Louis van Gaal’s second defeat in five days had a lot in common with the first. Two concessions from set-pieces prompted the Dutchman to turn to Nick Powell – who made his last Premier League appearance over three years ago – as an unlikely emergency target man.
Tuesday night saw the young midfielder replace World Cup winner, Juan Mata. On Saturday evening, the man sacrificed was Marouane Fellaini, the scorer of United’s opener and a significant aerial threat in his own right. It’s difficult to attribute a logical explanation to decision-making of this nature – and that’s putting it mildly.
The visit to Bournemouth’s Vitality Stadium saw Van Gaal continue with the 4-2-3-1 / 4-1-4-1 hybrid he’d switched to for the Wolfsburg clash in midweek. Fellaini was again tasked with a demanding box-to-box role, in which he featured as a holder in the defensive phase and a second number ten when United were on the attack.
It’s not surprising that Van Gaal’s side have looked more dangerous (and more open) in this configuration. Recall – it was with this shape, with Fellaini in this hybrid role, that United played their best football under this manager in early 2015. The Belgian’s tendency to hang on the edge of the box and provide an extra attacking body stands in stark contrast to the positional restraint shown by both holding midfielders in United’s usual rigid 4-2-3-1 interpretation.
Luckily for the visitors, Michael Carrick – omitted in midweek – was back in the side as the deepest-lying midfielder. Bastian Schweinsteiger, who was overrun on the break by the pace of his fellow countrymen in midweek, missed out through suspension.
Carrick was United’s key performer in the first half. Owing to Bournemouth’s 4-1-4-1 shape, the home side had no number ten to go and press the midfielder. Carrick took advantage of this freedom – and Bournemouth’s relatively high defensive line – to continually ping cross-field balls over the head of right-back, Adam Smith, for Memphis Depay.
It was from this avenue that United found their equaliser, after David De Gea had uncharacteristically allowed Junior Stanislas’ second minute corner to fly straight in. Fellaini, who constantly lurked in a left-of centre pocket in front of the Bournemouth defence, reacted brilliantly to pounce on the rebound from Depay’s saved effort.
Happily for Cherries fans, the decision-making of their boss, Eddie Howe, is far more conventional. Howe made a subtle – but key – change to the configuration of his side at half-time to blunt United’s attacking threat. While Howe deservedly received credit from the Sky analysts at game’s end for the well-worked corner that won the game, this tactical tweak went completely unnoticed.
Howe changed the slant of his midfield triangle at the break, moving from a 1-2, with Andrew Surman at the base, to a 2-1 with Dan Gosling as a ten. This ensured that Carrick would no longer be free in possession to play those dangerous long passes in behind his defence.
Bournemouth could maintain their high line, denying space to the United midfield cohort, without worrying about Carrick’s direct threat. United created absolutely nothing in the second half – despite Van Gaal’s post-match entreaties to the contrary – even after the arrival of the great Nick Powell as an emergency centre-forward. In fact, it was Bournemouth, through the two glorious chances afforded to Glenn Murray, that should have put the game to bed in the last quarter.
The tragi-comedy was complete for Manchester United fans, when centre-back, Paddy McNair, traipsed off injured in the 91st minute, only to be replaced by Phil Jones in a straight swap. That, dear readers, says it all about the mindset of this manager.
There are certainly mitigating factors in Van Gaal’s favour in the aftermath of this latest reverse; a rare error from De Gea and injuries to key players – particularly at the back – to name but two. However, it was difficult not to draw unfavourable comparisons between this self-styled genius and Eddie Howe as the latter applauded his fans at the final whistle.
Here is a clever, young manager who is doing an awful lot with very little. Remember, Howe too has suffered a multitude of injuries to key players along the spine of his team. Van Gaal, on the other hand, has done very little with a quarter of a billion spend. Here is a risk-averse, possession-obsessed manager, who turns to the long ball when in need of a goal! He does not therefore even have the courage of his own misguided convictions. Reports in midweek suggest that the United board are still taken in by the con that Van Gaal is perpetrating. Those of us watching closely know that the emperor truly has no clothes.