, who delivered the perfect through ball to find Anthony Martial’s run. The Frenchman slotted home for his first goal in 13 games.
An incisive goal. A simple strike, borne from a straightforward approach, and uncomplicated thinking. 1-0.
Within 20 minutes, the visitors were behind. Naldo’s impeccable volley and Vierinha’s tap-in from excellent build-up play via Julian Draxler had sliced open a defence seemingly impervious in the Premier League. An equaliser finally arrived on 82 minutes, but Wolfsburg replied to take the lead again instantly. United failed to recover, and their fate was sealed. Thursday nights, Channel 5.
Again, this was Van Gaal at his most frustrating. The proactive style of play was abandoned for a reactive one, with United ceding the majority of possession to their opponent in the first half for only the third time in 28 Premier League and Champions League so far this season. Michael Carrick benched. Chris Smalling, United’s player of the season, delivered an error-strewn display lacking confidence.
After undertaking a tentative approach in the previous five games, Van Gaal released the shackles in Germany. It was far too little, far, far too late. United put in one of their most promising performances in recent memory, yet lost their most important game yet. This was a game of contradictions; this was very much the antithesis of Van Gaal’s typical Manchester United.
It was also a game which will surely end talk of Van Gaal extending his stay beyond his planned exit in 2017. The Dutchman inherited a troubled squad from David Moyes in 2014. He took them from sevenh to fourth last season and now this, all for the princely outlay of over £250million. Qualification from a simple Champions League group should be the bare minimum, especially considering his predecessor managed to navigate his without defeat in 2013/14, before falling in the quarter-finals.
At the full-time whistle, you’d be forgiven for thinking Moyes had returned. A back four featuring Guillermo Varela and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson; Michael Carrick and Nick Powell the game-changing substitutes; Fellaini playing the full 90 minutes and acting as a battering ram Plan B; a bench of outfielders featuring Carrick, Powell, Borthwick-Jackson, Ashley Young, Paddy McNair and Andreas Pereira for a decisive Champions League game. Van Gaal exceeded even Moyes by playing the injured Smalling as a makeshift striker in the closing stages. Injuries admittedly decimated his squad leading into this week, but after spending over £250million so far, all Van Gaal has to show is a shocking dearth of quality and depth. The Dutchman has loaned and forced out players far superior to those who were on the bench on Tuesday, and perhaps better than some on the pitch.
Ordinarily, this would spell the end of Van Gaal’s reign. His remit was to reach the Champions League knockout stages, and he has failed in the most spectacular way imaginable, even fruitlessly abandoning his ideals in doing so. Realistically, the Dutchman will be granted until at least the summer – and most likely until the end of his contract in 2017. But with the battle for the top four places promising to be as close as ever this season, it is more than conceivable that United could miss out. Moyes was an unmitigated failure at United, of that there is no doubt. But Van Gaal has been far more frustrating, and a far bigger disappointment.