The Season So Far
Given Manchester United’s apparent divine right to win trophies and the rest of the Premier League’s long-established obligation to lie down and let the Red Devils romp to title after title after title, this season, like the previous two before it, has been a betrayal of everything English football has stood for over the last two decades. And boy, has it pissed a lot of people off.
Despite doing everything right – they spent loads of money on several famous players, paid them all squillions of pounds and hired a bullish egomaniac to bully the rest of the world around – Man Utd have failed miserably this season. They haven’t just struggled to put together a title challenge, they’ve very probably missed out on Champions League qualification, and lost the last remaining remnants of their aura in the process. They’ve forgotten how to score goals, how to intimidate opponents and how to "play properly", as one prominent (and genuinely very good, if hopelessly biased) United writer is fond of putting it.
Consequently, most of the British media has forgotten how to write about football, and instead of addressing the real reasons for Man Utd’s downfall, or writing about why it might be a good thing in the long-run, has repeatedly rehashed cheap and easy articles outlining why Louis "Just Gets It" Van Gaal is The Worst Manager In The History Of The Universe, or simply Not Alex Ferguson (apparently no Fleet Street editor is capable of pointing out that comparing mortals with gods isn’t at all flawed as a concept).
Having tired of this theme recently, we’re now enjoying a plethora of repetitive pieces about how José Mourinho is going to walk into Old Trafford in June and spend £750tn on
Jorge Mendes players genuine world stars and ruin Man Utd once and for all make Man Utd unstoppable again. Oh, it’s been such fun.
The Season Ahead
There’s still an outside chance that Champions League qualification can be attained and the FA Cup can definitely still be won, so there’s plenty to play for as the campaign comes to a close. It will often be said that Louis Van Gaal is fighting for his job, but those in the know seem pretty certain that the Dutchman’s tenure will end the second the season does, at which point Mourinho will step into the hotseat. For some reason everyone seems sure that the Portuguese is still a golden ticket to immediate success, despite considerable evidence piling up to suggest that his methods, tactics and personality may not be as effective as they were ten years ago. Time will tell.
Having arrived with a reputation for attacking swagger and innovative, pioneering club-building, Van Gaal quickly realised that he didn’t have anywhere near enough defensive quality to play football the way he’d most like to. As with AZ in his homeland and the Netherlands in the 2014 World Cup, pragmatism has been the only way to succeed, the least of two evils.
As such Man Utd have played a fairly rigid 4-2-3-1 with strong organisation in the middle of the pitch and a clear focus on controlling the game by dominating the ball as much as possible. The days of the gung-ho 4-4-1-1 with two flying wingers, two strikers and two box-to-box midfielders are long gone. Van Gaal understands the game as a series of sequential phases, in which control is first established by gaining the ball, second secured by passing in such a way that the opposition collapses back into a defensive shape in their own half, and third used as a means to chip away at the opposition’s defensive structure and create a clear scoring chances.
The fans and the media don’t understand this, or just don’t see it as an effective way to play football in 2016, and have not been shy about letting LVG know about their feelings. Much as the Old Trafford faithful – hilariously unaware of their good fortune to have seen two decades of success with such swashbuckling football in the first place – hates it, it really is the only way to play with this bizarre, unbalanced squad of players.
Unsurprisingly, Man Utd’s biggest strength is their ability to control the game – or as their critics would say, to kill the game. They’ve averaged 55% possession this season, one of the Premier League’s highest figures, and their endless sideways passing, well-organised positional play in midfield and generally solid cover at the back make them very hard to attack. There is a flip side to this, of course, and we’ll get there in due course.
What follows from such control of the game is very admiral defensive solidity: as well as their excellent organisation with the ball, they make 19.8 tackles per game, 16.1 interceptions and a very high 12.5 fouls. As such, they’ve only faced 334 shots in total and 105 of those have been on target, both the Premier League’s third lowest figures. On top of that, their keepers have recorded a save ratio of 76.7%, the division’s fourth highest figure. This is a team that doesn’t give up many chances.
Of course, the clear weakness in this Man Utd team is its attacking output: the predictability and glacial pace of their buildup makes them very easy to defend against. Their total of 345 shots is the Premier League’s fifth lowest figure, and only 114 of those have hit the target. Spurs, by contrast, have nearly double that number.
Only the increasingly corpulent Wayne Rooney, the raw Anthony Martial and the rather infuriating Memphis have taken more than two shots per game, and they’ve scored seven, eight and two goals respectively. The side’s overall conversion rates are pretty healthy, but with such low raw output it’s impossible to describe Man Utd as anything other than a depressing attacking unit.
Given their surprising inability to score goals, this is a side Tottenham may only need to score once against to win the game. Spurs have enough firepower to trouble United and enough speed, energy and creativity to take advantage of the counterattacking opportunities that come their way in midfield. This Man Utd team doesn’t give up too many chances, but you’d back Harry Kane and company to bury the ones that are presented to them.
With Louis Van Gaal it’s really hard to tell what’s coming, but his hand is usually forced to an extent by injuries to key players in certain positions. Spurs’ big hope should be that Morgan Schneiderlin doesn’t play: the tough-tackling midfielder has had a considerable positive impact on United’s win percentages when used, but for some reason Van Gaal prefers the clumsy no-wave stylings and extreme violence of Marouane Fellaini.
Spurs need three points here otherwise the title race is just about done and dusted, but Man Utd’s record against the Premier League’s best sides remains as good as ever. Unless the home side can do as Arsenal did earlier this season and blow United out of the water before they’ve realised the game has started, a rather heartbreaking 1-1 surely awaits.