Zero shots on target and six points from five games. Those were the stats that made for grim reading following United’s home defeat suffered at the hands of Southampton on Sunday. The ten game unbeaten run has brought to an end by the Saints who leapfrogged Louis Van Gaal’s men into third place in the table. In truth it was a result that had been coming and United’s profligacy in attack must now be a real concern when you consider the players at their disposal.
Over the last five games United ranked first in the league in terms of possession but are in the bottom five when it comes to chances created and shots on goal, a lesson in sterile domination. So why can’t a team with a plethora of talent that includes Radamel Falcao, Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Angel DiMaria and Juan Mata be a creative attacking force? The first reason to be considered in Van Gaal’s preferred 3-4-1-2 formation. After chopping between various systems earlier in the season Van Gaal has resorted back to the formation that served him so well with Holland at the World Cup. However, with three at the back and a centre midfield three of Carrick, Rooney and Mata, United’s build up play has looked far too slow and narrow. The measured build up from the back allows teams to settle into their defensive shape and as Southampton showed on Sunday is easily thwarted with effective organisation.
It is also important to consider the players’ performances over this period. I have spoken at length previously about Juan Mata’s failure to impose himself upon matches. We are now approaching his one year anniversary as a United player and he is yet to control a game against a top side. Falcao has struggled for form and fitness since his loan move from Monaco and was left out of the matchday squad for Sunday’s defeat. The Colombian hasn’t looked the same player since his ACL injury and his omission against Southampton would suggest he is nursing a half empty glass in the last chance saloon. With a paltry return of just three goals, a permanent move now looks highly unlikely. While Wayne Rooney has been one of the stand out performers this term, it is still unclear what the captain’s best position is. Neither he or Van Gaal seem to know whether he is a striker, a No.10 or a midfielder. For me his best position is as a central striker and he lacks the creative nous to play in midfield at the top level.
With a dogfight for third and fourth place on the horizon, Van Gaal needs to inject pace and incision into the side. He has been lucky in the sense that the teams around him have also faltered over the festive period but cannot afford to let his grip on Champions League qualification slip any further.