Before the days of Super Sunday, me and my father would watch Football Italia on Channel Four. This was my first taste of trying to understand the beautiful game from a tactical viewpoint. There was the organised art of catenaccio to grasp then zona mista, the Italian version of total football. To me it was 22 players on a field trying to avoid getting too close to the opponent’s goal. However, I did take note of statistics and tried to argue that possession and shots on target proved that one team was performing better than the other. My Dad wisely informed me that only one statistic mattered; the scoreline.
For a few weeks, all seemed well with Louis van Gaal’s United. Following a 1-0 win against Crystal Palace there was a six game winning streak. Before the defeat against Southampton, the team was on a eleven game unbeaten run. All was rosy, wasn’t it?
Well, not really. Another point my Dad would make was that a large part of football was luck, many would argue that United were enjoying more than their fair share. In the victories against Arsenal, Stoke City and Liverpool, the plaudits went to David de Gea, not the forward line. The warning signs were there against Southampton when United eked out an undeserved 2-1 win and defeats could have easily come in away matches against Aston Villa, Spurs and Stoke City. United were getting away it and the team still appeared to be in transition.
Performances were disjointed and victories largely forgotten thanks to clinical strikers. Admittedly that is their job yet with a vast summer outlay bringing in the attacking talents of Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao it is fair to expect a bit more excitement and a few more chances. Yet following the 3-5 collapse against Leicester City, United have heeded a lesson to their gung-ho approach and arguably gone back to basics.
Sterile domination has become the buzz phrase to describe United’s recent performances. As if bonuses were paid out for successful passes rather than goals scored. Over the past few weeks United have ground out performances with no real expense spared. Instead of fast, expansive, attacking football it has been slow, ponderous and predictable.
Many have cited a lack of risk-taking resulting in nullifying attacking talent by a lack of positive service. Against Cambridge United, even Alan Shearer could note the opportunities missed when passing the ball forward into space. The players are there, they are simply not being managed properly. It could be something quite simple, like releasing the ball quicker to open up a few yards. Sometimes that is all a Rooney, Mata or a Di Maria needs to cause havoc and get bums off seats.
The ‘perfect performances’ that Van Gaal is striving for have arguably only occurred three times so far this season; in home matches against QPR, Hull and Newcastle. Each victory had an early goal in common helping to prove that taking the initiative is the best plan of attack. United have already shown that they are well equipped to keep the ball and maintain sterile domination yet this would be best employed to see a game out, not from the start. This weekend United face Leicester, here’s hoping that lessons have been learnt and they take the handbrake off.