FA Cup quarter-final: Manchester United 1 Arsenal 2 – from Old Trafford
As Louis van Gaal met his Manchester United players in the dressing room following the 2-1 defeat to Arsenal, there was none of the confrontation or abrasiveness that was to be seen in his later press conference.
The Old Trafford manager was conspicuously calm, which the players all noted. Van Gaal merely reiterated the importance of Sunday’s match against Tottenham Hotspur.
Of course, that match is all the more important now, and not just because United have now failed in one of their two main objectives of bringing back the FA Cup. It is also because the nature of this defeat indicated the problems they may have in meeting their next objective, successfully navigating a series of difficult fixtures to stay on course for the top four.
That road now looks rather bumpy.
It also raised questions about the overall direction under Van Gaal.
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That felt the most significant consequence of the night - beyond Arsenal creditably making the FA Cup semi-finals - this sense of a crossroads at United, as if the questions about the Dutch coach's reign became concrete.
Here, there were no lucky breaks to help wave away poor play. There was just a defeat in which Arsene Wenger out-thought Van Gaal, in which Arsenal were coldly calculating in this fixture in the way United were supposed to be.
Other than a few scares and errors in a pulsating first half, the visiting side were intelligent and applied themselves well. That could be seen in what emerged as one of the game’s key decisions. Wenger picked Danny Welbeck over Olivier Giroud up front, and only told the former of his choice “very late” because he knew of the obvious mental pressure of returning to Old Trafford for the first time. Better to not have time to think about it. So Welbeck made United think with the fortuitous winning goal, not least Van Gaal himself.
The United manager declared the decision a “surprise” but it wasn’t quite as surprising as the way the game panned out, given the past.
The history of this fixture since 2007 has been United knowing exactly how to play against Arsenal and almost always applying it. Here, it was as if Wenger knew exactly how to play against Van Gaal’s side.
Take what was probably the game’s key decision even beyond the call to start Welbeck.
Before the match, Jamie Carragher had expressed surprise that Arsenal started with Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla in central midfield. It paid off.
It wasn’t Wenger that ultimately felt forced into changing his midfield. It was Van Gaal. Although Ozil was not at his best, it was the German’s movement that led to Nacho Monreal’s opening goal. Van Gaal felt the need to shore things up by bringing on Michael Carrick for Ander Herrera, and thereby took away United’s vigour, while giving Arsenal more control. It was Wenger’s side that kept the better balance.
It was Welbeck that kept his nerve to take advantage of Antonio Valencia’s atrocious back-pass and score.
The moment understandably raised questions, directly put to Van Gaal, over whether it was the correct decision to sell Welbeck.
The United manager abrasively dismissed such suggestions, and the goal doesn’t mean he’s wrong. The strike was just something that happened in a match, a one-off that doesn’t say too much about the collective. Welbeck still isn’t a certain starter at Arsenal and has hardly scored too many goals, so it’s not like his presence would have greatly deepened United’s progress under Van Gaal.
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As regards that progress, however, it is fair to say it is not where it should be. It is not where Van Gaal said it would be either, given that six months ago he insisted we’d see the real United in three.
Instead, we still see oddly passive football with no spark, and too many players either not good enough or comfortable to complete what they’re being asked to do.
He has stayed resolute and that in itself could be key. It is one reason, despite the comparisons rising again, he is not David Moyes. Alex Ferguson’s first replacement never looked comfortable in the job, always looked overwhelmed by it, and seemed to second-guess almost every decision he made.
It is the opposite with Van Gaal.
He just has to make some things about the team go in the opposite direction - not least some of their passing.
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