Manchester United’s last Champions League outing – a 1-0 home victory against CSKA Moscow – can now be safely filed away in the false dawn folder. That night, as crowd unrest began to build off the back of three consecutive scoreless draws, Louis Van Gaal’s side turned in an anomalous performance. Full-backs were encouraged to overlap and attackers were encouraged to attempt dribbles. The tempo was noticeably higher, the passing significantly more direct. United, in truth, were incredibly unlucky not to win by far more than a single goal.
Tonight’s hosts followed that up with two workmanlike victories in the league, at home to West Brom and away to Watford. They managed only three shots on target and completed just seven dribbles against the Baggies. A paltry four dribbles, coupled with six shots on target, followed against the Hornets. Normal service had resumed. United remain in the laggard camp when it comes to dribbles per game relative to their league peers. They lie 17th, with just 8.2 completed per match. They are also, unquestionably, the least direct side in the division – no team has a higher pass to shot on goal ratio. These are statistics that reflect an outfit with a incredibly conservative manager at the helm.
PSV, conquerors of United on Matchday One, were not met with an anomalous United tonight. This was a Reds performance that very much fit the risk-averse trend. The hosts completed just five dribbles tonight, to PSV’s eighteen – despite having roughly 50% more possession of the football than the visiting Dutch. Despite needing to win this game to avoid needing three points away to Wolfsburg, United’s play was painfully pedestrian. Full-backs, Matteo Darmian and Marcos Rojo, were extremely restrained in their positioning, presumably owing to PSV’s counter-attacking threat that Van Gaal was so careful to talk up in his pre-match interview. United’s only clear-cut chance of a tepid first-half stemmed from a deflected Jesse Lingard shot that landed favorably in Anthony Martial’s path. Martial did not prevail upon the opportunity.
Much has been written about Van Gaal’s obsession with coaxing his players to operate in clearly delineated zones. There is very little fluidity or interchanging of positions between forwards, which, coupled with the reluctance to encourage dribbling and difficult passes, renders his sides predictable and easy to defend against. It was notable, therefore, that the second-best chance United fashioned deliberately tonight stemmed from Martial and Lingard swapping roles – the former crossing from the right to tee up the latter for a glancing header that flew just wide.
United’s best deliberately fashioned chance – their only other opportunity of a second-half that saw them manage just one shot on target – stemmed from the left boot of centre-back Daley Blind. The Dutchman showed why one pass can be better than fifty, lofting a pinpoint ball over the top for Ashley Young to collect and cross. Jesse Lingard struck over with the goal at his mercy. When you create so few genuine opportunities, you must be uber-clinical. Worth noting that Blind was the hosts’ most creative outlet tonight, with four key passes, two more than any other United player. Meanwhile, United’s designated primary creative outlet, Memphis Depay, was seen off comfortably by Colombian right-back, Santiago Arias.
Desperate for a winner, Van Gaal indulged in his greatest contradiction. This, truly, is cognitive dissonance at its most baffling. For a man who believes that maximising possession will inevitably bear chances and goals, his insistence on introducing Marouane Fellaini and going ultra-direct when under pressure to find one is both perplexing and hilarious in the extreme. Equally confusing was his positioning of the Belgian bruiser in a deep midfield position for his first 15 minutes on the field – perhaps as a direct response to PSV countering Fellaini’s arrival with the immediate introduction of a third centre-back and a move to a 3-4-2-1 formation.
That tactical shift from Phillip Cocu meant that PSV now had an overload in the middle of the park. The visitors began to exert a far greater control of the football, just when United’s attacking verve was at its most heightened. This loss of control – that which Van Gaal abhors most – was greatly exacerbated when Fellaini finally swapped with Rooney and joined Martial up top in a 4-4-2 for the last quarter-hour.
Far from Schneiderlin and Smalling passing it between them aimlessly, United were now hoofing it long to the big man. The comedy of Van Gaal’s cognitive dissonance was perfectly encapsulated late on by Wayne Rooney popping up in the left-back position to play a long cross-field ball to Fellaini on the right-edge of the area. The big man miscontrolled it and PSV broke dangerously. Robbie Savage squealed with derision on commentary. For once, we all agreed with him.
This was an absolutely dreadful game to watch and an equally dreadful performance from Manchester United. When you don’t take risks in possession, you don’t create chances and results are generally more difficult to come by. Louis Van Gaal has relied on the clinicality of his strikers and the heroics of his goalkeeper to hold off this irresistible truth so far this season. The Dutchman’s strongly-held philosophical convictions – those which he doesn’t even adhere to when time pressure is a factor – are extremely misguided. His luck will eventually run out.