It has been the sort of season to confuse even the most ardent of Manchester United fans. Do they stick with manager Louis van Gaal’s results-oriented but over-passing laborious style or twist with disaffection at the obvious lack of style, pace and freedom in the Red Devils game?
The FA Cup quarter-final home game against holders Arsenal was a litmus test for the veteran Dutch coach to prove his doubters wrong; win a crucial home game against a top four team in reasonable form (recent form sans Spurs away and Monaco at home) and please the crowd with a bit of a performance.
In the end LvG’s brave attempt to introduce style and performance in his team fell short on the result side as a local boy and lifelong United fan sent a visibly anxious yet hopeful crowd back home in real disappointment.
When Danny Welbeck seized on Antonio Valencia’s poor back pass before slipping the ball past David de Gea and calmly stroking it home, it must have left Van Gaal quite miffed. For in dispensing with the services of the striker in the summer, the Dutchman was blunt in his assessment of the Manchester born and bred forward: he does not score enough goals.
That in itself was a fact widely accepted by everyone but yet the media and fans alike pointed out that Welbeck was willing to do a job for the team, sacrifice his favoured central role and provide the link up play for the star names that more often than not get most of the glory and the goals.
How United could have done with his tireless runs that induced panic into their defence when chasing after everything as typified by reckless challenges by Ashley Young and Marcos Rojo.
For Arsene Wenger, one Dutchman’s mistake is a Frenchman’s delight. Welbeck has often got the nod ahead of stellar names like Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud because his selflessness is a perfect foil for the likes of Alexis Sanchez and the probing play of Mesut Ozil.
This writer will dare say it that the latter’s often lazy style has been covered up quite often by Welbeck. But to come back to the point, Van Gaal should have at least given Welbeck a season before deciding whether to dispense with his services.
The likes of Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young, much maligned last season than even Welbeck, have been rejuvenated considerably after being given no hope by many at the start of the season, yet the young Englishman was summarily sold off to a rival team without a second thought and perhaps this was why he found it hard not to celebrate his goal at the stadium he adored for so long.
Quite why Van Gaal chose to implement a double change at the break defies explanation. Ander Herrera’s neat tidy passing and rare ability to not waste a pass and Luke Shaw’s willingness to go forward kept the balance of the squad on the flanks, while Rojo’s solid yet unspectacular performances at centre back have contrasted with his nervousness whenever he is played at left back.
If the substitution was injury inspired as seems to be the case, then putting Young in that position would have worked with a proper right back in the mould of Rafael freeing Antonio Valencia to play further forward.
Granted Herrera was on a yellow card but surely the Spaniard is not a dirty player and he rarely makes reckless tackles. Michael Carrick, though astute as ever in his passing, looked unsure when tracking back and United, though playing an open game in the first period never quite took a grip in the middle as when the little Spaniard was present.
The irony is if LVG feared a possible red for Herrera, United still went on to finish the game short after Angel di Maria made a no-no by tugging referee Michael Oliver’s shirt in protest at being booked for diving, something even the Argentine will know is a cardinal sin. Up until then United’s most creative player, he certainly should have known the likely outcome.
Di Maria’s performance before the booking and subsequent sending off leaves many with questions as to what exactly LVG attempted to achieve by playing him out of position earlier in the season. Then there is Rooney’s return to goal-scoring form, again another puzzle that perhaps only the Dutchman’s clipboard has the answers to.
Even then, the round pegs in square holes philosophy persists as typified by Valencia’s mistake. The make-shift right back, one of United’s willing if not quite qualified runners, endured a torrid time chasing after Sanchez and even the most disappointed fan will forgive a player who always puts in 100 percent in a game. He has generally distinguished himself in a position better suited for others and the sight of the ‘exiled’ Rafael sitting on the bench adds to the whole conundrum.
Then there is the lumbering yet forceful presence of Marouane Fellaini. As long as United fail in such crucial matches as this, questions will always be asked as to why Radamel Falcao and Juan Mata cannot get a kick in while the big Belgian becomes the fulcrum of United’s vain attempts to rescue games.
You suspect teams will eventually get around this tactic and that Arsenal are possibly the least equipped for this yet they silenced the home crowd. Fellaini the new number 10 ahead of Mata? Or Fellaini now the best source of goals ahead of Falcao? Certainly strange things are afoot at Old Trafford this season.
10 cup finals
With a good opportunity to win a trophy now gone, Van Gaal must now rouse his side for 10 cup finals starting with Tottenham Hotspur this Sunday. Having missed the FA Cup semi-final boat, Manchester United must quickly dust themselves, lick their wounds and perform in the remaining league games in the manner of a deep sea rescue to salvage the much coveted Champions League spot.
It is probably too late to expect this season’s philosophy of tactical confusion, three at the back and players in unfamiliar roles to be eliminated in full over the course of 10 games. Van Gaal is stubborn in his ways, as the Man United fans have grumblingly accepted.
But if the clipboard-wielding Dutchman reverts to his mid-season type and achieves results and a top four finish in spite of underwhelming performances then the whole campaign will be forgotten and Van Gaal can then plan for his second season in a conducive environment. For anything less than Champions League will set this giant club adrift into a sea of mediocrity.