Louis van Gaal gets it tactically wrong with Fellaini inclusion in Arsenal defeat

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Another night, more unwanted records for Manchester United. Their exit from the FA Cup means they will go a second season without a trophy - the first time they've done that since the 1980's.

Being knocked out by the Gunners from the oldest cup competition thanks to a goal from the man Louis van Gaal opted to sell, Danny Welbeck, means they will have gone 11 years without lifting the famous trophy and won't be able to end that duck for at least another year - the longest they've gone without winning the FA Cup since the 1960's.


Manchester United have a fairly remarkable record against Arsenal and hadn't lost against Arsene Wenger's men since 2011; they'd not lost at Old Trafford against the north London side since 2006. However with Angel di Maria sent off for his act of stupidity in the second half, it could have been much worse than 2-1 - David de Gea pulled off a remarkable save from Santi Cazorla's low drive while Alexis Sanchez pushed his shot just wide in the dying seconds of extra time. 

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Sadly there's no real crumbs of comfort to balance that out for Manchester United fans. They were hardly fluent, although they're first half performance was a lot more urgent than anything they've produced of late.

Both goals conceded by the Red Devils were atrocious from a defensive point of view. Antonio Valencia could be blamed for being sucked in to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain allowing Nacho Monreal a clear shot on goal for the match opener. The eventual winner from Welbeck was a disaster from start to finish for the Ecuadorian. 

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The home side enjoyed greater possession (57.1%) but they managed just five shots on target and never really tested a vulnerable-looking Wojciech Szczesny. Angel di Maria had probably his team's best chance, but could only fire at the Pole from a tight angle.

There wasn't much in terms of Manchester United's style of play that suggested they are any closer to making a breakthrough. The biggest talking point before the game was Louis van Gaal's decision to include Marouane Fellaini in his starting line up as a sort of number 10.

The Belgian is much maligned and certainly wasn't the worst player in a red shirt - he may have been one of the best - but when he's in the side he influences the way they play hugely, and that's not always a good thing.

He had 64 touches, the third highest figure in his team and the more than Di Maria and Wayne Rooney, which shows his influence over the team.


The former Everton man seemed a little unaware of what was expected of him. Often he dropped deep to collect the ball in defence and was then seen right up alongside Wayne Rooney. That may be because Francis Coquelin - who was voted man of the match - was patrolling in front of his defence, but it forced Manchester United to focus their attention on getting the ball out wide instead of playing through a genuine passer of the ball through the middle of the pitch, a tactic which could have put pressure on a less-than-convincing Arsenal backline.

Fellaini Heatmap (WhoScored)

Their heatmap (courtesy of WhoScored) shows most of their possession came out wide - and that wasn't helped by the introduction of Michael Carrick at half time. Ander Herrera at least looked forward to try and link up with Fellaini while the former West Ham man was content to sit deeper.

Man Utd Heatmap

That also meant long balls through the middle to Fellaini and the Red Devils had some success with that - the former Everton man burst through earlier on in the first half and should have done better with space in the box, while he teed up Angel di Maria before the hour mark after chesting down a poor clearance.


Overall he won five aerial duels which was a high-mark for his team, but the fact that ultimately little came of them is telling. Arsenal, who had Per Mertesacker back in at the back, looked comfortable dealing with this approach.  

Another big concern for Manchester United was the lack of rapport between Wayne Rooney and Fellaini. With Radamel Falcao and Juan Mata on the bench there was little proof that the big Belgian is the right man to fill the playmaker spot. 

Indeed, Fellaini's night was epitomised by the fact that by half-time he'd committed more fouled than the entire Arsenal team - while Van Gaal's tactical failings were summed up by the deployment of Chris Smalling up front for the last few minutes.

By the full time whistle he'd been called up for eight fouls. By admitting defeat in the the battle for midfield by largely bypassing it altogether, Manchester United gave Arsenal a platform to grab the win. Ultimately there was little to choose between the two fallible teams and it was two defensive errors that cost the home side dear. But, be that as it may, there is little for Van Gaal to take from the game tonight except criticism. 

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Marouane Fellaini
FA Cup
Manchester United

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