Tuesday 24 April 2018

Van Gaal’s big task to emerge from Chelsea shadow

Man Utd manager Louis van Gaal applauds the fans after his side's 1-1 draw with Arsenal
Man Utd manager Louis van Gaal applauds the fans after his side's 1-1 draw with Arsenal

Ian Herbert

There was an awkward moment on the pitch at the end when Louis van Gaal’s attempts at some closing remarks were in serious danger of being drowned out by his own and Arsenal’s supporters.

The Manchester United manager laughed nervously, persisted and got his words out in the end. He offered only “Dear friends… next year we will support each other again” before what the stadium announcer Alan Keegan described as a “lap of appreciation”.

How far removed this felt from those turns of the pitch Alex Ferguson would lead in what seemed to be like eternal sunshine, players throwing the trophy between each other.

The only silverware on this pitch was the Premier League U-21 trophy and both sides looked a long way from the place where they can lay claim to the senior issue.

United were what United are: a side reviving, offering flashes of promise, but with plenty of players who do not possess enough to go the final mile beyond Chelsea.

Arsenal were what Arsenal are: a side with more balance and structure than United’s – more like the finished product – but without the faintest notion of how to deal with a serious physical force in an opponent.

When United went to Stamford Bridge on a roll a month ago, intent on making a statement, they found a Jose Mourinho obsessed with the job of shutting down Marouane Fellaini. Chelsea cancelled out the threat and eased past their opponents on the way to the trophy.

The Arsenal side who struggled to summon the remotest effort for half this game clearly lacked a modicum of preparation for Fellaini.

Their defenders were transfixed by his presence when Ashley Young’s fizzing left-foot cross on the half hour went in and the entirely-overlooked Ander Herrera, lurking behind it, was ready to volley the opening goal. For half of the game, Fellaini drew away defenders to leave space for others to do the damage.

Arsenal’s 45 minutes of intent revealed a little of why there are not an overwhelming number of pieces still to fit together.

Some precision and vision in their distribution from deep by Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla, who, with Alexis Sanchez, give substance to Wenger’s claim that they have made progress across the past nine months and are “stronger against the bigger teams”. 

United have the bigger job to do. Their own nine months have constituted progress, too, though the pessimism Van Gaal professed last night about the lure of Spain for David de Gea belongs to a broader uncertainty about some of the substantial parts in his United squad.

The final home game provided a finality about Radamel Falcao’s inadequacy for the task in hand.

The first chance of the game – from one of the geometrical Juan Mata balls which bisect a defence – illustrated the deficit in Falcao’s strength and response times.

The pronounced wave Falcao gave when he was substituted, after barely a second more than an hour, felt valedictory, though there was little more intent from Robin van Persie, while the other individual whose threat United had anticipated being part of the fabric of the Premier League, Angel Di Maria, did not even leave the bench.

With Michael Carrick’s absence leaving no player at the back of midfield capable of consistently breaking the lines with a pass, the challenge of getting anything resembling their money back on Di Maria feels like one United would be better parking this summer.

Developing £59.7m record signings has never been Van Gaal’s strong suit in any case.

It is finding and restoring players in places where nobody looked, which is why another signature performance from Young – bursting between substitute Jack Wilshere and Coquelin as if they were ghosts just beyond 70 minutes – is one reason to be cheerful in this part of Manchester.

Independent News Service

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