After defeat at Stamford Bridge all but ended United’s small hopes of the title, Louis Van Gaal called it the best performance of the season from his team. He made the comments in a spiky, almost excruciating video of awkwardness, but you get the feeling that Van Gaal wasn’t totally being awkward for the reporter.
There was certainly some good stuff from United, though Chelsea’s defence – and at one point the post – stood firm enough to stop the Red Devil’s advances. And so you can see why the Dutchman would react like that to being asked if he was frustrated.
United’s game plan was similar to their approach against Manchester City. Marouane Fellaini was a constant physical threat and United looked to exploit that.
But Chelsea stifled that threat very well. Kurt Zouma was employed to deal with the Belgian and he dealt with him really well. Fellaini didn’t win every header and the ones he did win he couldn’t win as cleanly as he might be used to as the young Frenchman did exactly what he was told to do.
Playing Zouma was perhaps a risk from Mourinho. He’s young and still relatively uncut. The ex-St. Etienne defender is an excellent physical specimen, but he has a lot to learn about positioning and the more subtle arts of defending. Yet it was a controlled risk from Mourinho. It’s one that Mourinho has made before, like in the Capital One Cup final, and it seemed to work. Matic was there to help out, and moving Fabregas to a more advanced role meant that Chelsea didn’t really lose their shape.
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So it was difficult for United at the weekend. They had 70% possession, something that Van Gaal will have loved, but they didn’t manage to find the net.
Still, the fact that they had so much of the ball at a place like Stamford Bridge is certainly more impressive than doing it at most other grounds around the country. Especially this season given how Chelsea have played. And when you go to any away game in the Premier League, it’s always tough to have that much of the ball.
United, even in defeat, had chances: Falcao hit the post as United managed 15 shots to Chelsea’s seven – and Chelsea were the home team. That’’s impressive from United, but there’s only one stat that matters and that’s goals.
In fact, for all their possession and shots, Van Gaal’s men only managed two shots on target, the same as Chelsea. From more than double the number of shots that’s not good enough.
What this tells us is that United’s play wasn’t quite varied enough. A lot of the time they tried long balls to Fellaini, but they did do more than just lump it. They worked the ball out wide, and switched the play well using Rooney as a pivot, but eventually the ball was worked into Fellaini at some point. Zouma marked him very well, though and they couldn’t create many clear cut chances from the knockdowns.
United had some good passing moves too, and their use of Rooney to sweep the ball into positions where they could get their crosses in was good but ultimately, they ran out of ideas. The best chance was when Falcao hit the post, and this was from a move that didn’t look to the big-framed, big-haired Belgian for the finishing touch at the end, but it was something of an isolated incident.
United’s best game is perhaps still to come. They are a work in progress and we all know this. They played well against Chelsea, but ultimately not well enough. Van Gaal has every right to be frustrated, because United did enough to beat most teams on the day, just not Chelsea. A manager like Van Gaal should not be quite so one dimensional in how he sets up his team, especially with players like Rooney and Mata on the pitch.
In the next few seasons I expect United to progress further, though. They were good but not good enough this time, but maybe this time next year they’ll manage it.
Was it a good performance from United? Yes. Was it their best of the season? Probably not. And that’s why it’s frustrating for Van Gaal – they played well enough to beat most teams, but you need more if you’re going to beat Chelsea at the Bridge.