Since the last progress report, Manchester United have played six games, winning three, drawing two and losing against Manchester City. Compared to the abysmal results at the start to the season, this would be considered progress. Certainly, the team is two points off a Champions league spot – an end of season position most United fans would be satisfied with. Yet, some of the issues raised in the last report still persist. In particular, the number of injured players at the club continues to remain consistently high. Whether this is an unfortunate coincidence or a result of abrasive training methods is something that warrants examination. Currently, Radamel Falcao, Phil Jones, Marco Rojo, Ashely Young and Jonny Evans are out with Rafael, Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera expected to return shortly.
Louis van Gaal’s insistence of sitting in his managerial seat regardless of on-pitch events also continues to be surprising. In a recent interview he argued that he lets the players get on with the job. If the job entails kicking out at opponents, shoddy defending, and ponderous possession, then van Gaal’s men are following his instructions perfectly. But surely, when unexpected events occur, van Gaal should be barking instructions or encouraging his charges? There is no reasonable explanation for van Gaal’s abstinence from the manager’s dugout. It is worth noting that no other manager at any other top club spends as little time on the touchline as the Dutchman does.
Another curious change is the current playing style at Manchester United. Based on the Netherland’s exploits, most pundits predicted that the side would switch back to a counter-attacking style. This prediction rallied Manchester United fans who had been disgusted by David Moyes’ dour possession style of last season. If we set aside the exciting transfer acquisitions, the truth is that United are far more of a possession team this season than they were under the maligned Scotsman. Rolling through tapes of this season, one thing is certain – van Gaal has asked his players not to play on the break. The play of Adnan Janujaz is a microcosm of the same. Last season, the Belgian prodigy was asked to take on the opposing full backs. This season, he has clearly been asked to receive the ball, turn towards his own goalkeeper and look to pass to the central midfielders such as Marouane Fellaini and Daley Blind.
Similar to his predecessor, van Gaal has asked his full backs to focus on defending more than attacking. Yes, that is their job. But, the modern full back needs to provide assists and be involved in building up attacks – not at United apparently. There are scarce moments in games when Rafael, Antonio Valencia or Luke Shaw overlap their midfielders to create 2 v 1 situations. When there is a rare foray forward by the full back, the midfielders play as auxiliary defenders, even when there is no pressure in that area of the pitch, which was the case for virtually the entire game against Crystal Palace. At the end of the day, United are not creating enough chances. Most of the goals in recent games have come from flashes of brilliance deflections or luck rather than exceptional build up play. The few chances that have been created have fallen to out-of-form strikers. Considering United has Falcao, Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney on its books, it’s incredible that the three have scored very few goals between them. Admittedly, injuries have played a part, but van Gaal’s tactics have starved van Persie, in particular, of the service he thrives on.