The horrendous injury to Manchester United youngster Luke Shaw was the major loss from last night’s game and it is hoped that the impressive youngster, with time on his side, can make a quick and full recovery. However, that awful moment aside, it was still a terrible night for the Red Devils in Holland, no matter which way you dress it up.
Paul Scholes made some strange comments after the game. The midfield legend spoke of how the performance was encouraging and how he was happy with it. It baffled his fellow pundits and probably left a lot of people at home scratching their heads. If a United team had gone away to a distinctly average side and lost a few years ago there would have been uproar. However, nowadays it seems that even one of their greatest, most demanding players of recent times is willing to settle for mediocre. That is the most damning thing that can be taken from the loss in Eindhoven.
The defeat only served to highlight the ludicrously gaping holes in Louis van Gaal’s squad. Last season the Dutch manager spoke of having an unbalanced unit and was regularly quoted as saying this was not ‘his team’. Well, here we are £300m later and the players at his disposal look as unbalanced as a see-saw showdown between Neville Southall and Nathan Dyer.
Without Rooney, they seem to have no genuine number 10. It’s a position that Juan Mata was expected to fill in Holland, he did in presence but in mind he looked lost. The Spaniard has regularly been used out on the wings at Old Trafford, something he is capable of doing, but his lack of pace makes him predictable and easy to defend against. As a playmaker in behind the striker, it is questionable as to whether he is actually good enough to fill that role. In a Van Gaal side it would seem not.
The former Barca boss wants his wide men to be sharp and incisive, something Mata is not, while his audition as the man in behind a striker went down like a wet squib. The ex-Chelsea schemer has never looked truly at home in a red shirt, be that under Moyes or Van Gaal. He wants to operate as a sort of inside forward, to be allowed to roam and drift in off the flank. Mata is one of those players that plays in between positions, that is not a role that truly exists in a rigid Van Gaal system - as it did not under Jose Mourinho.
The failure to bring in someone like Pedro, who has pace and likes to go at defenders and create goals, is robbing United of another option. They can’t simply keep giving the ball to Memphis and hoping he makes something happen. The 21-year-old has impressed so far in the north-west and he did so again last night, at least for the first 45 minutes. As expected the Dutch star frustrated at times, he has a habit of making the wrong decision and almost being too direct, if there can be such a thing.
This is not necessarily through any fault of his own, it is undoubtedly what he is being asked to do. Depay is the only player in Van Gaal’s squad who creates that spark, he’s the only player that drives at defences and has the potential to wreak havoc. But to burden such young shoulders with stopping the north-west club being one-paced is not going to help him become the top level player he looks destined to be. If he gets injured or suspended, where do they turn?
In the past they had options from the bench. Now they have the lingering figures of Marouane Fellaini and Antonio Valencia, which is simply not good enough at this level.
Anthony Martial made his full debut, and the teenager looked sharp, his movement was first rate, but his hard work was never rewarded with the through ball it deserved. His link-up play with Depay was also promising, as the two interchanged passes with encouraging regularity. United created 17 opportunities last night, an area in which they have struggled, and it was the presence of a genuine striker that made this possible.
That is all well and good, but when Martial was presented with his chance, he didn’t take it. In the second half he became tired, as is expected, and the only option that Van Gaal had was to turn to Fellaini. That is staggering for a club of United’s stature.
To let both Robin van Persie and Javier Hernandez depart Manchester without replacements now seems ridiculous. Granted, they may have wanted to leave, or the manager may not have fancied them, but both men knew where the goal was. Van Gaal has gotten away with it in the Premier League, as the level of defending is so poor. The so-called 'greatest league in the world' has now become the number one place to watch defensive disasters. It is very significant that when they were faced with a reasonably decent backline in Swansea, they once again were left looking desperate at the end of the game.
The consensus after the match seemed to be that United will still be fine, with pundits suggesting they will still top the group. That looks a little naïve. As it stands, every team in their group are unbeaten in their domestic leagues. Van Gaal’s men have still to travel to both Wolfsburg an CSKA Moscow, teams who have lost just six times between them at home in all competitions since the start of last season.
Last night’s loss means that the Red Devils have now won just one of their previous eight away games in the Champions League proper. That puts a massive amount of pressure on the games in front of their own supporters at Old Trafford. Throwing on the big man and a bustling winger is simply not going to work at the highest level. The club’s summer failings could well prevent them from making any impact on European competition.
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