With Chelsea finally pulling the trigger on Jose Mourinho, the vultures have now started circling Louis van Gaal at Manchester United after eight games without a win. It’s a bit of an oddity that Mourinho’s sacking adds extra pressure to Van Gaal beyond shifting attentions onto him – just challenging for Champions League places isn’t good enough yet the man who had the champions battling relegation apparently is. Van Gaal doesn’t necessarily help himself but it’s difficult to see how he’s supposed to make champions from this squad however expensively it was assembled, and the same goes for Mourinho – between all the youngsters you could name on one hand all the players that fit a Mourinho side, and you might not have to use all your fingers, yet no one really questions him shamelessly angling for the job.
Nevertheless, there were worse opponents for United to start the new year with than Swansea, who have had their own managerial struggle – sacking Garry Monk and leaving caretaker Alan Curtis in charge until the summer. United changed back to the back three seen at the start of Van Gaal’s tenure, lining up in a lopsided 3-6-1, while Swansea were in an unusual 4-4-2 diamond shape, with the two attackers being wingers Andre Ayew and Wayne Routledge rather than strikers.
Swansea looked to block the passes from United’s centre-backs into their midfield, with Gylfi Sigurdsson pushing up alongside the forwards so they could cover the width of the back three, occasionally pressing and forcing the ball back to David de Gea. Still, it wasn’t too difficult for United to play around this defensive plan: Chris Smalling and Daley Blind were both happy to stride forward with the ball and Morgan Schneiderlin frequently dropped into the backline to outnumber Swansea’s forwards four to three.
The idea was obviously to cram the midfield and funnel United wide, which essentially worked but perhaps only because United were happy to go along with it. Their gameplan was based around working the ball down the left before switching it for Ashley Young on the right. Young could easily whip crosses in up against an isolated Neil Taylor so the pattern of the first half essentially devolved down to how quickly United could work this move.
The answer is slowly. Very, very slowly. United have faced criticism for the boring football they have produced this year and rightly so, but it’s difficult to tell if this is by design or by execution. There’s a case to be made that the specific demands Van Gaal has for each role stifles creativity and may be outdated 20 years on from his peak at Ajax, yet it’s quite similar to the possession game used to so much success by Pep Guardiola. The most noticeable difference is that United play at half the speed Guardiola’s teams do.
The centre-backs are all capable on the ball and their horizontal passing doesn’t matter so much at the start of the build-up but it’s once the ball goes into midfield that the issues start. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Michael Carrick are good passers but are so glacial in how they go about it that they are never as effective as the Spanish playmakers some like to compare them to, Juan Mata is a good number 10 yet has a tendency to slow play down that saw him exiled from Mourinho’s Chelsea, while Wayne Rooney could have been the spark at his peak but has been phoning it in for at least five years now and rarely musters a good enough first touch to quicken the play. That leaves Ander Herrera, who isn’t as disciplined as Van Gaal likes his midfielders; Anthony Martial, who continues to be a bright spot in the team; and Morgan Schneiderlin, who Van Gaal’s lack of enthusiasm for remains a bit of a mystery. Therefore the circulation of the ball is too slow and as a result opposition defences can nearly always readjust before United take advantage of any gaps they open up.
Still, at least their defending is very good. Swansea looked to play out quickly to Ayew or Routledge on the wing and the other would move inside into the striker’s position – a neat idea that never really amounted to anything. United pressed very well, penning in Swansea defenders and midfielders to isolate them and immediately regain possession.
Unsurprisingly the teams went in for half-time at 0-0, however a little over a minute after the restart United took the lead. They finally scored from a Young cross but it was due to some neat passing after a throw-in on the right rather than the switch of play from the left side they had been attempting in the first half.
With the lead, United sat back and invited Swansea onto them, which made sense but given the Welsh side had barely had a kick in the first half due to United’s pressing, it caused a major swing in momentum. Curtis switched to a 4-2-3-1, bringing on Modou Barrow on the right and moving Ayew up front, eventually replacing him with a proper striker in Bafetimbi Gomis. Van Gaal replied by changing to a back four, keen to keep his spare man in defence. Sigurdsson got the equalizer with a perfectly placed looping header after United’s defence failed to stop Barrow’s cross. United then regained the lead after Martial picked up the ball during a string of headers backwards and forwards in Swansea’s half, raced to the byline and squared for Rooney. Despite the goals, the second half wasn’t really anymore interesting than the first as neither team’s gameplans really worked out as they had hoped.
According to Netbet Sports Betting Site, United are 22/1 to win the Premier League, putting them quite some distance behind favourites Manchester City and Arsenal at 23/20 and 6/5 respectively. It’s not difficult to work out why: United’s favourite to finish as league top scorer is Anthony Martial at a massive 150/1. United have arguably the best defence in the league but they really need to improve their attack if they are going to reach their targets.
Swansea’s objectives are rather different. The Swans are at 3/1 odds to go down but that’s not so bad compared to Newcastle, Sunderland and Aston Villa at 4/7, 1/7 and 1/100. It’s a sign of improvement in the Premier League that Swansea are hovering above the drop zone. They aren’t that bad but the likes of Crystal Palace, Stoke and Watford have kicked on this year when in previous seasons recently you could make a case for half the league deserving to get relegated.