Manchester United will need to win away at Wolfsburg in two weeks if they’re to reach the knockout stage of the Champions League after they delivered arguably their worst performance of the season against PSV Eindhoven.
Knowing that a win would take them through to the next round, United started brightly before fading away and failing to create a single chance in the last 20 minutes.
Here’s five things we’ve learnt from Wednesday night.
1) Will the real United please stand up?
Louis Van Gaal and his brand of football have come under severe scrutiny this season, with the Dutchman’s tactical rigidity blamed for United’s inability to produce the kind of football the fans demand.
Van Gaal’s advocates – a dying breed based on Wednesday’s appalling showing – will point to United’s league position as proof that the former Holland manager has in fact steadied the ship since arriving at Old Trafford. However, disappointing as it might sound, the brutal truth is that for all their step forwards, United are still miles away from where they ought to be considering the amount of money Van Gaal has spent and the fact he’s been in charge for almost 18 months.
Yes, United are second in the league with a third of the season gone but nobody, not even the most optimistic of punters, would bet on them achieving anything this season if they produce the kind of performance they delivered on Wednesday.
2) United must use pace to their advantage
In Jesse Lingard, Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial United have some of the quickest players in the Champions League. With that in mind it is as baffling as it is frustrating to see the trio forced to receive the ball with their back to the goal with impeccable regularity, rather than taking opponents on at full speed.
It is, of course, not through fault of their own, for United play football resembling a car stuck in first gear, desperately trying to gain speed only for the engine to refuse to collaborate, to the point where they soon revert to walking speed.
After a decent first half during which Martial and Lingard managed to fashion a couple of chances, the latter spurned United’s best two chances of the second half when, dragging a header wide and blasting over from close range.
Martial, meanwhile, was anonymous throughout the second 45 minutes, constantly receiving the ball with two defenders on his back and away from goal. As for Memphis, his goal against Watford feels like a lifetime ago.
Van Gaal needs the trio to run at defenders if his side are to create chances but to do so, he must change his philosophy. Something has to give.
3) Thursday night football?
Last night’s performance, the second half in particular, was arguably United’s worst display this season. However, while the embarrassingly dire football was rightly criticised, Van Gaal has much bigger concerns to address than his side’s lack of adventure.
Wolfsburg’s 2-0 win in Moscow means United will have to win away in Germany in two weeks if they want to guarantee themselves a spot in the knockout stages of the Champions League, as a draw would leave the door open for PSV.
Considering that the Dutch champions have won six of the seven home games they’ve played in all competitions this season, there are few reasons to be optimistic.
4) Lingard deserves his spot in the team
Having started the season as a fringe player, Jesse Lingard has established himself as a regular over the last two months. Direct when in possession, happy to track back without the ball and always looking to drive forward, the 22-year-old has impressed since Louis Van Gaal handed him an extended run in the side.
Against PSV, Lingard was United’s standout performer, as he repeatedly found pockets of space and, unlike most of his teammates, was not afraid to run at defenders. The former Derby loanee is not the finish product by any stretch of imagination and United could live to regret the chances he spurned yesterday but he’s definitely earned his spot in the starting XI so far.
5) In a corner
United are ludicrously bad at taking corners. If they were a rugby fly-half kicking for territory, they’d have been relieved of kicking duties by now. United’s corners either don’t beat the first man or are aimlessly floated into the box and easily cleared away. Daley Blind was lambasted for his deliveries last night but the Dutchman didn’t fare that much worse of his predecessors – Lingard, Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and, well, Phil Jons – which speaks volume for the quality of set-pieces over the last two seasons. Van Gaal’s side isn’t blessed with particularly physically imposing players but, given the pedestrian football, a corner looks like their best chance to score.
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