Manchester United suffered the humiliation of being held to a goalless draw by League Two side Cambridge United on Friday night. The hosts, who sit in mid-table in the fourth tier of English football, earned a deserved replay after United failed to create enough chances throughout. Luckily for the Red Devils, the replay should not be an issue due to the absence of European football at Old Trafford this season.
Louis Van Gaal opted to switch to 4-4-2 diamond but decided to rest Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata, who have played plenty of football over the Christmas period. However, it was still an extremely strong United side which included the likes of David De Gea, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao. Unfortunately, even a team including those stars were not enough to win the game at the Abbey Stadium.
Here are five key thoughts from the Friday night embarrassment.
1) Slow tempo costs United against compact hosts
Cambridge were always going to try and make it as difficult as possible for United by putting at least 10 players in between their goal and the ball. That is exactly how it panned out as the Red Devils failed to find an answer to the hosts’ compact system. The visitors’ style of play was the main reason why it ended 0-0 as United decided to persevere with slow build-up play throughout.
It was quite frustrating to watch at times as Van Gaal’s men continued to play sideways, easily defendable passes for the full 90 minutes. Having more than 70% of the possession is fine but you have to utilise the ball as much as possible. The fact Untied were only able to carve out two real clear cut chances, which were spurned by Falcao and substitute Robin Van Persie, with that amount of ball domination proves that there was something horribly wrong.
2) Sounds obvious but Phil Jones should not be taking set pieces
People may see Phil Jones taking United’s in-swinging corners and set pieces as humorous but if you look at it logically it is hardly a laughing matter. These set pieces offered a perfect opportunity to break the deadlock against an opponent determined to defend on the edge of their own box for the full match. Van Gaal’s decision to continue to put a centre half on corner duty is laughable, especially when you consider the fact United aren’t the tallest of sides anyway so putting one of your best headers’ of the ball on the set piece is perplexing to say the least.
I have been critical of plenty of United’s corner takers in the past, namely Nani and Ashley Young but this was a step too far. At least those two are predominantly wingers and are regular crossers of the ball. When have you ever seen Jones put a decent cross into the box? Hardly ever is the answer. It should go without saying but he should not be taking the corners, he should be in the box attacking corners.
3) Herrera has to make do with a seat on the bench once more
Another questionable, verging on laughable, decision was the positioning of Marouane Fellaini, who was used on the right hand side of the diamond. However, the Belgian often found himself playing as a right winger and looked completely out of place. When Ander Herrera was introduced as his replacement, United were much more balanced and offered a greater threat in the final third.
Herrera’s absence from the starting line-up is puzzling considering the fact he has been one of United’s most effective players when he has played. He has not started a league game since the win over Stoke at the start of December. The Spaniard appeared to be the perfect option to play against a lower league side who were likely to play a very deep defensive line. United lacked creativity after leaving their most creative central midfielder on the bench.
4) How is Falcao supposed to prove himself when he gets next to no service
Falcao will undoubtedly continue to be criticised in the press this week but I’m struggling to work out what he is supposed to do when he gets such limited service. The Colombian was denied in the second half by a great save from the Cambridge goalkeeper but that was the only sniff of goal that he received.
Time after time, United opted to avoid putting the ball into the box, instead choosing to pass backwards and continue the slow build-up. This style of play is too easy to defend against whereas aiming for Falcao with crosses would have caused some panic and confusion in the opposition ranks. There is absolutely no excuse for not scoring against a mid-table League Two side but it is definitely not Falcao’s fault, as much as commentator and former Arsenal defender Martin Keown wants it to be.
5) Januzaj misses a golden opportunity to shine
Adnan Januzaj was given a massive chance to be a match-winner against weaker opposition but looked too negative when he received the ball in a wide area. He had plenty of opportunities to put the ball into the box or beat his man but too many times took the easy option of a short pass. He was supposed to be one of United’s flair players but failed to show any creativity or imagination until the final 20 minutes when he decided to wake up.
Januzaj is a huge talent and he is still a very raw young footballer, who should be given time to impress. But if he is not going to get regular games in the second half of the season, I would much rather he was sent out on loan for six months so he can gain first team experience elsewhere. This road has benefitted many players in the past and it can be the same for Januzaj as sporadic appearances in the under-21s won’t help his development.