Manchester United’s timidity raises Wolfsburg fears
Another 0-0 draw at Old Trafford has left the United manager unconvinced of a positive result in Champions League
Manchester United’s Bastian Schweinsteiger and West Ham’s Alex Song battle for possession during the game at Old Trafford. Photograph: Lee Smith/Reuters.
A manager with a famous philosophy was sounding unusually philosophical. “I’m not God,” said Louis van Gaal in a rare instance of him accepting there are limits to his powers. “I cannot predict.”
Yet it could be a catastrophic one, too. A phlegmatic Van Gaal sounded as ineffective as his team have started to look. United could be eliminated from the Champions League. “In sport it is always possible,” said the Dutchman, an autocrat reinvented as a voice of reason. “You can’t win every year or every game. It’s not like that.”
Tipping pointPSV EindhovenCSKA Moscow
It threatens to be a tipping point in Van Gaal’s increasingly frayed relationship with the fans and would be a damning downgrade for a manager who has been allowed to commit €288m in the transfer market. As the fees have mushroomed, goal tallies have diminished. Previous United sides were masters of escapology and experts in the unexpected but not this one.
Van Gaal may not be able to prophesy, but scorelines have become predictable. West Ham became the fourth of the last six visitors to Old Trafford to secure a stalemate. Alex Ferguson had more 5-5 draws than goalless ones in his last 116 games at the helm. Now United have had so many goalless encounters they can rank them. This was the most entertaining. Taken in isolation and considering their 21 attempts at goal, United could have deemed themselves unlucky.
The cumulative effect of five 0-0 results in seven weeks, however, is to highlight a collective malaise: cautious tactics, ponderous passing and struggling signings have all been factors at times. Erratic finishing ensured that the West Ham goalkeeper Adrian had to save only one of those 21 efforts. “A lot of players have missed chances,” mused Van Gaal which, in its own way, was worrying.
United’s most decorated player suggested there are deeper issues. “The problem is a mix of everything,” said Bastian Schweinsteiger. “It is that last pass. It is about the first pass.”
What it is not, the World Cup winner insisted, is psychological. “Players are not scared in front of goal, no,” he explained. “It is all about the killer instinct. If you miss a chance you have to be unhappy. When you are a big striker, Ronaldo, Messi and Thomas Muller, it is about attitude. They want to score goals.”
Ronaldo is United’s most luminous talent of the last decade, Messi the four-times World Player of the Year, Muller a past transfer target. United have paid superstar prices without attracting the finished article or such finishers.
Anthony Martial came at a commensurate cost but marked his 20th birthday by enduring an eighth consecutive game without a goal. Yet the Frenchman represented United’s greatest threat, certainly in the West Ham manager’s mind. Martial figured prominently in Slaven Bilic’s gameplan. “You are trying to double or triple [up against] the big players,” he said. “You don’t want Martial to be one against one. Martial is the kind of player that is half-dangerous every time he gets the ball.”
United’s reliance on a rookie has been exacerbated by their dullness. Martial was marshalled superbly by Winston Reid – “magnificent”, according to Bilic – but it was telling that the Croat overlooked the attacking midfield trident of Jesse Lingard, Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata when identifying his side’s other defensive priorities. “You don’t want Michael Carrick or Schweinsteiger to be 25 metres from the goal when they have time to think,” he explained. Yet the fact that neither has a goal in open play or an assist this season is an indication that their starting position can be too deep to inflict damage.
United tend to begin too timidly, which serves to make the closing stages more fraught affairs. “An early goal would make a difference,” said Schweinsteiger. So would more potency. Van Gaal has studied the a barren spell. “It’s not a law that we miss all the chances we have created,” he said. “I have great confidence that we shall score at Wolfsburg.” Guardian Service