Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal will have some food for thought following the Red Devils' 2-1 defeat to PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League on Tuesday night. The men from Manchester dominated possession and had nearly three times the shots of PSV, but the quality of chances created was far too low for a team that has aspirations of a deep run in Europe.
Of United's 17 shots, only five of them tested PSV keeper Jeroen Zoet, which was only one more shot on target than the Dutch champions had during the match. The Red Devils frequently held the ball in PSV's half, switching the play back and forth between wings, but the only goal they scored was the product of an excellent piece of combination play by former PSV star Memphis Depay.
Similar offensive tactics have been used by Van Gaal in the Premier League, and there are questions about whether or not in leads to positive results. Their last match against Liverpool was a big boost for morale, but none of United's goals came from open possession play.
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Anthony Martial's brilliant finish came from a resulting counter attack off a Liverpool set piece. Ander Herrera and Daley Blind scored the other goals in the match, and both of them were from set-pieces. While United were dominating the possession game, for the most part, it was wasteful possession.
When pundits use terms like wasteful possession, what do they mean? Retaining the ball to stop the other team from creating chances is not wasteful possession. There are teams, like Arsenal, that thrive off of creating chances through possession, and keeping Arsenal off the ball means that their firepower is limited. Granted, Brendan Rogers likes to keep possession and repeatedly attack the opposition, so making Liverpool counter attack to create opportunities is a wise game plan.
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Liverpool's only goal came from a deflected ball that fell to Christian Benteke, who proceeded to score an astounding overhead kick from the edge of the box. That goal was not directly created from open play, which means that Van Gaal's gameplay worked - somewhat.
The difference between what Van Gaal is aiming to do, and what his team do on the field is that Manchester United's passing play is not creative even though they keep the ball. The passing play is frequently sideways and inconsequential, which forces someone to play a long ball to move the play further up the field. Because of their lack of height in attack, those long balls have no purpose since there is nobody to knock them down. Thus, the possession is wasted.
The difference between the Liverpool match and the PSV match is clear: Liverpool were not prepared to counter attack, and PSV were aiming to do so. Manchester United had multiple opportunities where they nearly carved open the Eindhoven defense, but they could not find the finish, which has been a trademark in their play so far this season. Their Dutch opponents undoubtedly knew this, and they sat back and got their reward.
If Manchester United want to make a serious Premier League and Champions League challenge, then they have to improve in two different departments. They must learn to hold possession and disrupt the shape of the opposition at the same time, and they must finish their chances. All of the Red Devils' attackers had opportunities on Tuesday night, and they continued to waste them.
The players are there for United, and the system is logical. The two just have not clicked yet.