Louis van Gaal’s team, branded “long-ball United” by Sam Allardyce, second only to Burnley in table
Thumping the ball up to a big man is the supposed plan B of a side whose blueprint has gone awry. United appeared to have no plan at all at Upton Park on Sunday. So on came Fellaini after 72 minutes in a desperate scramble to avert defeat via the Belgian’s height and muscle.
Trailing 1-0 to a Cheikhou Kouyaté goal United had bumbled along with no discernible shape or strategy, the manager’s odd selection again casting Wayne Rooney as a right-sided midfielder, Ángel Di María as a No10 – these two should exchange positions – and had the sluggish Radamel Falcao paired with Robin van Persie in attack, when James Wilson’s pace and vibrancy would have asked sterner questions.
The statistics back Allardyce’s comments and make for unsettling reading from United’s perspective. The 1,861 long passes played by the team so far in the Premier League is the second highest behind Burnley’s 1,877. Relegation-threatened QPR, West Bromwich Albion and Leicester City make up the rest of the top five.
The other end of that table consist of United’s rivals at the top: Arsenal, unsurprisingly, are lowest with 1,098, followed by Manchester City (1,184), Liverpool (1,377), and Chelsea (1,407), who are fifth, a place higher than Swansea City, whose tally is 1,382.
After United had escaped with a point, Blind said of Wednesday’s visit of Burnley: “We have to keep looking up and three points is important in the next game. I like there’s another game coming already because we can forget this one.”
They may want to forget about that performance but what should be noted is how Blind and the rest of Van Gaal’s squad seem to forget the vital stuff of whatever it is they work on during the week. Come the game and any strategy seems to vanish. Instead, Rooney, Di María, Van Persie and co appear to enter make-it-up-as-we-go-along mode. This is not what a €200 million-plus summer spend is supposed to achieve.
In the close season Van Gaal questioned his defensive resources. He hoped to have a Jonny Evans-Mats Hummels-Thomas Vermaelen centre-back trio when playing 3-5-2. He ended the summer window having added Marcos Rojo and Blind, who can also play in defence. Yet the glaring issue is not Van Gaal’s rearguard but the front. The purchase of Di María, for €75 million, and a season-long loan of Falcao was supposed to herald a new galáctico era. They would join Van Persie, Rooney, Mata and Adnan Januzaj, the new bright young thing, in a United strikeforce who would terrify defences in a blitz of attacking and goals.
Rooney, who has operated as a centre-forward, a No10, a defensive midfielder, a traditional midfielder and now a right-sided kind of auxiliary schemer, may feel he has been messed about even more than under Alex Ferguson. The player who signed fresh terms under David Moyes in the summer of 2013 following a turbulent few months when minded to leave for Chelsea, did so, in part, because he wanted to become United’s record goalscorer.
Having yet to score in 2015 – the two against Newcastle United on Boxing Day were his last – Rooney is on 224 goals, 25 behind Sir Bobby Charlton. He is a victim of Van Gaal’s eccentric team selection. So muted has Rooney become he is yet to record a shot on target in the league this year.
United’s second position in the long-pass league is countered by numbers that should encourage them. There is a pass accuracy of 84.8 per cent, second to Manchester City’s 85.1 per cent and better than Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. A possession figure of 59.6 per cent is second, again, only to City, and better than Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool.
The problem is Falcao, Van Persie, Wilson and Rooney – when allowed to play as a striker – are not being supplied adequately. United rank only 10th in total shots – the official way chances created by a team are measured – with 229. City are No1, with 289, Chelsea are second (281), Arsenal third (273) and Liverpool fourth (268).Southampton, Tottenham Hotspur, QPR and West Ham are all ahead of United.
Phil Jones said: “The spaces against West Ham weren’t really there in the first half and unfortunately it took a goal from them for the gaps to appear and for us to find those pockets to get Robin and Radamel on the ball, playing one-twos in and around the box and creating chances in the second half.”
United’s heritage and success derives from overwhelming teams. The club is summed up by the fans’ chant of “attack, attack, attack!” and now is the time for Van Gaal to tap into it.