Manchester United 0-0 PSV: The worst of Louis van Gaal’s philosophy

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Only a win in Germany against Wolfsburg will guarantee United a spot in the knockout stages of the Champions League. 

Manchester United’s uninspiring 0-0 draw with PSV Eindhoven was a game that ultimately cast further doubt on Louis van Gaal’s much-discussed philosophy.

Although it’s been 767 minutes since United conceded a goal from open play, an inability to create enough chances and score enough goals once again stood out against an average PSV side.

With the exception of Ander Herrera and long-term absentee Luke Shaw, Van Gaal fielded what was close to his strongest side.

And yet United were so desperately poor that the only logical conclusion which can be drawn is that the Dutchman’s style of football was to blame – a concern the club’s fans have harboured for some time now.

In the first half, United should have scored at least once. Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial both had good opportunities in front of goal, while Morgan Schneiderlin went close with a prodded effort from a corner. United would have settled down if one of those three chances got converted – but that in itself is the issue. Van Gaal’s side creates so little that even one missed chance can prove costly.

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That is arguably the biggest problem with Van Gaal’s philosophy. In press conferences and interviews, he often talks about possession and passing as a means of “control.” But the only way to truly control a game is on the scoreboard, and United don’t score enough.

Theoretically, a team could have 95 per cent possession and play over 1,000 passes, but get counter-attacked in the last minute and lose the game 1-0. Is that control ? So, as promising as the first half was by United’s standards, it followed a pattern seen in far too many games during Van Gaal’s tenure thus far.

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In the second half, with the importance of the 45 minutes clear, the lack of urgency was alarming.

That, once again, calls the manager’s philosophy into question. When the play remains at the same predictable tempo throughout the game, it’s clearly something that comes from the top. Even in the final 10 minutes, there was no cavalier charge as seen in seasons gone by.

Instead, it was as if there was a commitment to playing one way – Van Gaal’s way – in order to win. And yet, strangely, it’s in those moments that the Dutchman has a habit of experimenting and making desperate changes.

Ashley Young, for instance, was introduced on the left wing, where he immediately whipped in two excellent crosses and looked dangerous. With a few minutes to go, he was switched to right-back, a position where he couldn’t impact the game in an attacking sense. Similarly, Marouane Fellaini replaced Bastian Schweinsteiger in central midfield for 15 minutes or so before switching positions with Wayne Rooney. It was at that point, oddly, when United stopped playing as many long balls and crosses. The formation also changed from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2.

The point is that it was difficult to discern what United’s game plan was from a tactical perspective. How, precisely, did Van Gaal expect to score? While PSV deserve credit for defending well, the truth is that they didn’t really get tested at the back and looked comfortable in the game for long spells.

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That leads on to the other big problem with Van Gaal’s philosophy. On a number of occasions, the Dutchman has talked about his players needing to be patient with the ball and waiting for spaces to open up.

It’s such an odd approach to take, not least because opponents are happy for United to have the ball, safe in the knowledge that they won’t do an awful lot with it. As PSV so ably demonstrated, the blueprint for playing against Van Gaal’s United is clear: defend deep, stay compact and play on the counter-attack.

That’s why the onus is on United to attack and create space rather than expect it to happen. Possession-based teams such as Barcelona and Bayern Munich continually face opponents who camp on the edge of their penalty area, but they negate that by creating and manipulating space in attack better than anyone else in the world.

By contrast, United’s second-half performance against PSV demonstrated an unwillingness to take risks. It was reactive rather than proactive football.

It’s the great Van Gaal paradox that, despite not playing very well this season, United have the opportunity to go top of the Premier League on Saturday against Leicester City. That, in a snapshot, illustrates the clear progress United have made during the Dutchman’s tenure.

What remains unclear is whether United will ever play fast and exciting football in the remaining 18 months of his contract. Van Gaal is ultimately under no obligation to play in a certain way, but he will come under huge pressure in May if performances don’t improve.

Next: Man United 0-0 PSV: United fail to fire p?

This season, United have averaged 1.6 goals per game. For a team aiming to win silverware that number simply isn’t high enough – it was 2.2 goals per game in the Premier League the last time United won it in 2013.That was the main takeaway from United’s draw vs. PSV. Another clean sheet was kept, but the lack of firepower meant United never looked like scoring freely against one of the weaker teams in the competition.

The stalemate against the Dutch champions means that United have scored just five goals in five games in what should have been a simple group to qualify from. As it is, Manchester United are now left needing a win from the trickiest fixture in the group: Wolfsburg away.