Signs of life from Van Gaal, Arsenal’s shortcomings, Klopp’s consolation and heart-warming Willy all feature as Ian Watson reviews the weekend’s major talking points.
Apologise for nothing, Louis
Louis van Gaal will be sitting in his office at Carrington this morning a lot more comfortable in the hot seat than he was this time last week.
The Dutchman will be reflecting on seven days that some said could have finished him off at United. Instead, he may have stumbled across the way to keep his job.
Against Arsenal, the Red Devils and Van Gaal gave the Old Trafford crowd the most refreshing and entertaining afternoon they have had for months. Yes, Van Gaal was backed into a corner by injuries, but with his stock having dropped almost as low as it can go and with nothing left to lose, the manager and his team have come out fighting.
If there is such a thing as ‘the United way’, that was it on Sunday. A side full of pace, flair and fearlessness, with a healthy balance of youth and star quality, got the home support firmly behind them with a performance full of industry and attacking intent.
Of course, Marcus Rashford hogged the headlines, and rightly so. The 18-year-old scored another brace, but he demonstrated that he is already far more than just a goalscorer. Playing as a lone striker up against Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel, the Premier League debutant pivoted from the front to bring others into play and when he had the opportunity to get faced up to goal, he showed he can carry the ball as well as he can share it.
Guillermo Varela was also outstanding at right-back, especially considering the played 80 minutes on a caution, while Timothy Fosu-Mensah enjoyed a splendid debut out of position at left-back.
Van Gaal still managed to hog much of the limelight, theatrically falling to the floor on the touchline in an effort to illustrate a point to Mike Dean. The manager said after the match that he had apologised to the officials and that he was “too emotional”.
Don’t spoil it by apologising, Louis. Sunday gave United fans a glimpse of the Van Gaal they thought they were getting in 2014. The charismatic leader, the extrovert, the fighter – not the micro-managing, notepad-clutching, weary form tutor-type that has spent his entire reign glued to his bench.
Paul Scholes said last month that Van Gaal looked bored and so did his players. That was not the case on Sunday. Of course, the performance was born out of necessity. Rashford, Varela and Co. would be nowhere near the first XI if United’s casualty department didn’t resemble Manchester Royal Infirmary A&E on New Year’s Eve. But now Van Gaal has stumbled across something a formula that works, he has to fight the urge to revert his style or that of his team to the dull and soulless existence that has bored Old Trafford to the point of mutiny over recent months.
Same old Arsenal
United’s performance may have been out of character but Arsenal’s was alarmingly typical of the team of bottlers they have shown themselves to be over recent seasons.
Arsene Wenger has spoken so often about how this side now has the character and the mental strength to match the near-faultless technique we all know they possess. Their performance at Old Trafford disproved that theory and Wenger’s attempt to defend his players after the match suggests he realises just how fragile they still are.
The manager called out his squad for being “naive”against Barcelona last week when they gave up two sloppy late goals. Old Trafford was the perfect platform for the Gunners to hit back against a makeshift United side and send out a defiant message but all they transmitted was a cry for help.
Wenger had most of us fooled, to be fair. But why should he or anyone else expect a different outcome when the methods and the players remain the same? Title winner though he is, was Petr Cech alone supposed to transform Arsenal’s team of underachievers into hardened winning machine?
The manager cannot take all of the blame. Given United’s central defence consisted of a pair of pace-less midfielders, Theo Walcott was an understandable selection but again the jet-heeled England star proved he cannot be trusted to lead the line on the biggest stages. In the hour he featured, Walcott misplaced a third of his nine attempted passes and failed to muster an attempt on goal. After a decade at the club, Walcott has become the epitome of it – talented, at times breathtaking, but will always lack what is required to take the next step.
Prior to the visit to Old Trafford, Arsenal were simply wasteful. They passed up glorious opportunities against Barca, and in the three home matches before the visit of the Catalans, they scored only two goals from 70 attempted shots. Most worryingly for Wenger, against United, Arsenal failed even to create the opportunities.
Given the state of the United XI, Graeme Souness called it a “once in a generation” opportunity for Arsenal to put on a show at Old Trafford, while Thierry Henry said his former side not only had to win, but win well. Infuriatingly for their supporters, again, the Gunners blew it.
As they sit five points adrift, hope is not entirely extinguished, but that is all that remains. After a rough week ahead of a big month, the expectation is now that, with the same manager, players and methods, Arsenal will once again be the nearly men.
Light at the end of a very long tunnel for Liverpool
“Only silly idiots stay on the floor and wait for the next defeat. Of course we will strike back – 100 per cent… there is new light at the end of the tunnel.”
Following the Capital One Cup defeat to Manchester City, Jurgen Klopp, as usual, managed to strike the right tone – a mixture of regret and optimism.
There is little doubt the German will take Liverpool forward, with a Wembley appearance with someone else’s failing players evidence of that, but the big stage again highlighted that Klopp has a lot of work ahead this summer.
Liverpool, like City, neither failed nor impressed. The Reds were characteristically adequate in 120 minutes before being found wanting when it came to the shoot-out.
Even for the weak links, there were bright moments. Lucas Leiva was commendable at centre-half but the fact he had to play there at all is indicative of a greater problem. Kolo Toure too did a sterling job when he came on, but being left out for Lucas initially tells him where he stands in Klopp’s mind.
Many said Simon Mignolet redeemed himself following yet another soft goal conceded, but one fine save from Sergio Aguero cannot excuse the goalkeeper’s costly error which saw Fernandinho’s drive from an acute angle fly straight through him. The minimum requirement for any top goalkeeper is that he does not make mistakes, or if he does, then they remain in isolation. Mignolet lurches from the sublime to the ridiculous far too often to be relied upon.
Luckily for Klopp, the answer to the Alberto Moreno’s inadequacy may lie in the return to fitness of Jon Flanagan. But in front of the defence, more work lies ahead.
Liverpool’s front six is crammed full of neat and tidy players but few who can turn a game in one explosive moment. Steven Gerrard has been replaced as leader and a midfielder by Jordan Henderson and James Milner, who are both best described as ‘solid’. Neither has the creativity or dynamism required to drag a group with them. Henderson had the most touches of any player at Wembley. Can you remember any of them?
It is in attack where Liverpool flatter to deceive most. Daniel Sturridge will never be reliable but he has to be persevered with simply because he is the only striker capable of producing moments of brilliance. Roberto Firmino is still settling and will doubtless be given patience in the same way Philippe Coutinho was allowed to flourish. But £32million forward Christian Benteke must realise his days are numbered after he was overlooked by Klopp, with Divock Origi chosen from the bench instead when Liverpool were in dire need of a goal.
The consolation for Liverpool now at least comes in the identity of the manager. It is easy to believe Klopp when he talks about a brighter future, but he has a huge task ahead of him to make good on that promise.
Impossible not to enjoy Willy’s moment
If Marcus Rashford’s emergence wasn’t enough to dampen your cynicism even for a moment, then the sight of Willy Caballero being carried shoulder high around Wembley must have done the trick.
After the criticism the Manchester City goalkeeper received last week following the FA Cup hammering at Chelsea, it was a beautiful moment (for most) to see the emotional Argentine stand-in being whisked away from Sky Sports’ David Craig by Wilfried Bony to be paraded before the City supporters to receive the adulation he deserved following his penalty shootout heroics.
Manuel Pellegrini deserves credit too for sticking to his principles by playing Caballero when the easiest thing to do would have been to cave in to the clamour for Joe Hart to be reinstated.