Manchester United crashed out of the FA Cup at the quarter-final stage after defeat to Arsenal at Old Trafford.
The game began evenly, and after Arsenal had taken the lead through Nacho Monreal following good work from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, United responded almost instantly with Wayne Rooney powering home from a sublime Angel Di Maria cross.
The visitors looked dangerous on the break all evening and hungry out of possession. The pressure told midway through the second half as Antonio Valencia under-hit a back-pass allowing former Red Danny Welbeck to net easily.
It was a disappointing evening for the Old Trafford Faithful who had to witness a tame response following Angel Di Maria’s dismissal. Few positives were on show; here are five things we learned from the defeat to Arsene Wenger’s side.
1) One Back Pass Too Many
In some ways it was only a matter of time. If you play that many back passes one of them is going to go astray. Unfortunately for United, and Antonio Valencia, it came in the most crucial game of the season so far.
Van Gaal has adopted a cautious style of play. It is obvious that he does not trust the defence and so build up is always very slow and deliberate. Possession is treasured and that philosophy cost the Reds on Monday night.
It was an unfortunate moment, made even more hard to take as Danny Welbeck was the man who pounced. Those criticising the former United striker should think carefully about a young, local lad who gave his all for the club and was deemed surplus to requirements by Louis van Gaal.
2) Second Best All Over
The first half was a relatively close encounter, but Arsenal always looked a serious threat on the break and overall played the far better football. The Gooners were well-organised, quick in transition, but most disappointingly of all, they out-worked United.
Arsenal pressed from the front and looked more hungry and it ultimately paid dividends when it forced a mistake from Antonio Valencia. United looked second best both in terms of quality and desire and never really looked like getting back into the game once Danny Welbeck had rounded David de Gea to slot home.
Of course, going down to ten men following Angel Di Maria’s inexplicable stupidity made things very difficult, but United were second best to Arsenal long before that moment occurred.
3) Tactical Torment
It’s no secret that Louis van Gaal has struggled to find a consistent and effective system thus far in his tenure at the helm. The unwelcome consequence is that United look like a team struggling for fluency and cohesion.
Against the Gunners the Dutchman opted to play Marouane Fellaini in an advanced role (something his predecessor did not through fear of fan backlash) and it played into Arsenal’s hands. United lacked mobility in midfield against dynamic and pacy opposition.
Moreover, it played to the strengths of Per Mertesacker who has been exposed in recent weeks against clever movement and pace. Fellaini has had a much improved second season in a red shirt but his presence encourages direct football. Fellaini gives an easy option to aim at for defenders who aren’t comfortable on the ball and therein lies the biggest problem of all. Van Gaal’s philosophy is built on passing out of defence and he is simply devoid of the personnel to execute it effectively.
4) Lack Of Pace And Quality
The modern game demands pace, whether that’s speed of feet or speed of mind. Despite a number of investments, United’s midfield appears devoid of pace in any form.
The midfielders at the top of the modern game invariably manipulate the ball quickly through their passing or have the athleticism to get up and down the pitch. Of United’s midfielders, none appear to possess the quality required against top opposition. Blind, Carrick and Herrera are all very good players, but they are too easily exposed.
Against Arsenal, United’s midfield found it difficult to get a real stranglehold on the game, with passes often slow and sideways, and players struggling to make up the ground on Arsenal’s pacy attackers on the break. Despite many millions having already been spent, midfield is still an area in need of strengthening.
5) Worrying Imbalance
After such a disappointing defeat thoughts inevitably turn to where things have gone wrong and it’s a prevalent theme that reinforcements are called for. There is no doubt that United still need to invest heavily to add quality to the side but patience is required.
Building a new team, with a new style of play is not easy and it takes time. Many of those already at the club still have a big part to play in the future, the problem is that there is very little balance to the current squad.
Antonio Valencia continues to play out of position at right back, Wayne Rooney has spent much of the season in midfield and the centre-back partnership seems to change every week. The Reds need real quality in a number of positions, but that is not to say that the current crop aren’t capable of picking themselves up and making the push for Champions League qualification.
There is always a temptation after a defeat to become pessimistic, and performances of late certainly haven’t helped in that regard. But Louis van Gaal and Manchester United are capable of turning things around and the Reds should never be written off.