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“Because, thank god, money is not everything in sport”, was Wolfsburg coach Dietar Hecking’s assessment of how it could be that Manchester United, with their vast wealth, hadn’t already qualified from their Champions League group before the two teams met in Germany on Tuesday night.
Hecking and Wolfsburg then assured they wouldn’t qualify at all, winning 3-2 in a roller-coaster game that exposed United’s deficiencies and sent them heading to the Europa League.
Most obvious of those deficiencies in the Volkswagen Arena was the lack of concentration when it came to defending the set-pieces from which Naldo scored moments after Anthony Martial put United in-front and Josh Guilavogui scored the own-goal to hand them a late equaliser.
Slack marking cost them here but it can be argued the dismal draws at CSKA Moscow and at home to PSV Eindhoven played the bigger role in United’s exit.
Hecking, with his words, was referring to the £258 million spent in the 18 months of Van Gaal in which the Dutchman has overseen three transfer windows. Van Gaal has been backed heavily with the signings of Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin, Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw and Martial but has so far been unable to coax anything more than the stagnant, forgettable displays that has led to this elimination and has seen them draw 0-0 four times so far in this Premier League season.
As Van Gaal has liked to often reiterate, United have the strongest defence in the Premier League with just 10 conceded but with 20 goals scored, only Liverpool have managed less out of the league’s top 10.
They remain three points off first-placed Leicester but flat and uninspiring 0-0 draws with Manchester City, Crystal Palace and West Ham have undermined any hopes they may harbour of winning their first league title since 2013.
It was the same attacking failings that haunted the desolate 0-0 draw with PSV that proved to be the most damaging result of their disappointing European campaign.
Wayne Rooney missed both the weekend’s goalless stalemate with West Ham, in which United managed just one shot on target from 20 shots on goal, and Wolfsburg as part of the injury list that Van Gaal will pinpoint as the underlying reason behind this current blip, but the England striker played in that draw with PSV and is currently enduring a goal-drought that hasn’t seen him score in the league since the 0-3 win at Everton in mid-October.
He scored a vital winner in the 1-0 victory over CSKA Moscow at Old Trafford, another one to be filed under the listless Van Gaal displays, but that was one of only four goals he has hit for his club since that hat-trick against Club Brugge in the Champions League qualifying round.
Van Gaal shifted out Javier Hernandez, Radamel Falcao and Robin Van Persie in the summer and installed Rooney as his main striker, challenging him to score 25 goals, but such faith is now beginning to look woefully misguided.
Nani, Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa have been among the attacking talent shipped out in the Van Gaal era while the Dutchman swiftly dispensed with Angel Di Maria for a £10 million loss a year after breaking the British transfer record to land him from Real Madrid for £59 million.
Adnan Januzaj and James Wilson have been moved out on loan and it has left the 19-year old Martial, adapting to his new surroundings following his £35 million move from Monaco, and Rooney shouldering the goal-scoring burden in a recklessly neglected front-line.
Rooney has missed just 30 minutes of the 12 matches he has been fit and available for in United’s league campaign so far and appears fairly happy with the striker despite his current decline that has coincided with the entrance into his thirties. A series of Premier League strikers have seen their form suffer after their 30th birthday and this will be a worry for Rooney who has just one goal for United, that header against CSKA, since entering his third decade in October.
Form impacted by Van Gaal’s dull football?
However that explanation seems to be too convenient and simplistic when trying to understand Rooney’s malaise and possibly the more pertinent contributing factor is the dull football currently practiced under Van Gaal. Any memory of the fearless force he was when breaking on to the scene at Euro 2004 has now evaporated in the form of Rooney 3.0, no longer even the intelligent player that still scored and created on a regular basis in the latter days of Alex Ferguson but one who plods around the pitch like he is shackled to it.
That perfectly fits in with Van Gaal’s desire for control as, with Rooney’s explosiveness curtailed, he can just be another cog in the slow-turning machine that requires 156 passes per goal (the most in the league) in the painstakingly rigid football that has carved out only 17 chances in this Premier League campaign, the 11th lowest total.
With United patient and ponderous, it allows for opposition teams to squeeze the space in which they can play and Rooney, so often at his best when instinct takes over, is easily shut-down.
That of course is part of the Van Gaal philosophy, the style that has asked United to be more intelligent with the ball, leading to more backwards and sideways passes than any other Premier League team so far this season.
To place the scoring burden on Rooney, most effective when direct football has opened up spaces in the final-third but who comes alarmingly deep to retrieve the ball when that doesn’t occur, has been a remarkable act of oversight from a coach with the Dutchman’s pedigree..
“No, we’re not. I think we need to score more goals as a team”, said Rooney after that 0-0 draw with PSV, “I feel we showed a lack of composure which put ourselves under pressure a lot of times.”
That analysis could be applied to most of United’s games this season and Rooney will know they cannot convert chances if they don’t create them, with 121 they have the 15th lowest total in the league for chance creation.
Hoping for a rethink in style
After being knocked out by Wolfsburg Van Gaal may surely be forced into a rethink if he is to salvage some success from the rest of this season. Rooney will hope that is the case as it is the only way to rescue the striker from his current slump.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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