While it’s still early days in the Premier League, Manchester United’s latest humiliation – a 5-3 defeat to Leicester City on Sunday – will send shockwaves throughout the squad.
It wasn’t so much the result as the manner of defeat that will perturb manager Louis van Gaal. After conceding a dubious penalty at 3-1 up, United capitulated spectacularly both physically and mentally.
Van Gaal refused to blame the referee, suggesting that even at 3-2 his players should have been able to dominate possession and see out the match.
The most disappointing thing, he said, was that his team gifted the match to their opponents.
This match exposed all manner of tactical and technical issues at United, but what will be trickier to fix is the mental component of their game.
Comparisons with Sir Alex Ferguson are seldom helpful, but it’s abundantly clear this sort of thing would have never happened under the Scot. Incredibly, this was the first time in 853 Premier League matches that the club have lost after holding a two-goal lead.
Restoring that grit and fighting spirit will be number one on Van Gaal’s to-do list.
It wasn’t just mental frailty that let United down. There remain grave problems with tactics and personnel. So, while they have an embarrassment of riches going forward, they’re porous at the back.
Tyler Blackett had a nightmare second half, losing all composure when the going got tough on Sunday. He ended the day in the worst possible fashion, seeing red after conceding the match-sealing penalty.
Past a certain point you can’t really blame the 20-year-old: he’s been thrust into this situation because of the United’s paucity of defensive options. Even the much-vaunted Marcos Rojo was off-colour, but he should adapt to the Premier League sooner rather than later. And Rafael da Silva, although unlucky to have conceded the first penalty, hardly inspires confidence.
Teams can, however, win games with poor defenders. The bigger issue with United is how they line up.
Instead of allowing Leicester to claw their way back into the match, United should have been able to control possession and see out the three points. But too often the ball would be cleared from defence into a completely open midfield area, to be retrieved by Leicester.
United simply didn’t have enough presence in midfield in the second half. Ander Herrera and Daley Blind are supposed to anchor the team, but the latter was often called to assist the back line, leaving Herrera as the only link between the defence and an attacking quartet of Angel Di Maria, Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao.
Make no mistake, although the Sky Sports graphics read the line-up as 4-3-3, Di Maria didn’t really play centrally. In his final season at Real Madrid he demonstrated that he can play in a central three, but for whatever reason he just didn’t fancy it on Sunday.
The Argentine is a fabulous player and with the ball at their feet United are fine. But without possession, such a top-heavy formation means United will end up being less than the sum of their very expensive parts.
As it was suggested on MM last week, one in that front four will have to be sacrificed in order to accommodate another ball-winning midfielder. Otherwise, they’ll struggle against high-energy teams such as Leicester City.
It may take another harrowing defeat or two, but as Van Gaal proved during his time as Bayern Munich boss, he has the stones to drop one of his big names. You could see him benching Falcao and asking Di Maria to play deeper, creating a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1.
Pundits may be up in arms after this latest defeat, but it isn’t time for Van Gaal to hit the panic button just yet.
Two of their three problems can be solved quickly, and come January United will surely use their plentiful resources to bolster their back line.
And with no mid-week European football to distract them this season, expect them to kick into gear after they get over this initial hump.
Main image courtesy of Action Images/Jason Cairnduff, with thanks.