Despite a characteristically unambitious performance, Louis Van Gaal’s Manchester United were ultimately gifted three vital Premier League points by Norwich City’s Sebastian Bassong.
An uninformed observer of this game’s first half might be forgiven for mistaking it to be a typical end-of-season dead rubber. There was little to suggest that both sides needed a win in pursuit of their respective goals, with rigid conservatism very much the order of the day.
The long-acknowledged reluctance of Van Gaal to encourage line-breaking runs from his midfield players was very much on display here, with Wayne Rooney consistently isolated in the lone striker role. Rooney was asked to return to the frontline due both to the knock sustained by Anthony Martial in the warm-up and the baffling decision to rest Marcus Rashford with just eight days of the season remaining.
Although Cameron Jerome should have headed Norwich ahead from Nathan Redmond’s fourth minute cross, the doomed Canaries were equally positionally restrained. The talents of Robbie Brady, their standout player this season, were hampered by Alex Neil’s decision to employ him in a narrow role on the left of midfield (see below). As such, the hosts were unable to consistently exploit the aerial vulnerability of Marcos Rojo, fielded at centre back today in the absence of the also-rested Daley Blind.
Rojo’s loose marking was culpable for that early Jerome chance and he was caught again – three minutes before Mata’s winner – when he allowed substitute Dieumerci Mbokani to ghost in behind him and fluff his header. Given the Argentinian’s part in Wes Morgan’s headed equaliser for Leicester in United’s previous game, it was extremely strange that Neil’s chosen tactic reduced his side’s crossing potential.
Brady’s narrow positioning did allow United right back Antonio Valencia to advance, with the Ecuadorian ultimately failing to capitalise on the freedom of movement unafforded to the other 21 players on the pitch. Meanwhile, on the same flank, Norwich left back Martin Olsson was not taking similar advantage of Juan Mata’s equally narrow interpretation of his wide role, underlining Neil’s safety-first mentality.
Both sides opened up very slightly at the beginning of the second half. Olsson finally advanced into the final third to send in two dangerous early crosses, while Ander Herrera also began to run forward from the right of United’s midfield three. The Spaniard spurned two good chances from Mata key passes in the second half, as United’s maintained their right-wing focus.
Neil switched from his starting shape of 4-4-1-1 to a 4-4-2 with inverted wingers in the 63rd minute, which almost immediately bore fruit when Wes Hoolahan’s inswinging right-wing cross teed up that aforementioned Mbokani chance. Alas for the Canaries, Bassong stepped up again three minutes later, as he did at 0-1 against Sunderland, to cost his side a goal and kill their new-found momentum.
Failure to defeat Arsenal on the part of Manchester City tomorrow would leave the FA Cup finalists’ European fate in their own hands. But Ed Woodward and the Manchester United powers-that-be would be very foolish to let eventual success on either or both of those fronts sway their decision about Van Gaal’s future. This game, in which his side translated 65% possession into just two shots on target – the 20th game of the season in which they failed to score in the first half – was a cautionary microcosm of his disappointing tenure.