Given the way Mauricio Pochettino has spent the season wrestling with the dilemma of whether to sign another striker to support a sparse forward line which identifies Harry Kane as his only recognised striker, it was apt that Tottenham sunk Manchester United’s Louis Van Gaal to a new low on Sunday afternoon.
Van Gaal has also had to deal with the same problem after a summer in which he sold Robin Van Persie, Javier Hernandez, Angel Di Maria and pulled the plug on Radamel Falcao’s forgettable spell at Old Trafford to rely on Wayne Rooney as the only striker.
Anthony Martial was signed to offer support and in his 13 goals has produced a good return on the £36 million investment in his talent, but started the game at White Hart Lane shunted out to the left-wing position he has often found himself in this season.
The 18 year old Marcus Rashford has emerged to become one of the few bright spots of a disappointing campaign for United, scoring 3 goals in his first 6 league appearances for the club, but was inexplicably substituted at half-time on Sunday in favour of Ashley Young.
“I wanted more running in behind” was how the Dutchman explained away his decision but Young, a winger who has usually been fielded at full-back under Van Gaal, offered little in his new role as Spurs tore through United in an electric 6 minute second-half spell.
Kane did not score but was continuously involved, his movement drawing out Chris Smalling and Daley Blind to allow Dele Alli break free to open the scoring, and his 22 league goals have given Spurs reason to dream of the title with the end in sight.
Leicester City may pip them to an historic triumph but how envious must Van Gaal, forgetting the misguided comparisons between club sizes he offered in the aftermath of Sunday’s defeat, be of the goal-scoring exploits of their main striker.
In contrast Rooney has managed just 8 goals in a sluggish campaign in which his stock has also fallen for country. The 30 year old has been hampered by injuries, appeared lethargic and starved of service in Van Gaal’s robotic system, contributing to a decline so stark it would be hugely surprising if Rooney, England’s record goal-scorer don’t forget, should start ahead of Kane when Roy Hodgson’s team begin their Euro 2016 campaign against Russia in Marseille.
Alli, playing in his first season at this level and has only just turned 20, notched his tally level with Rooney’s with his goal on Sunday while Christian Eriksen has 6, but it is Kane that lies behind Spurs’ 60 goals so far, the highest in the league.
He has benefitted from the guile of both Eriksen and Alli, offering 19 assists between them, while the resurgent Erik Lamela has made 6. That has been the product of the vibrant and sprightly style Pochettino has espoused whereas Rooney has suffocated under the dreary rigidity of Van Gaal.
As a result United have scored 21 goals less than Tottenham and creation has been stifled so much at Old Trafford that Juan Mata and Rooney find themselves tied in the race for the club’s leading assist-maker with a meagre 4 apiece.
Mata is the leading chance creator with 44, backed up by Rooney and Martial with 34 and 31 respectively, but they are embarrassing figures when compared with the 102 chances carved out by Eriksen, or the 57 made by Lamela.
Van Gaal’s baffling decision-making
“I started a game in one position, then the next game in another”, was Di Maria’s recent verdict on why he failed to settle in Manchester, “I scored goals playing in one position, then suddenly the next game I was asked to play in another”.
Those words would have resonated loudly with the swathes of bemused United fans searching desperately for the answer to why Rashford, so electric against FC Midtjylland and Arsenal at centre-forward, was positioned on the wing against Liverpool, or why Van Gaal saw fit to deploy Young as a lone-striker against Spurs, or why he used Marouane Fellaini in the same position earlier in the season. Or more mystifyingly, why he still uses Fellaini at all?
Van Gaal’s decision making throughout the year has been baffling and while Martial has been a bright spark on the wing, he made such an impression breaking through as a centre-forward that you get the sense that had he been under Pochettino’s tutelage such exuberance would have been encouraged, not curbed by being moved into a wide position.
It is the same case as Rashford, it is hard to believe that the Argentine would have given up on the teenager just as easily as Van Gaal did on Sunday.
United’s reaction, just as it always seems to be at Old Trafford in the modern age, is likely to open the Glazer family’s chequebook this summer in the pursuit of the main striker that was needed last summer when it was clear that Rooney wasn’t the solution.
Kane has been constantly linked, but such a move would be hugely intriguing. At Spurs he is thriving as a spearhead of youthful vigour but at Van Gaal’s stale United, it is easy to imagine him trudging around feeding off the little service the Dutchman’s dull, ponderous football offers.
Or even, stuck out on the wing.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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