If there was a word to sum up the first half of Manchester United’s 2014-15 season, it would probably be “oddment”. “Strange” is too ordinary a word for it.
Here we are, 21 games in. United have just lost 1-0 at home to Southampton in a game where they actually had the lion’s share of the possession and were at least moderately more threatening.
This comes off one of the more underwhelming ten-game unbeaten streaks you’re ever likely to see. Despite conceding just six goals in that streak, the defence has frequently mimicked four or five drunken, blindfolded guys, trying to reenact a more frantic episode of Supermarket Sweep.
They have relied on David De Gea doing things in the net of such spectacular beauty that they make Tom Selek’s mustache seem almost passe as a result.
Not that I’m aiming criticism purely at the ever-changing back line which has seen 15 combinations so far this season. I’m beginning to get a little anxious about Louis Van Gaal’s team selections in general. Rooney as a central midfielder, Young and Valencia as Wingbacks, Falcao and Herrera struggling to get minutes, Fellaini playing… all head-scratchers.
My calm side points out that we are fourth, despite having had a gargantuan injury list. Also, it has long been cliched that championship teams (as in teams that win championships, not teams that play in the second tier of English football – see why that’s a silly name, English FA?) will find a way to win, even when things aren’t going their way.
My more pessimistic side thinks that Wayne Rooney isn’t a central midfielder (did anybody hear Phil Neville describe his play as reminiscent of Paul Scholes? Another oddment) and that our actual central midfielders must be sitting on the bench wondering why he’s in their position.
Not that he isn’t a very good player or that he isn’t giving the role his all but it’s just not his game. This is why he’ll frequently bomb hollywood passes, which get emphatic praise on the few occasions they connect but otherwise are just a source of possession for the opposing side. It’s also why his appreciated tenacity and work-rate, cannot compensate for his lack of defensive positioning.
Another issue for poor Rooney – who I think has actually applied himself quite well this season – is that instead of playing an attacking midfield role that is closer to his natural position, he’s playing alongside Mata, with Carrick behind. This causes problems because Mata (who funnily enough is a veteran of the successful hollywood ball) seems hellbent on getting in behind the defence at every opportunity. As a result, the fella who usually plays as a forward, is stuck helping Carrick shore up the midfield.
Meanwhile, I imagine Ander Herrera thinking to himself “We need a retaining midfielder – I’m a retaining midfielder”.
The oft-mentioned three-man central defence must be concluded at this point to be a failure. Van Gaal himself has admitted that the only reason he used it with Holland in the World Cup, was in an attempt to use quantity to reinforce against a lack of quality back there. Then again, if he watched United’s defence last season, we should probably be surprised he’s not deploying a flat back 8.
Nonetheless, at no point this season can I think of a game where I feel United have been comfortable with it. Even the games where we’ve performed relatively well in that formation, it’s tended to be in spite of, rather than because of. Half a season in, the players still seem to be unsure what their exact roles in that system actually are (or maybe Chris Smalling always looks like that…).
The thing is, you have to expect this from LvG. He’s notorious for wanting things done his way by all and sundry, no questions asked, no matter how bizarre it may seem. This is what got him ousted from Barcelona and Bayern Munich. As long as it’s working, he gets full credit. If however, it isn’t working, it’s all on him.
I’m not panicking by any means. My demand at the beginning of the season was a reasonable run at the top four. Right now, that is being delivered, even if it does seem like it’s a happenstance rather than a grand design.
I won’t discount the injuries, though there has to come a time in this day and age when it is asked if we’re doing enough to prevent them or even worse, if we’re doing anything to contribute to tem. For now though, I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt and put it down to misfortune.
As Van Gaal said this weekend though: he’s down to one injury and that’s to Ashley Young. Some would argue that the treatment table is the best place for him. Not me though. I think we’d be better off with him on the left wing for Aston Villa.
The greater point though, is that should we keep a reasonable bill of health, we should either reap the rewards of what Louis is working on, or find him out.
Though the way things are going, we’ll probably start playing in some revolutionary cuboid formation under which we play atrociously, only for a string of freak incidents to still somehow deliver us the league and cup double.