A lot has been written about Louis Van Gaal’s obsession with control. Since his Ajax days, the Dutch coach has espoused a brand of football that seeks to minimise risk – the risk of losing the ball. His is a brand of football where dominating possession is an end in itself, not merely the means to an end. At no point was that (pardon the use of the word) philosophy clearer than in the aftermath of last month’s 3-1 home win over Liverpool. Despite the first-half being a scoreless borefest, Van Gaal stated “We played better in the first half. We had far more control, but we didn’t create much…” These, quite clearly, are the words of a man who worships at the altar of possession – to whom creativity, the means by which goals are actually scored, tarries behind in a distant second place.
It is no surprise therefore that Van Gaal’s United sides have generally been set out in a rigid, inflexible manner. Players appear instructed to stick to their designated areas with little room for interpretation or risk-taking. That kind of Van Gaal United side was on display tonight.
The visitors approached a narrow, deep-lying CSKA side, set up in a 4-4-1-1 formation, in a manner that completely played into the Russians’ hands. With both wide players in Van Gaal’s 4-2-3-1, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard, looking to cut inside, United were reliant on their full-backs to provide the width and depth necessary to trouble CSKA’s two tight banks of four.
Instead, the positioning of both Antonio Valencia and Marcos Rojo was maddeningly restrained. At no stage in the first half did either player, or indeed anyone else in a black jersey, reach the byline. To reinforce the point, United won zero corners in the first half (their first arrived in the 79th minute!), despite enjoying roughly two-thirds of the possession.
As a result, United played in front of their hosts, who dealt comfortably with the threat – heading away crosses from deep and doubling up on the infield running of Martial with right-sided central midfielder, Pontus Wernbloom.
And despite having a fraction of their possession, the hosts also showed United exactly what they were missing in the attacking third. Despite being assigned to marshal Martial for the evening, right-back Mario Fernandes made countless overlapping runs that the French winger was unable to match consistently – particularly as midweek figure-of-fun, Marcos Rojo, reprised his comedy stint at Spartak by continually getting attracted infield with Zoran Tosic.
It was Fernandes’ arrival at the byline that prompted Martial’s handball and Doumbia’s finish on the rebound from Eremenko’s saved penalty-kick. The Brazilian also ran off Martial, midway through the first-half, to deliver a dangerous low cross into the corridor of uncertainty that went mercifully unmolested from a United perspective. Why weren’t Valencia and/or Rojo being encouraged to play like this, one wondered?
Van Gaal removed one of his two holders (Schweinsteiger) at the beginning of the second half and moved to the 4-1-2-3 formation that worked so well for a while, post-Xmas, last season – with Fellaini on the left of the midfield three. This signaled that Van Gaal was about to indulge in his greatest contradiction. Possession dominance will inevitably lead to victory – unless you’re losing, in which case it’s cool to boot it to t’big lad.
That uber-direct approach didn’t materialise, however. Nor did any loosening of the positional restraints. It took until the hour mark before a Manchester United player ran in behind the CSKA defence to create a chance – when Herrera ran off Dzagoev to cross for Rooney’s header on-target.
Eventually, with twenty-five to go, Antonio Valencia’s leash was removed. He became the focus of much of United’s attacking play and it was the Ecuadorian’s cross – from the byline – in the 65th minute, that Martial headed home from the penalty spot. That’s the young Frenchman’s fifth goal for United in nine games. It took Rooney 39 to accumulate the same total.
Incredibly, despite now looking to have the measure of their hosts, United then took their collective foot off the gas. The remainder of the game, much to the certain relief of the clearly nervous Leonid Slutskiy, petered out to an uneventful conclusion.
There was a lot of sniggering in Sam Allardyce’s recently published book about the so-called “West Ham way”. This is not the United way. Manchester United enjoyed two decades of success with the ultimate tactical pragmatist at the helm. Even Arsene Wenger looks like a belated convert away from possession dogmatism. Not Louis Van Gaal. For him, control remains the one true God.