“We are United, we want to attack!” The refrains of the Old Trafford faithful this evening, one minute after Anthony Martial had been removed in favour of Marouane Fellaini – a substitution that was greeted by loud booing from United fans.
Given that their side had just presented them with 67 more scoreless minutes – to follow three consecutive scoreless draws – the frustration of the United support was understandable. Nonetheless, to manager, Louis Van Gaal, however, the boos and chants aimed in his direction may have felt more than a little unfair. Although Van Gaal has rightly taken flak for his risk-averse approach to the game from numerous quarters over the last couple of weeks, there were ample signs on display tonight that the famously stubborn Dutchman may be willing to change his ways.
My article on the reverse fixture a fortnight ago focused on the failure of Van Gaal to encourage his full-backs to exploit the space that this compact CSKA side were leaving on the flanks. Both Antonio Valencia and Marcos Rojo demonstrated great reluctance to overlap and get to the byline. As such, with both wide players looking to come inside, United were devoid of any depth to their play. The visitors only won one single corner over the course of the game; a shocking statistic. CSKA sat deep and narrow and United responded by trying to thread the eye of the needle instead of going around them. Unsurprisingly, they largely failed in that endeavour.
Tonight, the restraints attached to the full-backs were clearly removed. United funneled the majority of their play down the left-hand side through Marcos Rojo, whose overlapping runs were facilitated by the excellent in-field dribbling of young Jesse Lingard. The understanding between the two was a prominent feature of United’s attacking play and it led to several clear-cut chances. Ashley Young, at right-back, was equally positionally positive. Indeed, Young and Rojo combined for an excellent chance prior to half-time, which the Argentinian volleyed wide at the back post.
Of course, the risk-aversion that Van Gaal instills into his sides has not merely been apparent in the positioning of his full-backs. United currently lie in 18th, 16th and 2nd respectively in the shots, dribbles and sideways passes per game Premier League tables. Significant improvements were on display across all three categories tonight.
For starters, the home side were far more direct this evening – thanks, in the main, to the long passing of Daley Blind and Michael Carrick. Two weeks ago against the same opposition, United attempted 741 passes. Tonight, they only attempted 554; a significant reduction of 25%. Further, 41.7% of that reduced figure were attempted in the final third. Only 26.3% of all passes were tried in that area of the field two weeks ago.
This greater directness had a practical impact on United’s ability to create chances. Rooney’s opportunity in the opening five minutes stemmed from a raking Carrick pass to find Rojo on the overlap. And the game’s only goal finally arrived thanks to a brilliant long pass over the top of the CSKA defence – also from Carrick. Blind got in on the act too, delivering a near-perfect lob over the Russian’s back-line for Mata early on. United tested Akinfeev – who, by the way, has now conceded in a miserable 31 consecutive Champions League games – five times tonight. They only managed one shot on target in each of their previous two Premier League encounters.
Finally, the dribbling! United have completed a mere 8.6 dribbles per game in the league this season. Against CSKA, last time out, they managed 12. Here, the total was upped to 18, thanks in large part to the aforementioned Lingard, who tormented CSKA right-back, Mario Fernandes, before moving to the right and assisting the goal with a magnificent volleyed pass.
In summary, United demonstrated a greater willingness to take chances across all attacking metrics this evening. Actions that risk losing possession – Van Gaal’s greatest fear – were selected far more often. Passes were more direct, players ran at opponents with greater regularity and a lot of the starch was taken out of the positional rigidity shirt. And not a moment too soon, as far as Louis Van Gaal’s employment prospects go. His supporters were poised to turn tonight. But, on tonight’s evidence, if he continues to temper his obsession with control, he can yet bring them back from the brink.