Little over two weeks ago, United fans were celebrating a rousing, if not slightly unexpected 3-0 away victory at Goodison Park. Since then, things have begun to stagnate a little, with four successive draws, one of which saw the Reds embarrassed at home to Middlesbrough in the League Cup via a penalty shootout.
Van Gaal’s men have struggled to make possession count, or create much in the way of meaningful opportunities during that time, with their last three matches remaining goalless.
A 1-1 draw in Moscow leaves the group wide open as the Reds and their opponents – both on four points – and PSV – with three – both trailing leaders Wolfsburg with six points. Avoiding defeat might have been the minimum requirement away from home, but back at Old Trafford, anything other than a victory would be viewed hugely unfavourably, particularly with the Reds already failing to exert their dominance in what had been viewed a fairly easy group to negotiate.
Here are five keys to a United victory over Moscow:
Time for van Gaal’s stubbornness to end
Van Gaal is not the man to shy away from making big decisions. His is a career built upon success, even if that means upsetting a few characters along the way. He’s even done so during his relatively short time at United. Part of the appeal of the Dutchman’s appointment would be his no nonsense approach to his squad.
Former trusted associates of the manager’s in the form of Robin van Persie and Victor Valdes have fallen victim of this to van Gaal at United, while the likes of fans favourite Ander Herrera and more recently, big-money signing Memphis Depay have found themselves out of the team when deemed they’re not performing to high enough standards.
I, like everyone else I’m sure is fed up of the Wayne Rooney debate that rumbles on, but unfortunately, seems to be one that must continue to be had, after the skipper turned in another anonymous display at Selhurst Park at the weekend.
Forget whether Rooney has a future at Old Trafford, let’s – for arguments sake – just say he does, on performances and recent merit and if the manager is to adhere to his principles and treat the whole squad in the same manner, Rooney must therefore be dropped before too long.
It’s become abundantly clear that Rooney is neither the team’s best option as a centre forward, number 10 or left winger, any of the three positions in which he has found himself recently under van Gaal.
Rooney’s form may well return and despite the criticism, everyone would love for that to be the case, but if the likes of Herrera and hopefully Memphis have had to suffer at a loss of perceived lack of form, and in the Spaniard’s case especially, have come back stronger, than there’s really no option left for the manager than to cease defending the indefensible.
Surely a spell on the sidelines and out of the action would put back some much needed fire in Rooney’s belly.
For a period towards the back end of last season, van Gaal seemed to have stumbled upon a 4-3-3 formation which – even with Marouane Fellaini on board – produced some astonishing, free-flowing attacking football, which saw the Reds net three times at home to Tottenham and four times against Manchester City.
A 4-2-3-1 formation implemented this season should on paper have brought about an even more dynamic, attacking style to United’s game, particularly with the addition of pacey, skilful attackers in the form of Depay and Martial.
But even despite some impressive scorelines this season, 3-0 at Goodison Park for example, for all of the possession and control the Reds have enjoyed, they’ve not been able to match that in terms of cutting edge and attacking prowess.
Meaningful chances have been few and far between, while three successive 0-0 draws have highlighted how little we have been able to offer as an offensive unit.
The Old Trafford faithful have always been used to an exciting brand of attacking football under Sir Alex Ferguson and with the players at Louis van Gaal’s disposal, should be more than capable of exciting in the same manner. As much as Fellaini serves a purpose at times, we’d all prefer the final 20 minutes of a game were given to the likes of Wilson, Lingard or Pereira to showcase their skills with the game already sewn up, than throwing on the Belgian and lumping things his way.
Possession is great, yet meaningless if we’re unable to use it effectively, just take the Emirates defeat as an example as the Reds enjoyed 61% of play that day. Let them off the leash a little Louis. Five hours is a long time without a goal.
Stay tight defensively
If there’s one positive to be taken from three successive 0-0 draws, it’s that the defence, for their part are certainly doing their job efficiently. Since the defeat to Arsenal, the Reds have conceded just once – to CSKA – in five matches.
Phil Jones – who should be fit – to face the Russians has looked strong since returning at centre half, while Marcos Rojo has excelled in recent weeks, easing doubts over whether he could fill the void left by Luke Shaw, while Chris Smalling continues to be a rock no matter who he is partnered with.
Doumbia – the last man to breach David de Gea’s goal – will pose the most significant threat to United once again, and keeping him quiet will go a long way to ensuring the Reds take maximum points once again.
Schneiderlin remains a doubt, having missed Monday’s training for personal reasons, so Carrick and Schweinsteiger could be handed the responsibility of keeping quiet the lively duo of Dzagoev and Eremenko.
Jones return to fitness could see him replace Blind and centre-back in an attempt to offer a more physical resistance at the back.
Martial back at number nine
Let’s not drag up the Wayne Rooney thing again, we all know that it’s more than likely he’ll take the field from the beginning against Moscow. Despite looking like the teams biggest goal threat since his arrival, and netting United’s last goal in Moscow, Martial has been forced to play wide left in recent weeks to accommodate the struggling skipper.
The manager outlined in his Monday press conference that Martial’s future would be in the centre forward position despite his versatility.
“He is very young but I think it is better he develops in the striker’s position.
“But he can play left, striker and number 10.
“He doesn’t want to play number seven [wide right] but I am convinced he can. That’s another story.”
Even if Rooney is to start against Moscow, it should be he, and not Martial forced to adjust. The side have benefit more with the 19-year-old up top, with his lightening pace and direct running a constant source of threat for opposition defenders. He has displayed that same prowess and endless dribbles effectively from a wide position, but would offer a significantly greater threat if he were facing a centre-back and not a full-back with those dribbles.
With Rooney advancing in years, he naturally comes deep to look for the ball, therefore his touches in the opposition box have been minimal, if existent at all in recent weeks. Martial is already the best striker at the club, so let him play there.
Keep the faith
While there’s plenty for United to improve upon as outlined above, it’s worth remembering that the club are in a significantly greater position since van Gaal’s appointment. The Dutchman delivered Champions League football after just one season, while the Reds remain in contention on the domestic front this season without yet truly finding their stride.
It was the second half of the season last season where the Reds began to find another gear, and with considerable personnel changes at the club this summer, it would again take time for things to adapt.
Despite a perceived weak defence, the Reds are managing to keep things tight at the back, as evidenced by just the one goal conceded in the previous five matches.
The manager’s style has been criticised by many, including Paul Scholes in recent weeks and rightly so given the slow build up and lack of cutting edge. In the manager’s defence, he has, in the past listened to manager’s concerns and responded accordingly, particularly given calls to abandon his three man defensive formation and also to recall Ander Herrera later in the campaign.
At Selhurst Park, the United faithful were extremely vocal in letting the Dutchman know their intentions to attack, something noted by the manager following the game.
Performances will no doubt improve following the recent rut that the Reds have found themselves in, but if there’s one benefit of having a stubborn figure such as van Gaal at the helm, it’s that he places success at the forefront and won’t rest until he finds that at Old Trafford.
Time for the fans to show their support to the manager, and hope he repays that faith by making the necessary changes.
Prediction: United 2-1 CSKA