Whilst many clubs would see the possibility of securing Champions League football for next season as a great achievement Manchester United supporters will have wished for much more when the season began back in August.
Their 2-1 FA Cup quarter-final home defeat against Arsenal leaves the Manchester giants without silverware for the second consecutive year and left their manager Louis Van Gaal with a number of questions to answer and problems to solve.
Throughout the Arsenal game United lacked the tempo that we are used to seeing from them. They were slow in possession, careless with the ball and lacked options when going forward. Too many of their ‘star’ names went missing.
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Manchester United have long since been known to possess a fast, high-tempo game plan that simply blew opposition teams away. Now they are much more conservative and, as a consequence, teams are less frightened about playing them. This has been typical all season.
Resulting to long balls is another issue that United have. So often United had possession in the back four or midfield only to find no options further up the pitch.
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United must play better football
Lumping the ball to Fellaini in the hope that he could do something with it is not the kind of football that should be encouraged. To be fair to the big Belgian he did his best and played relatively well but there are still huge question marks around his Manchester United career. If United are to play a much more high tempo game moving forwards then this is unlikely to suit his style of play.
Daley Blind was guilty of passing sideways or backwards throughout the match. Perhaps it was not his fault as his options were limited but I would have liked him to carry the ball forward and commit players before making that incisive pass. Blind seemed to take an age to make a pass and always wanted that extra touch. His performance typified that of United’s in general.
Di Maria, despite his sending off, did show glimpses of his quality but he needs to be more consistent to warrant the price tag that United paid for him. He needs the ball at his feet but he also needs to do more with it when he has it.
His ball to Wayne Rooney for United’s equaliser was inch perfect but was one of only a few glimpses of class from a United player in the game and his dismissal for a push on the referee probably encapsulated the frustration felt by everyone associated with the club.
Lack of confidence to make things happen is also key. Despite having a good run of results I still sense United are not confident in possession of the ball and at times unsure about the formations and tactics they are using. Last night United needed someone to take players on and commit the opposition.
Arsenal produced the better football
Ashley Young, despite having his opponent on a yellow card very early in the game, rarely threatened. Adnan Januzaj came off the bench and did make a difference with his wing-play but the end product was way off the mark. Phil Jones was the only player who added impetus after coming on as a sub. He was confident to step out of defence with the ball and ran at the Arsenal defence. His forays forward were impressive but proved too little too late.
Arsenal, on the other hand, constantly had options and movement in the attacking third. They are blessed with pace, skill and trickery and in truth should have had more goals if it wasn’t for another very impressive display from David de Gea in United’s goal.
Arsenal fed on United’s lack of confidence and Danny Welbeck’s winner ultimately came from an error in defence. They were the better side for most of the night and deserved their victory.
So what now for United?
Of paramount importance is qualification for the Champions League at the end of this season. A top four position will now be demanded by everyone associated with the club but that will not be easy. There are a number of clubs competing for those positions and a number of clubs who are full of confidence in the chase.
Van Gaal has spent a lot of money and expectations will have risen because of it. United will have wanted a trophy of some description this season but a return to the Champions League will have been their number one aim.
This season was always going to be another transitional period and I think United’s supporters will accept that but I think that they will demand that next season they are challenging the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City for the title, as well as other silverware, as Van Gaal will have had enough time to bring in the players he wants and shape his style of play around them.
Just as important as winning trophies will be United supporters insistence on a more attack-minded game plan next season.
Van Gaal has been given time because of his history and achievements in the game. However, if results and performances continue in the same vein then his tenure could be short-lived at Old Trafford.
United are a work in progress but how much more work is needed for the glory years to return once again?