Comment: Toothless Man United yet again lacking X-Factor
This was another of those Old Trafford nights to reaffirm the belief that Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United lack the X Factor required to return to the winners’ circle any time soon.
Positive results may have papered over a multitude of cracks in any team’s make-up in recent weeks, but you merely needed to experience the flat and diluted atmosphere at the Theatre of Dreams in their crucial Champions League clash against PSV Eindhoven to appreciate that this is a team still lacking its spark.
This was a game that always looked destined to finish in a goalless stalemate and having to sit through 94 minutes of a predictable script was no fun for anyone in attendance.
As United fans with readily confirm, it is a story that have become used to Van Gaal’s time at the club.
United’s prominent position in the Premier League has silenced those who continue to criticise the patient style of play United boss Louis van Gaal promotes and yet nights like this revive all the frustrations that have laced the post-Alex Ferguson era at Old Trafford.
The sight of hordes of United fans making their way to the exit doors with the Group B clash firmly in the balance ten minutes from time confirmed that disillusion is close to the surface for many of the club’s supporters and it is easy to appreciate why they are struggling to embrace Van Gaal’s ethos.
The less than impressive Dutch champions have now taken four points from their two games against United in this group, with Van Gaal’s men now in real peril of a group stage exit from the Champions League.
United will need to beat group leaders Wolfsburg in Germany on December 8th to secure a passage to the last-16 of the competition, yet it is hard to imagine this functional team making too much progress against Europe’s big hitters if they are still playing Champions League football in the first half of 2016.
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Imagine if Barcelona's team of magicians or Bayern Munich's free-scoring machine got a chance to take on Van Gaal's team in their current guise. It is a prospect that may not be worth thinking about right now, but that is what could lie in store if United stumble their way through to the knock-out stages.
Perhaps demotion to the Europa League would be a more suitable route for Van Gaal’s team to follow in the New Year, but this great club should never accept second best so readily.
While defensive solidity may be the trump card, keeping clean sheets against side that are not too interested in attacking is hardly rocket science.
It is at the other end of the field that their primary problems lie. The duty of breaking down opponents eager to soak up any pressure that comes their way remains a huge problem for United, with their lack of attacking pace and venom against PSV leading a desperate stalemate.
Not for the first time, Van Gaal’s side dominated the possession statistics in this latest Old Trafford ordeal, but the lack of clear cut chances carved out by a side that included the returning attacking duo of Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial was alarming.
All this from the United line-up so many of the club’s have been asking to see in recent weeks, with Martial restored to his lead striking role and Rooney positioned behind him in an attacking line-up that was completed by wide men Jesse Lingard and Memphis Depay.
After the encouraging display against Watford in the Premier League last weekend, there was a hope that United’s shackles would be shaken off on a night when United so badly required a victory, but the lack of urgency in their play was evident from the off.
Depay’s woeful performance against his former PSV team-mates was a point of real concern, with the spirited display he offered up as he returned to the team at Vicarage Road last Saturday quickly forgotten as he was nullified with some ease by Santiago Arias before he was withdrawn to a muted reception after 59 minutes. Is he ready to be Man Utd's No.7? Not yet it seems.
Young Lingard was equally ineffective on the opposite flank, while a returning Martial looked a little jaded as he missed a glorious first half chance to settle United nerves and Rooney struggled to influence the game as he dropped deeper and deeper in the second half.
Van Gaal’s predictability of approach was in evidence once again and his Plan B involved the deployment of Marouane Fellaini for the final half an hour, but United rarely looked like breaking the deadlock and now face a real battle to avoid demotion into the Europa League in their final Group B fixture.
When you have spent as much money as Van Gaal to rebuild his United team in the last couple of seasons, United fans have a right to expect a little more than they are getting right now and if their Champions League dream dies in Germany two weeks from now, the backlash against the veteran tactician will begin in earnest.
Manchester United's players and their manager do not like the boring tag that has been bestowed upon them, but occasions like this do little to rebrand their unwanted image.