There were numerous moments during Saturday afternoon’s defeat to Stoke City that one could highlight to illustrate the irreparable dysfunction rife amid the ranks of Louis Van Gaal’s Manchester United.
But for this writer, the manner in which United allowed Marko Arnautovic the opportunity to spurn a glorious 36th-minute clear-cut chance takes the cake. By this point, Van Gaal’s side were already two goals down, with Stoke enjoying almost 60% of the ball and outshooting United by seven to two.
Striker, Bojan Krkic – rejuvenated since his surprise move to the Britannia Stadium – dropped deep to collect possession near the centre circle. Maraoune Fellaini – Van Gaal’s chosen number ten du jour – was caught too high up the pitch to apply pressure to the Spaniard, forcing Michael Carrick to halfheartedly leave his position in the front of the away defence.
Despite this lack of pressure on the ball, the United back four continued to hold a high defensive line in anticipation of Bojan’s inevitable through ball. Arnautovic was the man who made the run to meet it, benefitting from Daley Blind’s positional failure to keep him onside. Luckily for United, Stoke’s status as the poorest chance converters in the division came back to haunt the Potters and keep the scoreline – mercifully – down. But the space and time afforded to Bojan was breathtaking.
Meanwhile, Morgan Schneiderlin, United’s out-of-favour midfield dynamo, continued to twiddle his thumbs on the bench. United have only lost one of the fifteen games that the Frenchman has started this season. They have now lost six of the sixteen he has sat out.
Another player forced to sit this one out was captain Wayne Rooney, finally dropped for what could be his manager’s final game in charge after what has seemed like an eternal run of woeful form. Much of Sky’s criticism of Van Gaal focused on this decision to omit Rooney, for what was undoubtedly a crucial game in determining the Dutchman’s future.
While it’s true that United improved slightly as an attacking force upon his half-time introduction, this particular criticism is misplaced. Although the United striker set up United’s only clear-cut chance of the game in the 64th minute with a cross to Fellaini, Rooney’s omission from the starting line-up was long, long overdue. Moreover, Van Gaal’s pre-match claim that the decision was tactical rings true. Stoke were likely to press high up the pitch, as they had done in the evisceration of Manchester City, leaving space in behind for a quick striker like Anthony Martial.
It was this high pressing that presumably also prompted Van Gaal to select Fellaini in the number ten position, providing United with a direct outlet to bypass the Stoke press. Unfortunately for United, this tactic failed for two reasons. First, the Stoke midfielder stationed in the left-of-centre pocket that the Belgian likes to occupy was Geoff Cameron – who did very well to win the ensuing aerial and physical individual battle. Second, United’s passing over all distances was pretty wayward; particularly from Ander Herrera, whose inability to cope with Stoke’s pressure will not do his hopes of more regular playing time any favours.
United’s wastefulness in possession was one of many facets of their game that did not work on Saturday afternoon. Indeed, it’s difficult to think of a facet that did. That early two-goal deficit stemmed from individual errors from Memphis Depay and Ashley Young. The former is a big-money, summer transfer flop who has only two league goals and no assists to his name in fourteen appearances; his appalling defensive header that led to Stoke’s first and his 65% pass success rate saw him deservedly hauled off at half-time.
The latter’s stupid handball cost United the free-kick that led to Arnautovic’s wonderful strike from range. Young has generally done well at full-back during the Van Gaal era, but the regularity with which he plays there hangs a further question mark over the baffling squad management of Van Gaal’s almost-strikerless Manchester United.
United, as has now become customary, never looked like having a prayer of reining in Stoke’s comfortable cushion. This writer has long pointed to the statistics that show how bereft of incision this Van Gaal side really is; 15th position in both the shots-per-game and dribbles-per game tables and no player inside the top thirty chance-creators in the division speaks volumes about this inert, rigidly constituted mess. And now the defensive solidity that had his faithful holding out hope has evaporated too. As, presumably, has any chance of the Dutchman retaining his position. Am I allowed to say I told you so?