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Five things we’ve learnt from Wolfsburg vs United

Wolfsburg-v-Manchester-United (1)Manchester United are out of the Champions League after a rollercoaster night in Germany, saw them losing 3-2 to Wolfsburg.

United made the best possible start and were 1-0 up within 10 minutes, only to fall behind halfway through the first half. Despite a catalogue of injuries, United were briefly handed a lifeline by CSKA Moscow, who took the lead in Eindhoven, before letting PSV back in the game. United then drew level themselves but concede immediately afterward and PSV clinched the winner only seconds later to send Louis Van Gaal’s men packing.

Here’s five things we’ve learnt from Tuesday night.

Thin squad

Louis Van Gaal’s decision to begin the season with a small squad was subject to intense scrutiny even before the transfer window shut in September.

Admittedly, the Dutchman won the double with Bayern Munich without using more 18-19 players but that was a different side and, crucially, Bundesliga sides face less games than their English counterparts. With the hectic Christmas period, which is normally fertile ground for injuries, just around the corner, United are falling apart.


Van Gaal gave Guillermo Varela his first start in a United shirt and was forced bring on Cameron Borthwick-Jackson when Matteo Darmian suffered a hamstring injury, while Chris Smalling spent the last 10 minutes hobbling and could be out for a while himself. At this rate, reinforcements in January will be a necessity rather than an option.

Defensive balance goes out of the window

For all the criticism their dull football has attracted this season, United had looked remarkably solid in their defensive third of the pitch and boasted the best defensive record in the Premier League going into last night’s game.

However, the defensive solidity that had so often been highlighted as Van Gaal’s major achievement during his tenure at United went out the window in Germany, as the Dutchman saw his repeatedly exposed by a slick Wolfsburg team.

VfL-Wolfsburg-v-Manchester-United-FC-UEFA-Champions-League (1)

More worryingly for Van Gaal, United’s defensive collapse came after they had gone in front, a situation in which the Dutchman’s side should normally be at its best. All over the shop in the lead up to both Naldo’s goals, cut to shreds for Vieirinha’s superb goal, United paid the price for a makeshift back four and for a lack of protection from an overly static midfield.

It is worrying, however, that United do not concede goals only whey they specifically set out not to score any. Van Gaal might be happy to compromise between the two, but winning sides seldom tolerate such an attitude.

Better going forward

Having been roundly criticised throughout the season for their stubborn refusal to commit men forward and their failure to create chances, it is ironic that United produced one of their best attacking display on a night when they crashed out of the Champions League.

Deployed in his preferred number 10 role and with pacy players around him, Juan Mata looked more like the player that won admirers around the Premier League during his spell at Chelsea, while Anthony Martial confirmed a maturity beyond his age, as he brilliantly slotted home the opener.

Memphis Depay and Jesse Lingard created chances and were unlucky not to get on the scoresheet but, despite the huge disappointment on the night, their performances will be a positive for Louis Van Gaal.


What does the future hold for LVG?

In Van Gaal’s first season in charge, United returned to the Champions League after a season-long hiatus, prompting the Dutchman to claim he was on track with the three-year plan handed to him by the board.

Last night’s however, marked the first big setback of the Van Gaal era. More than losing to MK Dons and Middlesbrough in the Capital One Cup, more than playing dire football in virtually every game.


Nobody expected United to go on and lift the Champions League this season but being knocked out from such a relatively easy group is a failure that can’t, nor shouldn’t, be sugar coated. There’s no shame in losing to Wolfsburg, but United paid the price for failing to beat CSKA away and PSV at home, when a lack of attacking intent cost them dear.

United might well go on to win the Europa League, but the Dutchman, who retains the backing of the board, will rightly be under even more scrutiny from now on.


Youngsters earn their stripes

Thrown in at the deep end of the pool in a do-or-die fixture, Guillermo Varela and Cameron Bortwhick Jones were the brightest note of United’s wretched night in Germany.

The former, making his first competitive start for the club, recovered brilliantly for an early mistake that had Andre Schurrle clean through on goal and was solid at both end of the pitch throughout the 90 minutes.

Bortwhick-Jones came on for Matteo Darmian and showed the kind of composure normally associated with players much older than him.

Given United’s atrocious injury record, both are likely to feature again this season, perhaps as soon as this weekend. One beacon of light in Van Gaal’s tenure is his faith in youngsters and Varela and Borthwick-Jones both looked to have seized their chance last night.

Dan ()