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Manchester United left bewildered by systems overload


Queens Park Rangers' Steven Caulker (L) challenges Manchester United's Radamel Falcao during their English Premier League soccer match, at Loftus Road

Queens Park Rangers' Steven Caulker (L) challenges Manchester United's Radamel Falcao during their English Premier League soccer match, at Loftus Road


Queens Park Rangers' Steven Caulker (L) challenges Manchester United's Radamel Falcao during their English Premier League soccer match, at Loftus Road

In football's culture wars, Harry Redknapp and Louis Van Gaal could be said to be on opposing sides. Redknapp's tactical directions often extend no further than a passionate command to "run about". Rafael Van der Vaart once observed that there are "no long and boring speeches about tactics" on Redknapp's watch.

Van Gaal's long and boring speeches have recently been delivered by his team during matches. Last week, Manchester United failed to have a shot on target when losing at home to Southampton, and they needed an hour to break down QPR yesterday.

When James Wilson scored United's second in injury-time, United appeared to have achieved a comfortable win, but it had been more difficult than that, something which might be expected against a team like QPR who make things difficult for most sides at Loftus Road.

But United's problems, particularly in the first half, were mainly of their own making as they struggled to make sense of a baffling system. Van Gaal remains a tactical virtuoso, a coach who remains bewitched by his own technical brilliance. He is a manager determined to keep experimenting. But at Loftus Road, his United resembled Radiohead around the time of Kid A when Thom Yorke said he'd had enough of melody in their music.

United spent the first half lost in an introspective fog even if Van Gaal insisted afterwards that the problem was that his side had tried to be like QPR: "We did the same thing as them, through the air and long ball. QPR are better than us at that."

There was more to it than that. Van Gaal acknowledged that his side were more likely to create chances when they play the system he ended the game with, but he feels it upsets the balance of the side. But allowing Phil Jones to take corners, as he did in the first half, will do strange things to your balance as well.

Whatever tactical innovations United were experimenting with were undermined slightly by their inability to pass to each other in the first 45 minutes. The half ended with the away supporters offering what must be considered the most politely mutinous chant in recent times when they began to sing '4-4-2'.

It may have been delivered ironically, but it was also a reminder that even a manager who is as persuasive as Van Gaal will have to deliver the goods eventually.

United, of course, hadn't begun in the primitive 4-4-2 style, but by the time Marouane Fellaini, who had replaced Juan Mata at half-time, put them ahead in the second half, they were playing a system their players understood.

It shouldn't really have taken so long. They faced a QPR side who suspected that defeat would bring an end to Harry Redknapp's time at the club, and it wasn't a coincidence that once Richard Dunne went off injured at half-time, United found themselves able to create more chances. Falcao had one good opportunity in the first half and an even better one in the second when his header was saved brilliantly by Rob Green. Later, Steven Caulker knocked the ball out of his path as he prepared to score.

QPR's problems might intensify this week. Redknapp is relying on the squad expensively assembled and is unlikely to make any signings this month. "They did their dough a few years ago," Redknapp said last week when admitting that he was unlikely to receive money to spend from QPR's owners, even if he had signed Mauro Zarate on loan.

The owners might have done their dough, but Redknapp may not be manager much longer, which could be another reason for their reluctance to allow more signings. But Redknapp had no time for the idea that he was now facing dismissal, as one 'insider' had told a newspaper. "I've spoken to Tony Fernandes five times this week and he said 'what a load of nonsense'," the manager said. "Who do you want to believe - the 'insider', whoever that may be, or the chairman who tells me it's rubbish?"

QPR are a desperately bloated club. Joe Jordan, one of Redknapp's trusted lieutenants, takes the warm-up while Glenn Hoddle spends games analysing from the directors' box. Presumably yesterday he was in demand as he was called on to interpret United's formation like a Joycean scholar kept busy on Bloomsday. It was less baffling in the second half, and Wilson's introduction brought more life to his side. Falcao stretched and strained, determined to prove that he was worth his place. Van Gaal may decide that Falcao's effort alone is enough to keep Robin Van Persie, who missed the game with injury, out of the side. Neither forward can offer the luminous presence that Wilson provided when he was introduced.

More importantly, United craved some authority in midfield, particularly in a first half when the ball bounced between the two sides. Wayne Rooney was otherwise engaged, committed to one of those performances that seem more like an exercise in lobbying the referee than a actual determination to control the game.

Van Gaal's season has been a demonstration that football management, like politics, often depends on perception as much as accomplishment. Right now, he remains plausible in spite of results like last week's and performances like yesterday's. He has been helped, of course, by the form of others, and United remain in the top four even if recent matches have demonstrated that the idea of a title challenge this season belonged only in the imagination.

United could be confident that QPR wouldn't punish them even as United invited them to attack. The home side's lack of confidence was summed up when Eduardo Vargas burst forward after Marcos Rojo and Michael Carrick had collided. Vargas had men either side of him, including Charlie Austin, but he hesitated and became tangled up, eventually hitting the ball in Bobby Zamora's direction before it rolled out for a goal-kick.

David De Gea had made spectacular saves from Austin in the first half, but the Spaniard's most important was in the final minutes when he moved swiftly and blocked a Mauricio Isla shot.

QPR had done their dough and they had done their chances. When United broke with Di Maria, QPR's players trudged wearily back. Wilson's first attempt was saved by Rob Green, but he dived on the rebound and drove the ball into the net.

It was a brief glimpse of the familiar Manchester United, a Manchester United playing all the old tunes.

Sunday Indo Sport