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Arsenal clash could rejuvenate Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United

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Jose Mourinho’s latest misfortunes as Manchester United manager could place a dent to his managerial legacy. Once referred to as a mastermind tactician, Mourinho’s majestic mantra that’s attributed to his silverware dominance in several countries simply doesn’t have the same effect.

The witty pre-match quotes and everlasting swagger has been replaced with negative comments towards his players and officials. Whereas the siege-mentality that transformed his players to sacrifice their bodies for results is non-existent.

More so, although the Portuguese manager’s sides are more expansive than in recent years, the attacking flare displayed going forward consequently affected the solid base he once sought out. Since his move to Real Madrid, Mourinho’s worked with an abundance of slender technically gifted players, but has failed to combine his personnel with the ruthless defensive mentality that displayed in previous sides.

With social media and the modern soccer player now being protected throughout their youth career, Mourinho’s attempt to motivate his players through harsh criticism has back-fired, thus leading to several behind the scenes locker room squabbles. The ability to control the press, his players and the opposition with his words was one of the United manager’s best traits, but now he does more harm when he speaks.

The aforesaid criticism towards his own players and smug body language on the touchline is reminiscent of Mourinho’s mood towards the conclusion of his Chelsea tenure. However, Mourinho has failed to overcome the slight stylistic shift in modern football, which emphasizes on dynamic pressing across the pitch.

Where possession football was heavily praised and emulated over the last decade, Mourinho’s aim to disrupt and destroy was innovative, despite the negativity received for creating dull encounters. Now, Mourinho’s reactive approach is simply outfoxed by dynamic units that press cohesively and quickly break forward in numbers.

But like his predecessors, life at Manchester United has been difficult. Sir Alex Ferguson, a fond admirer of Mourinho, equally endured difficult moments at United, but his ability to construct new ideas and maximize the talent at his disposal over a lengthy period is what made him great. Mourinho, on the other hand, is stumped and doesn’t seem capable of identifying an alternative winning formula.

United currently sit eight points behind league leaders Liverpool, and though Mourinho has rarely tinkered with his starting XI, it’s evident Mourinho is unsure of his best XI or his optimum formation. Despite improving under Louis van Gaal, United were abject for extensive periods prior to the arrival of the Portuguese manager, and a few big name signings have yet to rid the robotic-esque football showcased in the red side of Manchester.

More worryingly, the fact that the cheapest and lesser-known Eric Bailly can be deemed the standout summer signing at Old Trafford summarizes the current state of the club.

It’s equally alarming that the remaining three signings haven’t really improved the starting XI. Zlatan Ibrahimovic started the season well, but his passing has been mediocre when he drops deep, and still contributes to United’s issue of predominantly playing ahead of the opposition. Pogba, on the other hand, struggles to influence games without being a defensive liability in a midfield two, which is a completely different role to the one he adopted at Juventus.

“He [Pogba] can play in so many positions,” Mourinho said in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports’ Andy Burton

“The problem is not the position. The problem is not the tactical system. The problem is, in my opinion, somebody that comes from a different style of football and needs this time to be at his best level in football that is really difficult to play, especially for midfield players.”

Then there’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan who has yet to feature for United since his 45-minute cameo in the Manchester derby. Therefore, apart from the decision to drop Wayne Rooney, very little has changed from the youthful side that finished fifth last season.

Elsewhere, Pep Guardiola has expanded Manchester City’s possession-based football and provided positional flexibility to the club. Meanwhile, Liverpool and Chelsea have been the standout performers due to their non-involvement in European competitions, thus offering the managers additional training ground preparation.

Mourinho, however, has persisted with a 4-2-3-1, but is further going against the template that brought him success in the past. Perhaps this is a case of the manager attempting to prove the cynics wrong. It can also signify the awareness that his technically gifted outfit are better suited to a sleeker style, opposed to the Chelsea and Inter Milan sides built around physically imposing centre-backs and powerful midfielders.

The permanent switch to this system took place at Real Madrid, but in midfield he possessed the balance of a passing holding midfielder, and an energetic runner in Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira. Since then, catering to Cesc Fabregas’ creativity backfired, whereas now, Pogba isn’t consistently performing at an elite level in a midfield two.

Similar to his most successful sides post-2004, the use of a natural ball-winner and two shuttlers was pivotal, yet it’s odd to see Mourinho – who has publicly claimed his preference to use the system as an alternative – reluctant to push Herrera and Pogba further up the field. The system alteration was logical at Madrid, as it enabled Mesut Ozil freedom to create – yet even in the bigger games, Ozil operated from a wide position, making sharp runs towards the flanks to create space for his teammates.

Though Juan Mata’s been one of United’s standout players this season, the Spaniard simply doesn’t perform at the level that warrants a formation change. However, Pogba performed well in this position closer to Ibrahimovic at Anfield, and could excel higher up the pitch if Mourinho wants to strengthen his midfield.

Nevertheless, despite the personnel void in specific areas, United’s issue doesn’t rest in the options at Mourinho’s disposal – he currently has a big enough squad with various skill sets to challenge for the league. Besides the first half hour against Manchester City, defensive errors have played a decisive factor in United’s erratic league form.

In ways, United are reminiscent of the Borussia Dortmund side during Jurgen Klopp’s final season. Dortmund finished seventh in the Bundesliga, yet their league position didn’t justify the strength of Klopp’s men. Battling injuries to nearly their entire back-line throughout the season, Dortmund created numerous chances per game, but were simply let down by poor finishing and defensive errors.

Mourinho proved he can still gain results in the big games following United’s solid display at Liverpool, but the Red Devils still struggle to convert quality chances into goals. United aren’t playing poorly under Mourinho, but there’s a distinct disparity between this current side, and his teams of the past that were devastatingly efficient in the final third and diligently organized out of possession.

“We kept creating chances and then by magic they crossed the midfield line and scored a goal which is very unfair for us,” said Mourinho following United’s draw to Stoke.

“I have to say they were lucky but luck is part of football. My tribute to them is they are not guilty of our bad luck, so congratulations on a good point for them.”

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Nonetheless, Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger have undergone contrasting careers, but the start to the 2016/2017 Premier League season suggests change may be imminent. A rivalry that started following Mourinho’s initial arrival to England witnessed Arsenal transition from title contenders to top four challengers, whereas Mourinho developed into one of the greatest managers in world football – subsequently winning domestic honours in three different countries.

Mourinho’s return to the Premier League three seasons ago restored the feisty enmity between the two managers, which even led to Wenger being deemed as a “specialist in failure.”

“If he is right and I am afraid of failure it is because I didn’t fail many times. Eight years without silverware, that’s failure,” said Mourinho.

“He’s a specialist in failure,” continued Mourinho. “If I do that in Chelsea, eight years, I leave and don’t come back.”

Yet since Chelsea’s 2015 title triumph, the tide appears to be turning in Wenger’s favour. Mourinho was sacked by the Blues ahead of their worst title defence in Premier League history, and his appointment at Manchester United has been filled with inconsistent results.

But where the aforementioned Premier League managers have altered their side’s previous philosophy – even Wenger has added a new dimension to Arsenal’s game by utilizing Alexis Sanchez as a centre-forward – perhaps its time for Mourinho to stray away from his initial approach. The pressure is mounting at the club – albeit it’s expected he’ll receive ample time to build a squad that meets his desire – but conceding his first Premier League defeat to Wenger would provide a seismic statement, and ultimately diminish United’s title hopes.

For United and Mourinho, underachievement remains risky considering what’s transpired over the last few years, but it would certainly put the latter at a cross-road. We’ve seen the brilliance of Mourinho’s managerial skills in an era-defining period upon his arrival to England, but it may be time to replicate his counter-parts’ decision to adjust what many consider to be an outdated approach, along with identifying the ideal system and roles for his players.

What may be heralded a new era that redefines the elite clubs in the country, could see Mourinho oblige to change, and potentially risk concluding one of the most successful managerial tenures at the club level.

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Posted by on November 18, 2016 in Premier League, Published Work

 

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Manchester United 0-0 Chelsea: Both sides display signs of underachievement at Old Trafford

hazard united

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 28: Eden Hazard of Chelsea in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford on December 28, 2015 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Manchester United and Chelsea battled to a score-less draw at Old Trafford.

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Louis van Gaal recalled Wayne Rooney to lead the line, and changed his midfield duo with the inclusion of Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Mateo Darmian also returned from injury to start at left-back, pushing Daley Blind to centre-back, whereas Ashley Young featured on the right.

Guus Hiddink was forced into changes as well due to the suspension of Diego Costa, while Gary Cahill, Cesc Fabregas, Loic Remy and Radamel Falcao were also unavailable for selection. Therefore, Eden Hazard started upfront, John Obi Mikel protected the defence alongside Nemanja Matic, while Kurt Zouma provided mobility in a centre-back partnership with John Terry.

Chelsea approach

There were no surprises in regards to the overall pattern of the match prior to kick off. United lead the league in possession stats this season, whereas Chelsea were always likely to play on the counter especially without Costa leading the line.

With that being said, it was interesting to see how Chelsea would approach the match out of possession. Willian and Pedro were forced deeper to prevent Young and Darmian from creating overloads, whereas Oscar aided Hazard in pressing. At times, Oscar moved upfront to lead the line to give Hazard a rest – on the other hand, the United midfield received more time on the ball – whereas Oscar and Willian occasionally swapped positions to maintain energy levels.

United countered Oscar’s pressing by having both Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger drop behind the halfway line to receive possession before attempting to play long diagonals towards the flanks. Likewise, Mikel and Matic sat in front of a narrow back four, which inevitably left space for Juan Mata and Herrera to drift into when Oscar and Hazard were pressing in United’s half.

Chelsea were fortunate not to concede in the opening 20 minutes, but their overall approach – despite its structural flaws – was rarely tested because of United’s limited penetration in the final third.

Clumsy possession out the back

Interestingly, Chelsea constantly found themselves in trouble when they attempted to play out the back. Perhaps this was Hiddink’s ploy to build attacks without Costa, but here, Chelsea were simply sloppy in possession.

Oscar was forced into a last-ditch tackle on Herrera after being dispossessed in his own half. Then, Mata intercepted Courtois’ attempt to find Cesar Azpilicueta, but the Spaniard’s cross to an unmarked Rooney was cleared by Zouma. Also in the second half, there was a sequence that witnessed Mikel fail to control a simple five-yard Zouma pass, thus resulting in a United corner kick.

United’s possession dominance led to a few nervy moments for the Blues, but they were equally placing United in key goal-scoring positions with their sloppy passing around the box.

United attack down the left

One of the main issues preventing United from enjoying a successful campaign thus far is their productivity in the final third. The lack of penetration through incisive passing and direct running resulted in a tedious attack that was aided by their determination to operate down the left.

United constantly aimed to take advantage of Branislav Ivanovic down the left, which was logical considering Martial operated in this zone. Though United’s initial chance stemmed from the right – Mata’s shot off the cross bar – Pedro and Azpilicueta adequately closed down Young’s crossing, whereas Mata drifted centrally throughout.

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On paper, Martial against Ivanovic favoured the Frenchman, but the United youngster struggled to impose himself against the Serbian. Chelsea appeared susceptible down this flank in the opening stages with Darmian surging forward, and Martial hitting the post, but the Serbian fared well in 1v1 battles with the Frenchman.

Nevertheless, intelligent movement and positive combinations still witnessed United create their best chances down the left in the second half. Darmian moving infield provided Martial enough space to storm past Pedro to present Herrera with a golden opportunity that Courtois miraculously saved. While, substitute, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson’s cross in the latter stages of the second half should’ve resulted in a Rooney winner.

Martial didn’t thrive in his individual battle with Ivanovic, but United still exploited Chelsea’s frailty down this flank, creating their best goal-scoring opportunities.

Hazard

However, Hiddink’s major decision involved Hazard playing upfront. The unavailability of the natural centre-forwards meant the Dutchman had to tinker in this area, and with United fielding two attack-minded full-backs, combined with Hazard’s past defensive issues on the flanks, it was logical to start the Belgian upfront.

Frankly, both Oscar or Pedro have experience playing in this role – the former operated as natural no.9 at the Emirates last year, whereas the latter charged behind opposing defences during his time at Barcelona. Hazard performed superbly at White Hart Lane earlier in the year, receiving the ball in various areas, but the issue behind his role upfront was that Chelsea were deprived a penalty box presence. The same applied here, as the Belgian was outmuscled off the ball by Chris Smalling and Daley Blind when he received the ball with his back to goal.

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Still, the Belgian influenced an apathetic Chelsea midfield when he moved into deeper positions, however, suffering the most fouls throughout – the Belgian and Matic glided through challenges throughout to evade several challenges.

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One move at the beginning of the second half epitomized his threat from deep – Hazard easily rolled Herrera and bypassed Schweinsteiger before playing in Pedro at the edge of the box, but De Gea made two outstanding saves to keep match goal-less. From open play, Chelsea’s attacking threat was scarce, but they were most dangerous when Hazard received the ball in the midfield zone.

Chelsea counters

Ultimately, Chelsea’s deep positioning and poor passing when they retained possession placed significant precedence on their counter-attacks. It was the evident attacking ploy for the Blues, but without any substantial build-up play, and sporadic set-pieces in dangerous areas, it appeared to be the away side’s sole goal source.

But where Chelsea usually countered with devastating efficiency under Mourinho, here, their counters appeared improvised. In the opening 20 minutes, both United centre-backs committed mistakes that enabled Hazard and Oscar to break towards the box, but both plays concluded with the former and Willian failing to provide Pedro with a final ball.

Essentially, the lack of a natural forward thwarted Chelsea’s counter-attacks. The likes of Pedro and Hazard are used to having forward offer diagonal runs for a final pass or to create space, but here, it led to poor decision-making from both men and the potential ball receiver. The duo was actually involved in a 2v2 break following the Belgian turning Schneiderlin near the half way line, but the entire play was halted as neither player made the correct run or pass.

As players tired, Chelsea’s threat on the counter decreased significantly, but they still squandered possibly the best chance of the game via this method of attack. Pedro was once again involved, as he swiftly stormed into United’s half – subsequent to a United corner – before playing in an unmarked Matic who motored into the box but fired his shot over the net.

Second half

The match followed a relatively similar pattern in the second half, however, Chelsea retreated deeper, their pressing decreased, and United received more time and space to turn possession dominance into goal scoring opportunities. Yet, apart from the two spurned aforementioned chances that stemmed from the left flank, United rarely tested the fatigued away side.

Perhaps a lack of rotation affected Chelsea here, as Ashley Young grew in prominence down the right with Pedro struggling to close the United full-back down, whereas Oscar and Hazard’s threat on the counter perished in the final 20 minutes. Herrera continued to charge into space space in the channels behind Mikel, and deserved a penalty on the opposite side of the box following a late last-ditch Azpilicueta tackle, while Blind received more time on the ball to play forward penetrative passes.

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Chelsea’s shape was shockingly disjointed with Matic protecting Terry, and Mikel unaware of Herrera’s movement behind him. But with Rooney coming forward to link play, and not enough players in the box to attack the full-backs’ crosses, United’s attack remained blunt.

Substitutions

Oddly, Hiddink refrained from using all his substitutions despite fielding more than half of his XI against Watford two days prior. Ramires replaced Willian on the right, but where Pedro, Oscar and Hazard were evidently exhausted in the final 20 minutes, Hiddink was reluctant to summon his youngsters.

Van Gaal quickly reacted to Ramires’ introduction by introducing Borthwick-Jackson, and replacing Blind for Phil Jones. This saw Smalling push forward in the final 10 minutes, but the change was likely due to Blind’s fitness levels rather than a tactical shift, considering Chelsea’s threat was non-existent during these stages.

The United manager’s attempt to rescue the match saw Memphis Depay replace Mata, pushing Martial to the right. Nonetheless, the change proved futile, as Memphis rarely touched the ball, whereas Martial offered no threat on the right. It was peculiar to see Fellaini remain on the bench with United delivering multiple crosses into the box, along the Dutchman preferring not to utilize Martial’s pace against a nervy Chelsea back-line.

Conclusion

As expected, one day’s rest provided a cautious battle between two underachieving Premier League sides, in which goal-keeping heroics and poor finishing proved decisive.

Martial Zoma

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 28: Anthony Martial of Manchester United battles for the ball with Kurt Zouma of Chelsea during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford on December 28, 2015 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Chelsea were far from impressive, but with limited time on the training ground for Hiddink to employ his philosophy, combined with several first-team players unavailable, the interim Chelsea manager may be pleased with the result.

United, on the other hand, displayed improved dynamism and commitment in attacking areas, but the hosts’ susceptibility to counter-attacks, along with their limited penetration showcased one of the few issues under Van Gaal. A place in the top four remains attainable, but United must improve in both phases if they intend on achieving their target.

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work, Uncategorized

 

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Wolfsburg 3-2 Manchester United: United have no answers for Wolfsburg swift counter-attacks

Naldo United

WOLFSBURG, GERMANY – DECEMBER 08: Naldo of Wolfsburg celebrates scoring the first goal during the UEFA Champions League match between VfL Wolfsburg and Manchester United FC at the Volkswagen arena on December 8, 2015 in Wolfsburg, Germany. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Wolfsburg recorded a historic victory over Manchester United to knock the English side out of the Champions League.

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Dieter Hecking preferred a mobile attacking quartet, and therefore started Max Kruse ahead of Andre Schurrle, Julian Draxler and Vieirinha. Max Arnold and Julian Guilavogui formed a midfield duo, while Ricardo Rodriguez was fit to start the match at left-back.

Louis van Gaal faced several injury issues prior to kick-off, which eventually saw Guillermo Varela start at right-back, while Bastian Schweinsteiger and Marouane Fellaini sat in midfield. Juan Mata was the creative conductor behind the pacy attacking trio of Memphis Depay, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard.

Wolfsburg counter-attacked superbly in what proved to be a fairly open match that once again exploited Manchester United’s shortcomings on both ends.

United press

The most striking feat regarding the overall result was that United started the match fairly well. Wolfsburg prefer to pass their way from the back into the opposition’s third, so it was logical for Van Gaal to instruct his men to press from the front.

Essentially, United attempted a combination of high-pressing and man-marking with the centre-backs tightly marking Draxler and Kruse, while the full-backs prevent the wingers from getting a second or third touch in their attempts to turn towards goal.

Martial and Lingard pressed the centre-backs, and when Guilavogui dropped deep, Mata pushed forward to ensure it was 3v3 at the back. At times, the personnel varied with Mata and Martial pushing forward, while Fellaini closed down the Wolfsburg holding midfielder.

Though United’s pressing wasn’t entirely efficient, it led to some nervy moments for goalkeeper Julian Benaglio, whereas Memphis prevented Christian Trasch from surging forward. Memphis dispossessed Trasch and slid a pass into half-space for Martial, which ultimately troubled Benaglio. Later on, it was substitute Cameron Borthwick-Jackson that robbed Vieirinha in the buildup to Lingard’s contentious offside goal.

United created chances on the break due to their pressing, and successfully prevented Wolfsburg from enjoying long spells of possession in their half.

Wolfsburg without the ball

The hosts adopted a more simplistic approach out of possession, preferring to drop into a 4-5-1 rather than fully committing to pressing from the front. The midfield three were aligned and compact to ensure passes didn’t meet United players between the lines, but it was evident Wolfsburg aimed to prevent Schweinsteiger from dictating the tempo of the match from deeper positions.

Arnold stepped forward to fluster Schweinsteiger who’s been exposed in recent years when encounter dynamic pressing. However, when Wolfsburg sat off, Draxler was instructed to negate his compatriot’s passing lanes, where as Guilavogui matched Fellaini’s physicality in midfield.

United’s issue in open play has been apparent, so Hecking’s aim to press Schweinsteiger out of the game highlighted his intent to nullify the away side’s activity in the final third.

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With that being said, Van Gaal’s men still scored from open play, and occasionally surged into key areas in the final third, but often lacked the final pass.

United’s attack was filled with pace, and Van Gaal intended on encouraging his ball-players to slide passes behind the defence for the onrushing runners. Daley Blind stepped forward to find Mata between the lines, and he instantly turned and located Martial’s diagonal run behind the defence for the opener.

It took United three passes to get to the Wolfsburg box, but it fully indicated their attacking intent going forward.

Minutes later, Memphis dispossessed Trasch and slid a through-ball into half space for Martial, but his cross on goal was hesitantly recovered by Benaglio. In the 27th minute, Guilavogui stepped forward to press Blind leaving space vacant between the lines, and though the Dutchman located Memphis between the lines, the United winger’s pass to Martial in the box was over hit – summing up United’s productivity around the penalty area.

Unfortunately for United, they were penalized for six offside calls throughout the match, with majority of the scenarios stemming around the box, as their attacking quartet failed to replicate the brilliance of the opening goal.

Wolfsburg counter-attack

The key attacking trend on the night was Wolfsburg’s counter-attack. This was partially down to United’s inability to collectively press as a unit for the entire first half, and Hecking’s men simply bypassed the opposition with nifty short passes.

Wolfsburg, however, stuck to their patented counter-attacking module by playing quick short passes around pressure and subsequently switching play to the opposite flank –  this element of attack was also implemented in last year’s riot of Bayern Munich. The hosts intended on isolating full-backs Varela and Matteo Darmian – the former is inexperienced and the latter’s form is poor – but Schurrle, in particular, failed to get the better of the youngster.

Hecking’s men attacked with five players as Arnold often ventured forward, and Vieirinha’s go-ahead goal represented the ideal Wolfsburg attack under this set-up. Following Wolfsburg successfully bypassing pressure in their half, two long diagonals were played to Schurrle and Draxler on both flanks, before the latter stormed past Schweinsteiger to combine with Kruse, thus resulting in a Vieirinha tap-in.

Schweinsteiger and Fellaini were both culpable for Wolfsburg’s ability to easily storm through midfield on the break. Schweinsteiger’s vertical passing in midfield zones was underwhelming, and he suffered under midfield pressure with Fellaini caught in advanced forward. One move saw Schweinsteiger give the ball away to Schurrle, who quickly located Draxler free on goal but David De Gea made a key save.

Fellaini and Schweinsteiger isn’t the ideal midfield duo against Europe’s better sides, and their inability to dictate the tempo of the match, combined with constantly being overrun by tricky dynamic players led to their first half issues.

Fellaini

On the defensive end, Fellaini was a liability, playing slightly ahead of Schweinsteiger. Van Gaal has retreated to playing through Fellaini late in games when chasing a goal, but the Belgian international represented an additional attacking threat that consistently worked opposed to a last-ditch approach.

The Belgian’s aerial prowess created several dangerous United moments, as he initially towered over Dante to force a terrific Benaglio save from an in-swinging Blind corner. In the second half, Benaglio made another sensational save to stop Memphis’ acrobatic shot, as Fellaini’s nod-down from a Martial cross placed United in a legitimate goal-scoring position

United’s equalizer was basically a carbon copy of Fellaini’s initial first half chance, as another Blind corner saw the Belgian shrug off Dante to nod the ball in the ground, but Guilavogui directed the ball into his own net. Fellaini’s offensive contribution vividly showcased why the Belgian is efficient in advanced areas, but here, in terms of overall balance, he was positioned in the wrong position.

United improves

United enjoyed lengthy spells of possession in the oppositions half during the final 45 minutes, with Hecking’s men dropping into two banks of four opposed to the initial 4-5-1. Hecking was wary of Blind’s vertical passes into pockets of space and encouraged Draxler to apply pressure on the Dutchman, while Kruse tracked Smalling.

This enabled Schweinsteiger to split the defenders to make it 3v2 in deep positions, with Arnold and Vieirinha occasionally pushing out of position to close the German down. However, majority of Schweinsteiger’s passes went to the flanks, and United persisted with astray balls over the Wolfsburg defence.

With United pushing so many men forward, Wolfsburg’s threat on the counter-attack increased. The trio of Schurrle, Draxler and Kruse consistently surged forward, with the former Chelsea man getting behind the United defence to force De Gea into key saves. Van Gaal turned to Michael Carrick and Nick Powell upfront, but neither player substantially influenced the match.

Set-pieces

Oddly, while United were fairly dominant attacking set-pieces, they were severely poor from a defensive aspect, conceding two goals in the process. In fairness, defensive solidity is a combination of familiarity and effective partnerships, so United’s injury woes at the back initially placed Van Gaal’s men at a disadvantage.

Still, the simplicity in Naldo’s movement for both goals frustrated Van Gaal because they came minutes after United had scored, stemmed from simple runs away from the marker. The Brazilian international ran across several defenders to side-volley Gustavo Rodriguez’s free-kick past De Gea.

The winner saw Naldo simply run past Carrick to powerfully nod the ball off the ground and past the United goalkeeper. Basic man-marking proved costly, as Wolfsburg exposed United’s make-shift back four, whom failed to carry out simple defensive responsibilities.

Conclusion

It was possibly the most adventurous brand of football United have played this season, yet consequently they were overrun in midfield and still failed to translate possession dominance into creating ample quality chances. For the second time in the group-stage round, United took the lead away from home, and failed to sustain the lead due to poor set-piece marking and quick counter-attacks.

Nevertheless, this is what Wolfsburg are about, and what makes Hecking’s achievement so remarkable is the fact that the German side topped the group following the sales of Bundesliga player of the year Kevin De Bruyne, and Ivan Perisic – two key players to last year’s success. They simply worked hard to shut down United’s creative ball-players, and aimed to play their way out of trouble before charging past an immobile pairing of Schweinsteiger and Fellaini.

schwein smalling united

WOLFSBURG, GERMANY – DECEMBER 08: Bastian Schweinstieger of Manchester looks dejected during the UEFA Champions League match between VfL Wolfsburg and Manchester United FC at the Volkswagen arena on December 8, 2015 in Wolfsburg, Germany. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Bongarts/Getty Images)

United had no answers to Wolfsburg’s counters with Morgan Schneiderlin unavailable, and the heavy reliance on Schweinsteiger to be the focal point of United’s midfield at this stage in his career is peculiar. It’s difficult to question Van Gaal’s approach going forward, but apart from the opening 10 minutes, United’s work out of possession was shocking.

This puts Van Gaal’s work at United into question. In a group that many tipped United to win, the Red Devils rarely imposed sustained dominance in any match, whilst the recurring issues on both sides of the pitch played to their downfall. Van Gaal’s a stubborn man, but this should serve as a lesson to the United manager who risks stagnation if the required tweaks to his philosophy are overlooked.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work, Uncategorized

 

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