Out-gunned by Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal in the last big game against a title contender, Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United bit back with a great performance against Everton at the weekend. All the more notable it was for Wayne Rooney’s first away goal in almost a year. Milestone.
But after the defeat at the Emirates a few weeks ago, question marks have risen over Louis Van Gaal’s ability to pull off the sort of tactical master class seen at the weekend against the big title contenders when it really matters.
Against Arsenal the other week, Van Gaal started with Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger in the midfield, presumably to make United solid deep in midfield and make it harder for Arsenal to break down the United defence, plugging the spaces between centre backs with either Carrick or Schweinsteiger, stopping Arsenal from finding space between the lines and stopping Arsenal’s precision passers from picking open United’s defence with through balls.
Schweinsteiger and Carrick are also the two midfielders in United’s squad who are the least mobile, given their age. Yet, when United were closer to Arsenal’s goal, they were tasked with pressing Arsenal high up the pitch. Since Carrick and Schweinsteiger are two wonderful passers, it makes sense to want them on the ball to start attacks. It makes sense to want them to be the link between the defence and the attack.
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Yet asking Schweinsteiger to press the Arsenal midfield was clearly a mistake, he couldn’t get close enough to make much of a difference and simply found himself in a no man’s land: too far away to put pressure on Ozil and Cazorla and so far out of position that there was always an easy pass available. And Arsenal took full advantage.
Without Silva and Aguero this weekend, though, City will be a different proposition both to Arsenal and to the City side United beat so convincingly at Old Trafford last season.
The problem that Van Gaal will face is the pace of Navas and Sterling. Against Bournemouth, City used the pace and directness of their wingers plus Kevin De Bruyne to full advantage.
United will likely be less able to press City, given Pellegrini’s powerful midfield. United will have to revert to the kind of game they usually play, slower and more considered. And as the home side, they’ll try to see more of the ball and dominate.
That might become just that bit harder for United next weekend, though. Smalling and Daley Blind have formed a good partnership this season, a mixture of Smalling’s power as a centre back and Blind’s comfort on the ball to start attacks from the back. But Blind was bullied by Bafetimbi Gomis when United lost to Swansea, and last weekend Van Gaal opted for the extra physicality of Phil Jones to deal with the threat of Romelu Lukaku. Against Everton they coped very well, Lukaku’s power was nullified and United won the game. Against City, you feel Van Gaal will need to go for the same tactic to deal with Wilfried Bony who will start up front in the absence of Sergio Aguero.
All of this means that United’s problem next weekend will be keeping the ball. City will, as always, attack. And the best way of stopping them might not be to press them, but rather deprive them of the ball and be solid enough to stop them from countering – their pace and precision on the counter will be their major threat.
But Van Gaal’s game has always been to press the opposition, have his defenders hold a high line and make the pitch incredibly small for the opposition when they have the ball. If they play the ball over the top of the defence, the space behind the defence is occupied by a sweeper-keeper.
Against City that could be their undoing. City won’t be put off in the midfield by the pressing, and if they do play a ball over the top United will have to deal with some serious pace coming from both sides. And whenever City do get it, they’ll have the aerial threat of Wilfried Bony to deal with.
Van Gaal was outdone by Arsene Wenger, and over the last year or so, Wenger has shown that he understands the need to be tactically aware in these games. Van Gaal, however, is so married to his principles that it’s hard to see him changing tack too much. And City might just have too much power and pace for United to play their normal game.