We didn’t want to admit it to ourselves, but the warning signs have been there for some time. Louis Van Gaal sets his team up to play the same way, regardless of the opposition. He has total faith in his ‘philosophy’, a conviction that if all goes to plan no side can resist United’s relentless possession and probing. And largely things had gone to plan, bar the frustrating home draw with Newcastle and the away defeats at Swansea and PSV. United were top of the league on Saturday morning. But two weeks ago at Southampton Ronaldo Koeman set his side up to press and harry, pass and attack at a high tempo from the very first whistle. Van Gaal’s side had no answer for half an hour. With the score at 1-0 Graziano Pelle fired a relatively simple chance wide of David De Gea’s left post. Had he scored it may have been game over. But, after that, United, to their credit, upped their game and, with a little help from the Saints defence, some ice cool finishing from Martial and several De Gea wonder-saves fought back to win the match.
A few days later it was the same again. Wolfsburg flew out of the traps, hustled and harried and cut United apart. Again, the score was fortunately only 1-0 when the home side woke up, again showing great resilience to come back and win the game.
To that point the fixture computer, by chance, had been extremely kind to United. Before kick off at the Emirates on Sunday, in all competitions, they had faced the sides in 20th, 19th, 18th, 11th, 10th, 9th and 8th in the Premier League, 12th in the Championship, a mid-table Belgian side, the current second best side in Holland and a very tidy German outfit. The real tests lay ahead, with the hardest away trip to date, at Swansea, ending in defeat. October would expose the true potential of this team, with a run of fierce matches against sides with greater attacking potential than United had faced to date.
And so to the Emirates. United have a fine recent record against the Gunners, victories built on exposing Arsenal’s persistent weaknesses. Indeed, last season Van Gaal led his side to a 2-1 away win by preparing a compact team, set up to defend deep and break at speed. Fergie, no doubt, watched with a smile of approval. It was a surprise, therefore, when the black-shirted United started the match with all ten of their outfield players pushed up almost to the halfway line. Surely, with a classy but ageing midfield pair of Schweinsteiger and Carrick and with a makeshift defence containing a winger at left back and the intelligent but slow, immobile Daley Blind at centre back, United weren’t going to play high up the pitch, leaving Arsenal’s pacey, technically gifted midfielders and forwards acres of space in the gaping holes the high press would create. And yet that is exactly what they did. Schweinsteiger pressed so high that at times he ended up occupying the same space as Wayne Rooney. The Gunners simply couldn’t believe their luck and destroyed Van Gaal’s side in less than twenty minutes. The worst twenty minutes most United fans will ever have watched.
What happened to defending deep, denying Arsenal space to run and create and breaking, using the raw pace of Depay and Martial? Van Gaal blew it. He must know he blew it. And it could have been worse had Arsenal been even more clinical. In the second half the home side relaxed and United had some sustained possession, but the game was dead. Both sides knew it was over. Even with the ball there was little creativity or cutting edge. They never looked like scoring.
In keeping with his performances for most of the season so far, Wayne Rooney was again desperately immobile and poor, both in terms of touch and vision. How he continues to be included baffles, particularly when playing under a manager who so easily drops others who have the odd under-par performance. Similarly, Memphis Depay was again peripheral, making poor decisions and surrendering the ball with desperate ease. Surely the time has come to remove him from the action rather than persist with a huge talent who is struggling to adapt to a higher standard of football and opponent. For a man who prides himself on his dispassionate ruthlessness and huge ‘balls’, it has long passed the time where such standards should apply to both. In the case of the young Dutchman one can see the logic of trying to play him into form and to develop him on the pitch, but with regards to Rooney it is clear as day that the only way is down. He is as shot as Radamel Falcao, now stinking it up at Chelsea.
Van Gaal’s team selection and tactics played into Wenger’s and Arsenal’s hands. In the grander scheme of things recent injuries have exposed the summer folly of not investing in an experienced central defender. Whilst Luke Shaw’s devastating injury was a terrible misfortune, the recurrent absences of Jones and Rojo were entirely predictable. Daley Blind is the natural replacement at left back, but the lack of central defensive cover sees him continue alongside Chris Smalling. Against poorer opposition Blind has the vision, time and space to orchestrate attacking moves from the back, but faced with a pacey, strong and dynamic attack he is exposed, as he was by Gomis at Swansea. Playing so high up the pitch at the Emirates, with so little midfield cover, he was totally overrun. Schweinsteiger pushing so far forward left the immobile Carrick alone in the centre of the pitch, easily bypassed and left in the wake of Arsenal’s onslaught. The Gunners were the United of old, flying out of the traps at their desperate prey. United played the part of Arsenal, disjointed, wide open and utterly naive.
It was a shambles, one for which Van Gaal must take the blame. At half time he replaced the hapless Darmian and Depay with Valencia and Fellaini and so was completed the slowest attacking force in Christendom. To his credit, Martial played an intelligent and impressive, but ultimately futile game. Again his pace, strength, fine touch and dribbling were showcased. Alas, none of his teammates were able to match his dynamism.
And so United miserably failed the first true test of the season. Roberto Martinez, no doubt watching intently, will , in two weeks, do as he did last season after watching Van Gaal’s side beaten on the counter-attack at Stamford Bridge and simply copy what came before. United will line up in similar fashion, intent on pressing and dominating possession and slowly wearing the opposition down and Everton will fly out of the blocks, play with intensity, attempt to counter attack and exploit the holes such an approach leaves and pit the on-form wall of muscle and power, Romelu Lukaku, against Daley Blind. He will target the struggling full backs, whoever that may be (for injuries and the whim of the manager are hard to predict), and deliver from wide, and if United do not learn to actually turn up in the early stages of matches and if they are equally naive and lacking in defensive shape and resilience they will again be blown away, as they were at Goodison Park last year.
United remain only two points behind leaders Manchester City, in third place, which many predicted would be around about par for an incomplete team and squad still in that linguistic excuse for a lack of quality and performance, ‘transition’. It is, one might argue, a second year of ‘transition’ which may not have been necessary in a relatively weak Premier League, had the second half of the summer been utilised better to acquire the players who would fill the continuing areas of weakness. There are no guarantees when buying a player, but you can be sure that your squad won’t be any worse off than if you settle for the existing flawed options. But in ‘transition’ we remain, and there is no shame in now looking forward to the upcoming fixtures against Everton, City, CSKA and Crystal Palace with some trepidation, or at least a modicum of concern, because this squad is unbalanced, in some areas lacking in depth, has obvious weaknesses and a stubborn manager who will change his methods, tactics and game management for no one.
We can only hope that over the next fortnight Van Gaal can revitalise what appears to be a tired squad, many of whom have played almost every match this season, and is able to motivate and prepare his side to face a predictable onslaught at a historically difficult venue for United. We must also pray that the manager’s patience with Wayne Rooney finally runs out, for persisting with a player in such woeful form can only be damaging. A win would restore confidence in the manager, his methods and his players after a chastening, lamentable thrashing, and make us believe that an unlikely title challenge may be a possibility. With only three points separating Tottenham in 8th and Arsenal in 2nd, United could go into the Derby with the possibility of returning to the top of the table. But should they lose at Goodison they may be out of the Champions League places altogether and with confidence at a low ebb. That is not the time to be facing an absolutely fearsome City attacking unit, albeit with defensive concerns of their own.
The thrashing at the Emirates is not, in isolation, a season defining result and indeed a win in a fortnight would put United back on course for a decent season. But another chastening defeat would be hugely damaging and concerns about the squad and the manager’s methods and ‘philosophy’ will grow. One shambolic loss will be forgotten should results in the next few games be largely positive, but the fear is that United’s failings have been exposed by the first high-quality side they have faced. An unbalanced squad cannot now be improved until January. We have to hope that Sunday’s mauling was a one-off, because if it was not then we are set for a very long and frustrating season indeed.