Updated: Saturday, 22nd September 2018 @ 5:47am

Comment: Sick Man Utd need prescription of width from Van Gaal to cure headache

Comment: Sick Man Utd need prescription of width from Van Gaal to cure headache

| By Andy Donley

Two defeats in 20 matches, a good chance of a place in the coveted Champions League and a previously over-crowded physio room now sparsely populated.

Then with a manager as confident in his own abilities as he is in his team’s potential, surely everything is looking rosy at Old Trafford?

Wrong. Fans and pundits alike are baffled and perturbed at the dearth of excitement being offered by the Red Devils.

Although they are certainly hard to beat, they are a long way from being the dominant force that football followers around the world have come to expect from the 20-time English champions.

Paul Scholes recently said in his column in The Independent that United’s football has been ‘miserable.’ But it is the fans who are the miserable ones.

The standard of football could better be described - though perhaps this is little more than paranoia – though perhaps this is little more than paranoia – as a sadistic attempt to induce such feelings in the Old Trafford faithful.

Surely such stars can only perform so uninventively on purpose?

Fans may have regularly found themselves beseeching Louis van Gaal (or the TV screen) to explain to them how his expensively assembled and lavishly talented squad can struggle to pass a football with the urgency and incisiveness needed to pierce Premier League defences on a regular basis.

With no answer forthcoming, we’re left to form our own conclusions.

Van Gaal’s two formations of choice – 5-3-2 and a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond – are predicated on having all of the team’s attacking options in the centre of the pitch.

In theory, this should allow the likes of Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao, Wayne Rooney, Angel Di Maria and Juan Mata to interchange, swap positions and generally combine to cause mayhem.

In practice, the lack of width allows full-backs to tuck in and crowd the centre of the pitch, limiting the space that these ‘Gaalacticos’ have to work in.

What’s more, with no wide outlets, the defenders have regularly found themselves with no options to move the ball forward. Van Gaal places massive importance on the principle – or ‘philosophy’ to quote his oft-repeated motto – on ball retention.

Hence, when Phil Jones has the ball at centre back, he has three options as to where to distribute the ball: forwards to Michael Carrick/Daley Blind, or sidewards to either his centre-back partner Marcos Rojo or the incumbent right full-back.

Rojo faces this same situation if he receives the ball, and the right back can either give it back to Jones or look for the Carrick/Blind midfield axis.

This has led to long periods of games where the defence has hesitantly passed the ball between them, leading to the crowd growing increasingly restless.

Eventually, something cracks, and the ball is sent long into the channels where the ageing, static duo of Falcao and Van Persie are reluctant to pursue.

Playing with wingers is not exactly reinventing the wheel. Every great Manchester United team has been defined by its legendary wide-men – the three teams to conquer Europe boasted George Best in 1968, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs in 1999 and Cristiano Ronaldo in 2008.

The impact of width on this current side was illuminated by the current victory over League One side Preston North End in the FA Cup fifth round.

After another dismally dull first half, Preston took the lead in the 47th minute and the threat of a major shock looked to be looming.

However, Ashley Young’s introduction in the 60th minute heralded a change to a more traditional 4-2-3-1, and with it a seismic shift in the momentum of the game: Young assisted Ander Herrera for the away side’s equaliser, before another cross from a wide position was converted by the giant Marouane Fellaini. United won the tie 3-1.

In Angel Di Maria, Van Gaal has one of the top wingers in world football, and in Adnan Januzaj he has one of the most promising.

The Dutchman is quite obviously a very intelligent man, but whether his team’s run of positive results had lured him into thinking that United’s problems had been solved remains open to debate.

Hopefully, last weekend’s dire defeat away to Swansea will swiftly put an end to any such suspicions. Manchester United are sick, Mr Van Gaal, and the prescribed medicine is a dose of width.

Main image courtesy of BBC1 via YouTube, with thanks.