The consensus was that Manchester United’s defeat against Liverpool in the first leg of the Europa League was an abject performance which sums up why Louis van Gaal should be sacked, showing no redeeming features or progress. It certainly wasn’t great, but nor was it completely abject and United’s players (this wording is chosen specifically) actually showed some progress.
For the entire season, Van Gaal has wanted to implement a kind of ‘positional play’ type of season, the sort of thing that Pep’s Bayern do. It takes a lot of discipline and a hell of a lot of teaching time to make these kinds of things happen. When rigorous systems are pulled off, however, they work very well – see Pochettino at Southampton and now Spurs, and both of those took time to come to fruition.
Back in October against Arsenal, in that 3-0 defeat, United were playing a system of pressuring when off the ball that only Bastian Schweinsteiger seemed to understand, below getting a little frustrated with Martial for not following up his own pressing efforts.
It wasn’t necessarily a bad plan. What was a bad plan was choosing to implemented a plan that would only ever be poorly executed. Over the course of the season Van Gaal has stuck rigidly to his plan without it ever yet seeming apparent that his players have had the time to absorb and understand it. This started to change on Thursday however.
After a messy first few minutes, United’s players seemed to really get it. The system was built heavily on man-marking and United just generally looked like they knew what they were doing a lot better than previously, even younger players like Marcus Rashford.
The sequence that brought Liverpool’s penalty both ended the spell of a good 10 minutes or so and served to show the kind of thing Van Gaal was aiming for, and its limitations.
Here, one of the important things to note is that Varela (yellow) and Schneiderlin (red) have swapped positions, essentially. Varela was tracking his man, Firmino, who is now the Liverpool player in the centre circle, and Schneiderlin followed Coutinho back to that United right-back area. United are largely man-orientated (Clyne is difficult to see on Liverpool’s right flank, blocking a T of Amstel), though Henderson is a little freer than others.
The ball is now with Clyne, and the United back four basically have a man each to mark (red), but Henderson is pulling off Blind into an area where Blind can’t really afford to follow. Varela (yellow), in hindsight especially, chooses a really bad time to decide to go back to his right-back position.
Fellaini (yellow) has neither cut off a pass to Henderson, pressured Clyne, or picked up Firmino who has wandered back into the action. As Varela has made his way to right-back and Schneiderlin hasn’t had time to get to central midfield, Blind has had to step up a little in case Henderson turns. This leaves the space in behind him that Clyne runs into, drawing the foul from Memphis.
It’s up for debate whether a plan that involves your right-back filling in briefly at central midfield is a good one. Filling in positionally is something that top clubs do all the time, so this is arguably a case of Van Gaal trying to implement a plan which can’t realistically be properly executed, rather than the plan itself being at fault. Varela will learn from this, and learn when to fill in and when to return.
This sequence also shows a feature of United’s game-plan that really did become a flaw though. United are so, so deep, and often were throughout the game. Rashford and Memphis were tasked in the first half with tracking the Liverpool full-backs, which kind of limited their efficacy, but also kind of invited them and their team-mates on to attack United.
The mentality seemed to be absorb and counter, but the counters were so ineffective that it just provided even more absorbing that needed doing. In the second half, the Carrick for Rashford switch (partly due to Rashford’s yellow card) brought the team to a 3-5-2 and they did seem to be building more, having more of the possession. Liverpool were also less keen on overloading them, that’s to say flooding the United back-line with attackers, which in part helped United get their foot on the ball.
However, Liverpool still prevented them from being comfortable, applying pressure too but doing so much further up the pitch than United had been in the first half.
United are forced to pass back to De Gea here, Liverpool pressuring high up the pitch. De Gea cleared and Liverpool picked up a loose ball to attack again.
There have been several negatives mentioned here, but the main thing to take away is that a team of mostly young, often quite new, players managed to (largely) implement a quite sophisticated system that Van Gaal has been trying for months. All of that work in training in tactical sessions is starting to pay off in their understanding.
However, maybe we should have taken more attention when Van Gaal described himself as a “trainer-coach”. Though probably a translation issue – (learning a second language is bloody hard and we should laugh at foreigners who make mistakes in English far less) – Thursday’s performance showed some evidence of good player coaching, but not of good management.
The list of purely management faults is lengthy: the complete lack of balance that has been found on matchdays at United this season; persistence with plans that can’t be adequately executed; the personnel available (though transfers may be an area where Ed Woodward is to blame more than Van Gaal); the personnel used, with seemingly arbitrary droppings of players; the media and fan management.
This last one might not seem important but it colours the way in which this season feels for United fans to a large extent. After decades of trophies, they have sat through two underwhelming seasons and now have been going through a snore-inducing third. To add more discontent, Van Gaal has taken to saying the kind of things, aimed at lowering expectations, that Moyes was so lambasted for towards the end of his tenure.
The hiring of Van Gaal, after initial hopes of trophies, became one that seemed to be a building job, restoring a crumbling façade into a solid foundation for the next manager. There may well be a plan, but, apart from small hints of player progress on Thursday, United fans have no way to tell. Make him the trainer-coach, get someone else to manage.