Sunday 20 August 2017

Comment: Europa League football is fitting punishment for a side that continue to fluff their lines

Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal looks dejected
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal looks dejected
Manchester United's Bastian Schweinsteiger, Chris Smalling and Daley Blind look dejected against Wolfsburg
Kevin Palmer

Kevin Palmer

On the night when Louis van Gaal was forced to abandon his cherished philosophy, the flaws in his master plan was cruelly exposed as his Manchester United side crashed out of the Champions League following a 3-2 defeat against Wolfsburg.

Van Gaal has succeeded in transforming the Red Devils into the team that defend better than any other in English football, yet that "achievement’" has come at a price and it is a price that many of the club’s supporters are no longer willing to tolerate.

With victory needed for United to progress in the Champions League, Van Gaal released his side from their shackles in Wolfsburg and the result was catastrophic. Defensive holes aplenty were exposed as the lumbering midfield duo of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Marouane Fellaini were over run in midfield and a youthful forward line were not up to the task of saving the day.

It was the night United fans have been expecting for some time and with their patience in supporting Van Gaal’s brand of football surely about to break, we await to see what the next phase of this story will be.

A coach who has spent more that £200m of United’s money on new players during his 17 months in charge should have assembled a pool of players fit to cope with injury blips, yet this is a coach who has looked short of fresh ideas virtually from the moment who breeze through the doors at Old Trafford amid a blaze of publicity.

Having got rid of a host of proven performers in his time at United, the substitutes bench Van Gaal named for this game and Nick Powell, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Paddy McNair and Andreas Pereira. Hardly the kind of squad strength he should have assembled over a tortuous last year and more.

Manchester United's Bastian Schweinsteiger and Chris Smalling look dejected against Wolfsburg
Manchester United's Bastian Schweinsteiger and Chris Smalling look dejected against Wolfsburg

Injuries to skipper Wayne Rooney, Phil Jones, Ander Herrera and Morgan Schneiderlin were an inconvenience Van Gaal could have done without, but the team he fielded in an attempt to keep mighty Manchester United in the Champions League was not good enough, not even close to good enough.

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How quickly the tide has turned and with the Old Trafford jury about to start to submitting their verdicts on the Van Gaal era at United, the 64-year-old Dutchman will not like what they have to say.

There will be those calling for instant change and on this evidence, they may well be right to do so.

Many pessimists have been waiting for this night to vent their fury and while the out-of-work Carlo Ancelotti could be a quick fix solution for United, it is becoming increasingly clear that Van Gaal is not the man to lead them into a new era. You wonder how long it will be before the Old Trafford power brokers agree with the increasingly majority of United supporters.

Here is a veteran tactician who has confirmed he will retire from the game in the summer of 2017 with his popularity rating now at an all-time low, it is becoming increasingly hard to imagine he will reach that end point still in his current post. This beating in Germany was the beginning of the end for Van Gaal at United, in what increasingly looks set to be his final season at the club.

Europa League football will be played at Old Trafford in February and that punishment is fitting for a United side that have fluffed their lines too often in a relatively weak Champions League Group B that should have been made for them to flex their muscles in Europe’s elite competition.

Instead, they scraped two unconvincing wins against Wolfsburg and CSKA Moscow at Old Trafford and after that, very little, very little. They don’t deserve to be in the last-16 of the Champions League and now Van Gaal has plenty of explaining to do.

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It said much about United’s plight on this night of high drama that their best hope of stumbling into the knock-out phase of the competition came when CSKA Moscow took a lead against PSV Eindhoven in Holland.

With Van Gaal’s side trailing 2-1 in Germany, the Russian’s took a shock lead against their Dutch rivals in Eindhoven and when Josuha Guilavogui nodded past his own keeper to draw Van Gaal’s side level moments later, it seemed that an improbable escape act had been completed by United.

A few moments later and their dreams had been snatched away as Naldo scored his second goal of the night against United before PSV scored again, even though they had been reduced to ten men against CSKA. High drama indeed, but the end result was a calamity for United and their now beleaguered manager.

The Premier League table suggests that the Van Gaal philosophy of slow cautious football can produce results, with United just three points off the pace being set by surprise leaders Leicester and yet that statistic has always been viewed as a smokescreen to a less exciting reality.

United have been hard to watch from moment the former Barcelona boss took over and while the club’s supporters have put up with the tedium in the hope that a handful of positive results will eventually be complemented by some free flowing football, that wait seems to have been forlorn.

Van Gaal out? It is not going to happen any time soon, but it looks increasingly likely that a new manager will be at the helm of Manchester United at some point in 2016.

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