Faced with a tight Champions League group, Manchester United’s progression in the competition comes down to the final two games of the group.
When you come down to the wire, things always get complicated. United’s group is perhaps the most complicated of the lot in the Champions League this season.
All four teams are in with a chance of qualification, and even though United are in the driving seat with two games left, a second defeat of the campaign at the hands of PSV Eindhoven would take things right down to the wire.
Yet Manchester United are surely the English team who are most suited to that scenario in Europe. They are the most ‘European’ of the Premier League sides, possessing, as they do, a penchant for passing the ball around neatly.
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It’s a possession-based style that has delighted few of a Manchester United persuasion this season. The team has been accused of being boring, lacking penetration and not being sufficiently attacking. Manchester United fans demand more from their heroes.
They demand attacking, swashbuckling football, the kind of style that raises the terraces to their feet. After all, this is the team of George Best.
So as Manchester United line up tonight against PSV, maybe their fans will be casting a nostalgic thought back to that particular brand of East Belfast genius. Today marks 10 years since the passing of the great. Along with being one of those stats that makes you feel hopelessly old, it’s also a stat that makes United’s current malaise all the more poignant.
No longer do United possess the ability to jink around defenders like they weren’t there. The club of Best is also the club of Cristiano Ronaldo and Eric Cantona to name just two, a club possessing exciting attacking talent.
What Louis Van Gaal has brought to the club is not in that lineage. It’s a different style. His team plays with a calmness, a coolness and a patience that the United teams of the last decades never had.
During the Sir Alex Ferguson era we were always told that United scored in stoppage time so often because they wore their opponents down. The relentless attacks, the wing play, the trickery. They were just so much of a handful for 90 minutes that opponents could do nothing but cave in the end.
But think about what having 70% possession in a game must do to the opposition. Think about the running they have to do to close you down, think about how many times United have dominated games under Van Gaal and won 1-0.
After their win over Watford – another very late winner – United sit above Manchester City and Arsenal in the table, behind only surprise leaders Leicester, whom they play this weekend, giving them the chance to go top.
Clearly that patience and perceived toothlessness is doing something right, even if the rest of the title contenders are losing more games than you’d imagine.
But if the coolness on the ball doesn’t lend itself to exciting football in the Premier League, it does make United look more likely to deal with the pressure of a tight Champions League group.
Their style of football lends itself to their situation, and their mentality will help them too. When it’s double or nothing and the chips are down, it’s all about having the cool and the calm to go through with it. United have it in spades, and that’s how they’ll find a way over the next two games.