Angel di María amongst those suffering from Van Gaal's long ball approach at Manchester United
It was a moment that said far more than even Sam Allardyce or Louis van Gaal ever could. Towards the end of Sunday's 1-1 draw between West Ham United and Manchester United, David De Gea caught the ball from a corner and immediately looked to initiate a counter-attack. It seemed set up for the sort of blistering break that United are normally so brilliant at.
You don’t have to look too far back to find examples of Peter Schmeichel releasing Ryan Giggs with one of those long throws, or Edwin van der Sar doing the same through Wayne Rooney or Park Ji-Sung.
Except, this time, as much as De Gea looked, no obvious option presented itself. There wasn’t the outlet or the space, and that despite Rooney still being in the team, let alone an attacker of Angel Di María’s pace.So, the goalkeeper had no option but to just lump it forward. It was a waste, and pretty lamentable.
‘Long ball’ United
It also represents the crux of the issue, why there was some merit in Van Gaal’s response to Allardyce on Tuesday, but also why he deserves criticism for deeper problems than playing so many long balls. Rather, there is the reason they’re playing so many long balls - the failure of the team’s attacking system long before then. Take one of the main parts of the United manager’s monologue on Tuesday:
“We are playing ball possession play and, after 70 minutes, because we do not succeed, in spite of so many chances in the second half, then I change my playing style. Then, of course, with the quality of [Marouane] Fellaini, we played more forward balls.”
The first, most obvious response to this: “the quality of Fellaini”? What about the quality of Di María, Rooney, Robin van Persie, as well as those on the bench like Radamel Falcao and Juan Mata, and you know, all the actual star attackers brought in to the club to score? It remains hugely questionable that so many elite creators are so still ineffective in this system, and that the most reductive approach in football would be deemed by the manager to represent a superior route to goal.
It is in itself an amazing admission that Van Gaal went to this as early as the 70th minute, rather than much later in the game, when would it least be more understandable. Instead, it simply remains hard to understand what he’s actually trying to do with this United team. It isn’t working to the benefit of the team’s many star attackers, whatever it is.
The bare stats alone are bad. In terms of minutes between goals and assists, all of their premium creators are having hugely unproductive seasons by their standards. Rooney, Van Persie and Mata are enduring their worst in five years.
It is not just about the basic end product, but also the progress in general play. With every one of these players, there is a worrying decline in some key aspect of their game, confirming what we see: United’s attackers not being able to get into positions to do much damage.
All of Rooney (2.2), Van Persie (2.6) and Falcao (2), for example, are offering their fewest shots per game at any point in the last six years. With Rooney, it not just about the shooting, but the key passes. At 1.5 per game, he is providing his fewest in any season in the same period, while Juan Mata has figuratively fallen off a cliff in that regard. His average key passes per game between 2009 and 2014 was 2.5, with a high of 3 in 2011/12 and a low of 2.2 in his breakthrough seasons at Valencia. Now, it is 1.4, and it is not like Mata has replaced them with more dribbling, as an average of 0.5 runs per game is his lowest for six years in that stat too.
Di María’s dribbling stats remain fine, but only because of his first few games of the season. Before his injury against Hull City, he was attempting a run every 15 minutes. Now it’s 20. To strip all of this down to something rather stark, United’s key attackers are shooting less, making fewer perceptive balls and just offering so little penetration.
It all backs up what we basically see: a whole lot of nothing happening for United in attack. Of course, we know one main reason for this, and it comes from the catastrophic five goals the side conceded in that away defeat to Leicester City. Sources state that the only defender Van Gaal fully trusts right now is Marcos Rojo, and United’s entire possession approach seems basically geared to keep that back line out of danger.
That reasoning is still only acceptable to a certain point, though, and doesn’t explain the lack of development further forward. Basically, no matter how much Van Gaal wants to protect that back-line, it would still be reasonable to expect some deeper cohesion further forward; a little more to link the back line and attack.
Instead, United are so dull in transitional play, and the manager doesn’t seem to have helped things by putting players in positions where they inhibit fluency rather than facilitate it. Consider Rooney in midfield, denying Di María the space to run into by placing him so far forward, or then the lack of running from finishers like Falcao and Van Persie.
We’re a long way from the sort of incision we saw at Van Gaal’s Ajax, or indeed the kind of integrated interchanging from such attackers you might expect from more modern managers.
It’s all very flat, which is why it’s even more conspicuous that the United boss eventually just chooses to go over it all rather than figure out a way through.
“We scored because of that,” Van Gaal said of the long balls, before adding what he might have considered the knock-out punchline. “So I think it was a very good decision of the manager.”
A far better approach might be a system that mitigates against the need for such decisions to rescue games. United still look some way off developing it.