Arsenal 3 Man Utd 0, October 4, Premier League
Louis van Gaal questioned his team’s desire and failure to follow his game plan after United fluffed their first serious test of the Premier League season but his players were simply perplexed by his instructions and unsure of what he wanted from them. In the buildup to the game, United’s players had been urging the manager to adopt the counterattacking tactics that have served them so well against Arsenal in the past, knowing that their opponents always play in the same way.
Sir Alex Ferguson enjoyed plenty of success utilising that approach but, even the previous season under Van Gaal, United had beaten Arsenal 2-1 at the Emirates Stadium by playing on the counter-attack, with their winning goal coming on the break. But the players’ pleas fell on deaf ears and Van Gaal instead insisted on playing a curious, poorly conceived pressing game that backfired miserably. Three goals down inside 19 minutes as confusion reigned, United supporters were left flummoxed by the sight of Bastian Schweinsteiger, one of the least mobile players in the team, often trying to press the Arsenal defence as the most advanced United player. Van Gaal had selected another ageing midfielder in Michael Carrick to play alongside Schweinsteiger while the faster, more agile Morgan Schneiderlin started on the bench and Arsenal simply used their pace to brutally expose the lack of legs in United’s midfield.
Tottenham 3 Man Utd 0, April 10, Premier League
There cannot have been too many better examples of square pegs in round holes than this but why Van Gaal seems so insistent on deploying players out of position when the evidence routinely shows it is counter-productive is hard to understand. At times, it almost feels as if Van Gaal is going out of his way to try to look clever when the reality is he is merely further confusing a team already confused by his methods.
United had started with Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial upfront but at half-time against Spurs Van Gaal opted to jettison Rashford and instead play Ashley Young at centre-forward – a player who, by trade, is a winger but who has now been used in six different positions this season – and push Martial, his main goalscorer, out wide. Jesse Lingard, a wide player, was at No. 10, a position he has been trying out in recent weeks, and Juan Mata, a No. 10, was on the right wing. Confused? So were the United players. Tottenham scored three times in six minutes and the game was over, United left four points adrift of Manchester City in the chase for Champions League qualification.
Wolfsburg 3 Man Utd 2, December 8, Champions League group stage
It was a decision that, in time, will probably come to symbolise better than anything Van Gaal’s hare-brained tactical thinking. With United 2-1 down to Wolfsburg and chasing the game with 21 minutes to go as they stared elimination from the Champions League in the face, Van Gaal hauled off Juan Mata, the provider of the first goal for Anthony Martial and his most creative player, and put on the inexperienced Nick Powell, who had not played for United’s first team for 16 months.
Powell, for what it was worth, had a loan spell at Leicester City cut short the previous season amid reports of a lacklustre attitude in training and poor time-keeping. It was a decision that baffled many of United’s players. No less bemusing was his decision to hand right back Guillermo Varela his first start of the season in United’s biggest game of the campaign at that point and then introduce another young, inexperienced full-back, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, shortly before half-time for the injured Matteo Darmian in what was only his second substitute’s appearance for the first team. Meanwhile, Ashley Young and Paddy McNair remained on the bench. United went on to lose 3-2 and were dumped out of the Champions League.