Following the use of Ashley Young as a centre-forward, TEAMtalk recalls five other baffling tactical decisions from Louis van Gaal this season.
The Manchester United manager has often befuddled us with some of his decision-making here at TEAMtalk and his explanation of why he chose to play winger Young as a lone striker against Spurs on Sunday also left us scratching our heads.
Here, we recall five other unusual team calls made by Van Gaal during a season of struggle at Old Trafford.
Replacing Mata with Powell at Wolfsburg
With United losing when they needed a win to secure qualification from what appeared to be a relatively simple Champions League group, Van Gaal opted for a double change. Michael Carrick replaced Bastian Schweinsteiger, with the German struggling alongside Marouane Fellaini at the base of the midfield, while Juan Mata was hooked in favour of Nick Powell.
You could forgive United fans for not recognising Powell since his most recent appearance prior to appearing in Germany had come at MK Dons 16 months previously, when United were sunk 4-0 by the League One outfit in the Capital One Cup.
According to The Times, Powell’s team-mates were equally as ‘bemused’ by his emergence from nowhere at such a crucial time, especially when Andreas Pereira, who had impressed in glimpses around the first-team, remained inactive on the bench.
Unsurprisingly, Powell failed to inspire United, who went down 3-2 – a defeat that condemned the Red Devils to the Europa League. Powell also came off the bench at Bournemouth the following weekend, when they also lost. The then-21-year-old wasn’t seen again near Van Gaal’s first team before joining Hull on loan.
Rashford at right-back at Liverpool
After four wins in four against Liverpool, Van Gaal’s flawless record against the Merseysiders was frittered away when United were beaten 2-0 in the first leg of their Europa League last-16 clash.
Marcus Rashford had enjoyed a stunning start to life in the United first-team, with the teenager having scored four goals in his first four games prior to the trip to Anfield. Van Gaal, though, opted to play Rashford as a right winger. The academy graduate actually spent most of his evening as an auxiliary right-back, with Guillermo Varela instructed to stay tight to the roaming Philippe Coutinho.
Rashford, unsurprisingly, was given the run-around before being hooked at the break. Carrick replaced the youngster, but Van Gaal opted to use the classy midfielder as a centre-back in a three-man defence. Unsurprisingly, United continued to be outclassed and were sent back to Old Trafford with a 2-0 defeat.
Lingard at No.10 v Liverpool
Rashford was restored to the centre-forward role in the second leg a week later but Van Gaal had another surprise in store.
Right-winger Jesse Lingard, who had contributed one single assist this season, started the evening in the attacking central midfield position – the creative No.10 – while left-footed central attacking midfielder Juan Mata was shunted out to the right.
What made the move all the more baffling is that United’s right winger was up in direct opposition to James Milner – possibly the only player on the pitch as slow as Mata. Rather than test Milner with Lingard’s pace, Van Gaal stuck to the plan as United failed to overturn their first-leg deficit.
Schweinsteiger told to chase Cazorla
United went to the Emirates in good spirits as they occupied second place, with Arsenal sixth. Van Gaal’s side had won five of their last six, scoring 15 goals in the process. All that positivity was blown away by the Gunners, who raced into a 3-0 lead inside 20 minutes.
Van Gaal admitted his side lacked “aggression” during a first-half in which they were blitzed by their opponents. The Dutchman opted to press Arsenal with a pace-less holding midfield pair of Schweinsteiger and Carrick, while Morgan Schneiderlin watched on from the bench. Ashley Young was selected at left-back and was given a torrid time by Mesut Ozil, with Memphis Depay nowhere to be seen in support.
Schweinsteiger had apparently been instructed to get close to Santi Cazorla, but Gary Neville likened the German veteran to a dog:
“It was like a man with a ball saying to a dog “come to get it off me, come to get it off me”, and as soon as he gets near him, he throws it off to Mertesacker.
“It’s like ‘Come on, Come on Doggie’ He’s toying with him, Cazorla.”
With United having been 3-0 down a long time before half-time, Van Gaal used the break to make the most typical double substitution: he swapped a full-back and threw on Fellaini.
Fellaini as a holding midfielder at Stoke
With United having lost three consecutive games to Wolfsburg, Bournemouth and Norwich in the run up to Christmas, United went to Stoke on Boxing Day with Van Gaal under serious pressure, especially given Jose Mourinho’s sudden availability.
On a windy day even by the Britannia’s blowy standards, Van Gaal’s headline team selection centrered around the omission of Wayne Rooney. You could make a very good case for the dropping the captain; he’d been awful in previous weeks. Rather harder to justify was the decision to use Fellaini as a holding midfielder against the pace and trickery of Ibrahim Afellay, Xheridan Shaqiri and Marco Arnautovic.
Fellaini and Carrick were again given a chasing while Ander Herrera was left redundant in the number 10 role. Inexplicably, Schneiderlin again watched on from the bench.
United were 2-0 down by 26 minutes and never appeared likely to make a dent in the scoreline as they went down to their fourth successive defeat.
The result has not deterred Van Gaal from using Fellaini as a holding midfielder since, despite the burly Belgian lacking the mobility and eye for a pass that the role requires.