Boring Van Gaal is sucking the life out of Man United

After crashing out of the Champions League the finger of blame is largely being pointed at the Dutchman who is steadfastly refusing to accept criticism of his playing style

Boring Van Gaal is sucking the life out of Man United

If you find it a surprise that Manchester United have been knocked out of the Champions League, you clearly haven’t been watching their games this season.

Having spent a gargantuan £283 million in the transfer market, Louis van Gaal succeeded only in turning United into one of the dullest, rigid, lifeless teams in the competition. By the time they arrived in Wolfsburg needing a victory to be sure of progression, it was clear they were swimming against the tide.

Somehow, Van Gaal has sucked the life out of one of the world’s greatest clubs. Fans no longer look forward to arriving at Old Trafford in the same way they used to.

Players don’t seem to have the same appetite and belief as their predecessors. And when visiting teams begin to batten down the hatches with 20 minutes to go they do so safe in the knowledge that the worst is over. Fergie time and the avalanche of late, crucial goals is now just a distant memory.

After a September during which the Red Devils scored 15 goals in six games, the humiliating 3-0 defeat to Arsenal was a real watershed moment for United. From there Van Gaal looked to tighten up first and worry about attacking later. Rather than accept that selecting two immobile thirty-somethings in Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger in midfield was a grave error, he decided that his side needed to become tougher to break down at the expense of greater expression in the final third.

There is a monotony to United which reflects Van Gaal’s approach. The only thing that changes in training is the time. When they arrive at Carrington morning, noon or night, the players are put through exactly the same exercises week after week. After going through their warm-ups on a match day it is the same training drills which are performed by the starting XI whether the opposition is Cambridge or CSKA Moscow.

There has been many an occasion when Van Gaal has waxed lyrical about the wonderful football displayed by his Ajax sides of the mid-1990s, but lately he has turned to more recent examples of his work when suggesting that Man Utd fans should fans should have known what they were getting when he was appointed,

“When they don’t like the style of play for Manchester United, everybody knows in advance that all the teams of LVG plays like that. In Barcelona, or Bayern Munich or AZ we have played like that,” said Van Gaal in defence of his tactics after the 0-0 draw with West Ham at Old Trafford on Saturday.

But while he believes that United fans should have foreseen the current situation, the same charge can be levelled at the 64-year-old. This is a club which has been built on playing football the right way. Even in the days in between Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson, the likes of Tommy Docherty and Ron Atkinson had United playing an attractive brand of football, while Dave Sexton – the manager who bridged the gap between the reigns of the two – was criticised for a more functional, conservative approach.

Van Gaal didn’t walk into this job with his eyes closed. He knew the demands associated with Manchester United. He had seen what happened to David Moyes, yet even in the Scot’s short spell in charge there was a more willing approach to attacking than Van Gaal has employed.

What’s more, Van Gaal cannot claim that he has not been given the tools with which to build a fast-flowing, attractive lineup. A British record fee of £59.7m was splashed out on Angel di Maria, and while he had not been the manager’s choice, he was the kind of player most bosses would love to work with. The Dutchman was forever switching Di Maria around and eventually helped to make the Argentine attacker’s position in the squad untenable.

Yet even since he has been given carte blanche in the market he has been unable to get the best out of explosive talents. Memphis Depay was his marquee signing last summer for a fee potentially rising to £31m, yet the Netherlands World Cup star has so far failed to show anything like his best. Anthony Martial, meanwhile, has been pushed from pillar to post since his deadline-day transfer, and the lack of appropriate service has seen him struggle to find the net.

Similarly, Ander Herrera has cut a frustrated figure as a result of his lack of playing time while Juan Mata has looked a shadow of himself when shoved out to the right wing for game after game. It was no coincidence that Martial’s best opening in weeks came on Tuesday in Wolfsburg from a killer ball by Mata, playing in the No.10 spot vacated by the injured Wayne Rooney. If Van Gaal had had a fully-fit squad available to him, there is little doubt Mata would have been used as a right winger, if at all.

And that brings us to another point. United’s lack of strength in depth left them incredibly exposed as they kicked off against Wolfsburg, and two further injuries only made matters worse as the match went on.

Van Gaal insisted earlier this season that he was able to pack off a number of former first-team squad members in the summer because of the versatility of a string of current players. Yet such a viewpoint is always dangerous since it only takes a few absences to leave the squad looking stretched.

The likes of Guillermo Varela, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Axel Tuanzebe and Marcus Rashford may well become excellent senior players in time, but the truth is that right now they are getting a look-in with the first team more out of necessity than out of choice. If United had even half the depth of cover of previous seasons to call upon then such youngsters would be getting an outing when the time was right, not when the situation demanded it.

Louis van Gaal is not the only man to blame for United’s current malaise, and indeed he has steered his side into a comfortable top-four position from which they are well placed to challenge for the Premier League title this season.

However, the Champions League failure is a huge step backwards for the club, and the Dutchman has to take a large share of the responsibility. Having a belief and sticking to it can be a very positive quality, but the belligerence and stubbornness with which Van Gaal stands by his failing ‘philosophy’ is threatening to undermine his attempts to make a success of his Manchester United reign.

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Scholes: Di Maria seems unhappy at Manchester United

The former England star says that the winger looked far more positive alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and believes the whole Red Devils squad need a lift

Scholes: Di Maria seems unhappy at Manchester United

Former Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes believes that Angel Di Maria seems unhappy at Old Trafford.

The Argentina international joined the Red Devils in a British-record €75 million deal in August and has scored three and assisted a further four goals in his eight Premier League appearances to date.

Despite an encouraging start to life with the 20-time English champions, though, Scholes believes that the winger is one of a number of United players who needs a lift after a winless run of three matches.

“My concern is that the mood among the United players feels a bit low-key,” the former England star wrote in The Independent.

“Preparing for the broadcast of the game [Real Madrid vs Liverpool, for which Scholes was a television pundit] in Madrid this week, I watched reruns of last season and Angel Di Maria smiling broadly as he celebrated goal after goal with Cristiano Ronaldo.

“He doesn’t seem to be in the same happy mood at United. It feels downbeat among the team.”

Louis van Gaal’s side sit 10th in the Premier League table following their opening 10 games and host Crystal Palace on Saturday.

Pellegrini: FFP stopped Manchester City signing Di Maria

The winger eventually joined the Blues’ rivals Manchester United for a British record fee of €76m, but the former Malaga boss believes he is not the Red Devils’ only threat

Pellegrini: FFP stopped Manchester City signing Di Maria

Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini has revealed the Premier League champions could not afford to sign Angel Di Maria due to Financial Fair Play.

The Argentina international joined Manchester United for a British record €76 million in August and has impressed for the Red Devils, scoring three goals already.

And, as Goal revealed on Friday, Pellegrini has admitted that after a FFP fine, the Blues were unable to match the fee paid for the former Real Madrid man.

“I think it is very easy,” he told reporters. “We had important restrictions about our budget this year. We cannot spend the money that United paid for Di Maria.

“We had important restrictions on the amount of players we can have this year and also the amount of money we can spend.”

Di Maria will line-up for the Old Trafford outfit when they travel to the Etihad Stadium for the first Manchester derby of the season, with Wayne Rooney set to join him in the starting XI after a three-match suspension.

And though Pellegrini believes the former Benfica star will cause his side a threat, there are others in Louis van Gaal’s teams who must be stopped.

“If you asked me if he is a good player I think he is a good player and a very useful player for every team.

“I think he is a very good player but he is not the only good player at Manchester United.”

How Di Maria has replaced Suarez as the Premier League’s MVP

The Argentine has made an instant, electrifying impression on English football, but can he continue to thrill while also leading Manchester United’s long-overdue revival?

How Di Maria has replaced Suarez as the Premier League's MVP

Few will mourn the loss of the drama and controversy created by Luis Suarez now that he has swapped Merseyside for Catalonia, though his rare breed of genius, which walked a line between joyous frivolity and ruthless precision, unquestionably leaves behind a gaping hole. The mantle of the Premier League’s great entertainer is up for grabs and, just like so many Manchester United No.7s in the past, Angel Di Maria is ready to claim the title as his own.

The Argentine has made just five appearances for United since completing a British-record €75 million (£59.7m) move to Old Trafford, but has already shown both what a phenomenal talent he is and hinted at the galvanising effect he can have on a side who lost their mojo under David Moyes and offered up precious few signs of finding it again in the early days of Louis van Gaal’s pre-Di Maria re-building.

The Argentine, though, has brought an immediate injection of flair and an arrogance that had become virtually extinct under Moyes – and had arguably been dying out even before his arrival, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s post-Cristiano Ronaldo squad bereft of stardust and built only to be more than the sum of their largely functional parts.

Only against Burnley, on a debut cut short by injury, and West Ham has Di Maria failed to both score and assist in a match, having rattled up three apiece in barely 400 minutes of action. As a mark of his Midas touch, even his wayward shots have turned into assists, even his crosses have turned into goals.

More than just his production is the sheer, unbridled fun that effuses from his every cultured touch and slaloming, catch-me-if-you-can running style. That lung-busting approach left him faint in the Copa del Rey, though he continued to surge forward, and it was a trademark “zig-zag”, as Xabi Alonso dubbed it, that helped seal the Champions League in Lisbon. Di Maria, like Suarez before him, is a blur of perpetual motion, always driving forward and committing players – a gliding guillotine of creativity.

They are players all too rare in modern football’s world of efficiency and absolutes, players whose flicks and feigns could veer towards being overly elaborate and superfluous if they did not so often result in match-winning brilliance. It is a marriage of both entertaining, care-free artistry and cut-throat, merciless annihilation.

And so it has been for Di Maria in his brief United career so far. He has been the spark they have craved, a provider and scorer of goals, and the sole blotch on his copy book is that Leicester City were able to condemn his stunning, Karel Poborsky-esque lob to the annals of irrelevancy by overturning a 3-1 deficit that had been built on the cunning and hard running of the Argentine.

The 2014-15 Premier League season already feels like being a vintage year for attackers, such is the abundance of talent pulsating through the division, but even now Di Maria is beginning to stand apart.

There are challengers, of course; Diego Costa has been ferocious in front of goal since moving to England, Cesc Fabregas has been a hugely influential and creative presence, Sergio Aguero has once again shown his devastating, unerring finishing. But none will be asked to carry their sides quite like Di Maria, none will have to disguise so many sins, none will have to transform their club’s fortunes to so great an extent.

For the teams at the top it is, to paraphrase Al Pacino, the inches that make the difference, but not so for United who have miles to make up. Chelsea, for example, needed only tweaks to turn a side who should have won the title last season, even in spite of their absentee strikeforce, into bonafide champions. Now Costa has brought the required cutting edge and has Fabregas – and a horde of playmakers – to feed him.

Di Maria, by contrast, often appears to be a lone ranger in a team that needs significantly more than mere finishing touches and who picked up just a single point more across 2014 than the likes of Stoke City and Crystal Palace.

Yet he is still on course to overtake his Chelsea counterpart in assists. The Argentine does, somewhat surprisingly, create a goalscoring opportunity more regularly than Fabregas, though so far has been let down by a profligate striking trio. While Costa has scored with an astonishing 47 per cent of his shots on goal, Wayne Rooney, United’s most clinical forward this term, has scored with just 25% of his efforts.

United’s forward line, and the team as a whole, are now looking to Di Maria to breathe fresh life and impetus into the club – and it has started already. The former Benfica attacker’s presence has changed the mentality at Old Trafford and altered the very nature of how Van Gaal feels he can set up and shape his squad.

Until Di Maria’s arrival, the Dutchman was preparing to rely upon the 3-5-2 formation that had helped a mediocre Netherlands side – who have lost three of their four matches under Van Gaal’s successor, Guus Hiddink – achieve a third-place finish at the World Cup. That same system was to be implemented to counteract the lack of balance and quality in the United side he inherited.

Before signing Di Maria, the veteran coach expanded on his team’s limitations: “We don’t have any wingers to give us attacking width. Or, I should say, we don’t have wingers of the highest level, like Ronaldo or Di Maria or somebody like that. So, I have to play another way.” Not so any more. Now the task facing Van Gaal is not to hide and reinforce weaknesses, but to find a way to harness Di Maria to the maximum.

Perhaps the biggest question mark that remains is whether Di Maria has the mentality needed to become a leading man. For so long the 26-year-old has been the wingman for both club and country, servicing Lionel Messi for Argentina and Ronaldo at the Bernabeu.

Now he must step into the limelight on his own and become United’s focal point, their leader. Such is the team’s dependence on the Argentine they cannot afford for him to have the off-days that would previously have been compensated for by the relentlessness of Ronaldo and Messi. Performances like his outing in the World Cup last-16 clash with Belgium, where he lost possession 51 times, are no longer acceptable. Now he must always deliver, a responsibility few bear naturally.

But it is a challenge he must rise to. Part of Suarez’s unparalleled greatness was that, alongside his jaw-dropping talent, he dragged an otherwise average Liverpool team to within a slip of the title. Di Maria must do similarly to not only confirm his status as the Premier League’s greatest showman, but as the division’s most singularly decisive player too.

Real Madrid ace Ronaldo urges Man Utd to maintain faith

Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo has told Manchester United fans not to lose hope.

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Ronaldo is convinced his former club will soon return to the summit.

“I really did love being at Manchester United,” he told the Daily Mail. “Believe me, they will be a good team again, I’m sure of it. It is a great club.

“Bad moments and good moments. Manchester is passing through a bad moment. Last year it was a horrible season and this year they haven’t started well, either.

“But I do think they did well to buy Di Maria and Falcao. I think the team will be much better. I want to see them better because it is such a fantastic club and they deserve to be better.

“Falcao is a very good signing. He is a very good player.”