by Rob Shepherd.
Louis van Gaal had the look of the emperor with new clothes as West Ham outplayed, outfought and out-thought Manchester United – until, that was, the final minutes when he was bailed out by Daley Blind.
United had been bereft of any attacking ideas despite what had seemed, on the face of it, fielding a team of offensive possibilities. At times it was a bit like the blind leading blind until Blind’s intervention.
But just when it seemed the Hammers had done enough to earn a deserved victory – they had indeed wasted a couple of late chances to seal it – Blind picked up the pieces of a half-cleared free-kick and did what none of the United forwards had managed all afternoon by producing an emphatic finish.
On the evidence of this though Van Gaal needs to get back to his whiteboard, and whatever other tools he uses, and find a formation that works. More to the point, one that doesn’t waste Wayne Rooney.
A couple of weeks ago, Van Gaal declared that playing 4-4-2 gave him a twitchy ‘a***’, saying that he felt more secure with a 3-5-2 or a variant of it. It was certainly a squeaky-bum afternoon for the United manager.
It was a turn-up for the books when Van Gaal fielded an unchanged team from their previous Premier League match; last week’s 3-1 home win over Leicester.
And it was once again 4-4-2 with a twist… the midfield was set out in a diamond shape. In that respect, you could describe the formation as 4-1-2-1-2.
Blind operated as the anchor man ahead of a back four, Rooney played towards the right, Adnan Januzaj to the left, with Angel di Maria roaming in the hole behind two front-runners Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao.
It is seen as a way of of getting all of United’s best attackers in the same team but as the game started to take shape it didn’t work that way, and Rooney looked lost most of the time.
The England captain found himself shuttling up and down, somewhere between right-midfield and and inside-right, and often embroiled in a battle with West Ham skipper Kevin Nolan.
If Rooney is deployed in a deeper role surely it should be more advanced, in the hole. Indeed it wasn’t long before it appeared United would have been better served had Rooney and Di Maria swapped roles. After all, Di Maria is naturally a wide player who thrives when he has space ahead of him to exploit his pace and trickery running at defenders.
As it was, the Argentine found it hard to find space, constantly crowded out by West Ham’s busy midfield and a direct pathway to Van Persie and Falcao was usually blocked by Alex Song who played the holding role for the Hammers. It meant United’s two strikers were starved of service not least because of a lack of width.
Rooney was reluctant to go wide, and his passing was too often square and safe. Januzaj just couldn’t get into the game.
Nor did the front two do much to help themselves. Both Van Persie and and Falcao were too static, making it easy for James Tomkins and make-shift centre-back Cheikhou Kouyate to keep them under wraps.
What, on paper, seemed to be a team full of attacking possibilities could not even get close to opening up the West Ham defence in the first half; keeper Adrian only having to make one save of note from a speculative Di Maria shot.
In contrast, West Ham’s similar diamond system was more fluid and full of possibilities. That was because West Ham’s two strikers Enner Valencia and Diafra Sakho offered much more movement, as did Stewart Downing who operated as the tip of the diamond
While Di Maria was bogged down in the middle, Downing roamed around with menace and flitted from wing to wing.
Injury to Andy Carroll meant that Valencia and Sakho started together for the first time since the beginning of the season when Carroll wasn’t fit. Their pace, energy and finishing was one of the main reasons the Hammers got off to such a good start.
And there was a good case to argue that Carroll’s absence was a blessing of sorts. Without the long high-ball option into the big centre-forward, West Ham played a much slicker passing game, and the two strikers were a constant threat.
While United’s defence looks far more sound and settled than it was at the start of the campaign – ironically with a back four that Van Gaal does not favour – there were still several alarms in the first half; West Ham just lacked a precise final ball or finish.
But that changed just four minutes after the break. Indecision in United’s defence from a set-piece, and weak work by Rooney, allowed Cheikhou Kouyate to bring the ball down from a free-kick, before swivelling to lash home. It was an exciting finish, but it was poor defending.
United responded by upping their tempo – but only a bit. It was still too predictable, lacking in pace and nous. And Van Gaal offered nothing in any inspiration from the sidelines. He just sat in his seat on the bench and stared blankly. His only idea to change things was to take off Januzaj and bring on Marouane Fellaini.
Van Gaal claimed the introduction of Fellaini was a ‘plan B’ but all it amounted to was United hitting more long balls. West Ham manager Sam Allardyce couldn’t resist smirking at the irony of that .
In the end the only way he could see United getting back into the game was to go route one.
So much for the tactical genius of the supposed Dutch master.