Manchester United suffered only their second defeat in 20 games despite having taken the lead through a well-worked and well-taken goal finished with aplomb by Ander Herrera. No sooner had the Reds taken the lead, however, than they switched off from a throw-in, allowing Jonjo Shelvey time to find Ki in the middle to equalise.
The Old Trafford outfit began the second half well and pressed hard for an opening before Jonjo Shelvey’s shot from range took a telling deflection off Bafetimbi Gomis on its way past David De Gea. Good performances were few and far between for United and the likes of Angel Di Maria and Wayne Rooney will need to re-discover some form quickly if the Reds are going to maintain their position in the Champion’s League places. A disappointing defeat, here are 5 things we learned from the game at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
1) Ander’s Impact
The sight of Wayne Rooney in midfield and Ander Herrera on the substitute’s bench has become a regrettably regular occurrence. On Saturday against Swansea, Louis van Gaal gave the Spanish midfielder the start many had been crying out for and the former Bilbao man’s performance was one of the few positives to take from the defeat.
Herrera has the welcome knack of scoring goals from midfield, something United have lacked for many years. His performance against the Swans was far from perfect, but the Spaniard adds some much needed impetus, guile and tempo into United’s midfield. Perhaps it is Herrera’s propensity to play the more risky pass forwards (often conceding possession) which has seen him largely marginalised by his Dutch manager for much of the Premier League campaign thus far. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that of the midfielders on display in a red shirt at the Liberty Stadium Herrera was the standout performer.
The Basque youngster is technically gifted and buzzes around energetically. It is hoped that Louis van Gaal will afford more opportunities to a player who, as yet, has not had a sustained chance to adapt to English football and the demands of the Premier League. The added bonus, of course, is that it allows Wayne Rooney to play further forward in his best position. Balance (or lack thereof) has been a prevalent bone of contention of late; if Herrera is now given a sustained run of games, he may just blossom and provide it.
2) Pensive Possession
Philosophy; it’s hard to imagine that most, if not all, United fans are starting to hate the word. Louis van Gaal brought with him an unwavering belief in his own methods and an ideology of the way football should be played. There is no question that maintaining controlled periods of possession forms a very large part of the Dutchman’s thinking but, for now at least, it’s proving costly.
This is not the Manchester United of Sir Alex Ferguson anymore; caution has replaced adventure, control has replaced tempo and seemingly nothing has replaced width. There is nothing inherently wrong with a change of style, but those hoping for a quick fix will need to gain some patience and perspective.
Against Swansea, as for much of the season, United’s play lacked tempo and incision. Fans are currently witnessing players who have been sapped of instinct, fearful of conceding possession in front of the ever gazing eyes of their manager. The easy pass sideways or backwards has become default and it is seriously harming the Reds’ ability to create chances.
Louis van Gaal is very particular about the way he wants United to play and where each player has to be on the pitch at every given moment. 3 months was mooted at the start of the season but in reality it was always going to take longer. This is a crop of players, near enough all of whom are new to Van Gaal’s methods and, perhaps even more pertinently, new to each other. Possession is slow and pensive, but fans are witnessing the very foundations of the Dutchman’s philosophy.
Performances may continue to suffer in the short-term, but as occurred at Barcelona, Ajax and Bayern Munich, in time Van Gaal’s methods will bear fruit.
3) Relationship Problems
Building on the problems of United’s ineffective spells of possession, it was evident against Swansea that right now there are 11 individuals trying to execute a philosophy on the pitch. Football is built on partnerships; the full-back and winger, the centre halves, the central midfielders, the strikers, and the Old Trafford outfit are suffering from a lack of relationships on the field.
It is hardly surprising given the influx of new players in the summer and the inconsistency in terms of selection and it is making it very difficult for the team to gain any rhythm. Van Persie and Falcao have failed to gel despite numerous outings together, whether 3-5-2 or a narrow 4-4-2 diamond formation the full-backs are often isolated on the flanks. Carrick, Blind, Fellaini, Rooney, Herrera, Di Maria and Mata have all been rotated in midfield and at centre- back Smalling, Evans, Jones and Rojo have all struggled to play regularly for one reason or another.
Of course, an unfortunate injury list has had a large part to play, but if United are to improve then selection needs to find some consistency, particularly with no European football to contend with. The same players should be playing in the same positions week-in, week-out so that relationships can build between the playing staff. Against Swansea, as has been the case for most of the season, the performance was rigid, uninventive and predictable. It is hoped that consistent selection will materialise in the coming weeks and the players will begin to adapt to each other’s movements.
4) System Overload?
3-5-2, 4-4-2 diamond, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1; 7 months in to the campaign and there is still no clear indication as to the Reds’ most effective system. Against Swansea Louis van Gaal decided once more to deploy a diamond in midfield and once more United struggled to penetrate the Swansea defence.
A diamond relies on attacking full-backs for width, a mobile and energetic no.10 and strikers willing to pull the defence across the pitch with clever movement; the Reds lacked near enough all 3. Luke Shaw and Ashley Young both did well supporting attacks on the left but both McNair and Valencia struggled to offer any threat from the right. Rooney offered energy but little quality and Van Persie had a game to forget.
Fellaini is far from dynamic and offered very little and it was clear that the side struggled for any rhythm with Rooney the only one seemingly capable of offering any kind of movement in the final third. 7 months should be long enough to decide the best system to suit your playing staff and the time has come for Louis van Gaal to make his choice. It is imperative that the side now shows consistency in selection and its system as this will surely lead to more consistent performances.
5) Top 4 In Sight?
Despite the defeat, Manchester United clung on to a place in the top 4 in the Premier League but what was once a comfortable lead over the chasing pack has now eroded and dragged the Reds in to what looks likely to become the most competitive race for a Champions League place in recent memory.
The worrying thing is that of those involved, United are the least convincing at present, and with tough fixtures to come too. Many will argue, probably quite rightly too, that the result against Swansea had been coming for some time but the club are still capable of turning the corner.
There is no doubt that United have the quality in the squad to maintain a push for a Champions League place but performances will have to improve very quickly. As discussed above, the Reds will have to find consistency in selection and a system and begin to build relationships on the pitch which will facilitate a higher tempo of football. The lack of European football this campaign may yet prove pivotal but it’s going to be a fight to the wire.