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    An amateur analysis: Why United possess the ability to turn around their fortunes

    by Dominic Booth 


    ‘Boring’, blasted Paul Scholes in that monotone Mancunian accent. ‘The players looked bored’, he said after a laboured 1-0 FA Cup victory over League One Sheffield United. It was another drab affair at Old Trafford but the hosts snuffed out their lowly opponents.

    The accusation levelled at Louis Van Gaal’s Manchester United has been greeted with nods of agreement. But it is just a little unfair. Besides, points are more important than prawn sandwiches and Van Gaal should be under no obligation to entertain anyone.










    The Old Trafford atmosphere has become sterile this season.
    But as the Red Devils pulled off a freak 3-3 draw at St James’ Park – an astounding result to say the least – just as the vultures were about to pounce, the fickle football world felt a seismic shift. Is this a sign of Van Gaal wilting under media pressure to ‘have a go lads’? Or is it the spark of a tactical renaissance? Is there life in the old dog yet?

    Perhaps the pulsating draw with the Magpies was the product of pure luck. Perhaps Louis – under mounting pressure to produce ‘entertaining’ football (as if that ever mattered) – stumbled upon a forward-thinking model.

    But the bottom line is that they failed to beat Newcastle, as they have failed to beat a raft of mediocre opposition this season. Never mind attacking football, Van Gaal needs winning football again.

    The 'lack of entertainment value’ would be swiftly forgotten if United were to rediscover the art of winning matches. The critics’ voices have been reverberating louder than ever since that barren run of eight games without winning in December. And it seems Van Gaal’s sudden change of philosophy is an indication that the Dutch manager is now ready to pander to the desires of the crowds.

    But 'attacking’ football, as we all know, does not automatically breed success. Look at Chelsea last season – lots of their games were tedious and turgid, but they ground out results and cantered to the title. The famous Italian teams of the 80s and 90s prided themselves on a sturdy backline, combined with a potent counter-attack. See Leicester City and Crystal Palace for modern day examples.

    Yet the counter attack is a method of playing that sits uncomfortably with Van Gaal. He prefers his sides to launch measured forays forward, while enjoying the lion’s share of possession. There have been suggestions the Van Gaal Way is outmoded.

    Here are a few myth-busting facts about United this season and why possession is stil important:

    Manchester United this season, have hit an average of 11.6 shot per game, whereas Liverpool (below them in the table) average 16.2. Shooting does not mean scoring.

    United have enjoy an average of 56.8 per cent of possession in games this season, the most of any team. Second is Arsenal with 56.4, third is Man City with 55.7. Good teams keep the ball.

    United have the second highest pass success rate, with 83.8 per cent, behind (top of the league Arsenal with 85 per cent). Passing matters.

    United’s defence make an average of 19.2 clearances per game – far fewer than anyone else in the league. Norwich (33.3) and Sunderland (30.6) made the most. Good teams don’t hoof the ball away.


    The stats almost always tell us that possession is nine-tenths of the law. The better teams have more of the ball and the better teams pass their way out of trouble rather than hammering it downfield.

    United's problem is that they do not possess pace or trickery to confound defenders in the final third. They dominate 70 per cent of the pitch. But without genuine pace, United lack bite.

    Memphis Depay is floundering in his first season in the Premier League and the onus is now on two rookies – Antony Martial and Jesse Lingard – to provide the oomph. A declining (and slow) Wayne Rooney and a misused Juan Mata on the right wing are big problems for Van Gaal. Mata is marooned on the right, his delicate left-foot used only for short, meaningless passes around the 18-yard box. In midfield, Morgan Schneiderlin is horrendously underplayed and Ander Herrera should be playing as a central midfielder rather than in the No 10 role. Michael Carrick, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Marouane Fellaini are all unable to manipulate fast, flowing football. Possession comes slowly. No through-balls are played, no movement around the box facilitates space for the magicians Martial and Memphis. Play is uniform.

    Van Gaal doesn’t need to entertain, but he needs to imbue confidence in his players. He needs to rejig and reshuffle his forward pack, but not to the extent that we saw against Newcastle, where United's defence were ragged and desperate. A tweak or two perhaps: playing two strikers could be the answer: or moving Mata central; maybe it is time to utilise the pace and delivery of Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia in advanced wide positions.

    In short, these are the things that should preoccupy Van Gaal's mind, rather than dazzling audiences. Selling tickets is Ed Woodward's job. If one person wants to give away his ticket to Old Trafford, four more will be waiting to snap their hand off for a seat at the Theatre of Dreams.

    Footballing memories are short. In November, United sat at the summit of the Premier League, thanks to a cast-iron defence, led by a resurgent Chris Smalling and the world class David De Gea. If they can call upon that resilience once more, along with a little more incision, there’s no reason United can’t become major contenders again.
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