‘Loads better’ was how Paul Scholes felt about Manchester United on Tuesday night. Was that performance really enough to ease his concerns about Louis van Gaal’s side?
Scholes may feel reassured about Manchester United after the 3-3 draw at Newcastle but it’s difficult to see why the club legend took so much satisfaction from the trip to Tyneside on Tuesday night.
Van Gaal’s team squandered a two-goal lead before restoring their advantage, which they let slip again in the 89th minute to drop to sixth in the Premier League table.
Scholes was just delighted to see his former side net three goals in a game for the first time since a 3-0 victory at Everton on October 17, but his apparent satisfaction is a measure of how far standards have dropped at Old Trafford.
Don’t let the six goals deceive you; neither side impressed at St James’ Park, with Van Gaal’s and Steve McClaren’s sides almost certain to fall plenty short of the targets they set at the start of the season.
Scholes’s expectations have certainly changed over recent weeks if United’s mere involvement in a six-goal thriller is enough to warrant praise. The former midfielder for months has condemned Van Gaal until he suddenly softened his stance on the manager over Christmas and New Year period when criticism was most deserved and Jose Mourinho’s shadow suddenly loomed over Old Trafford.
The BT Sport pundit couldn’t bury his frustration at United’s performance in the slender FA Cup win over Sheffield United, but Scholes reined himself back in line at St James’ to praise Van Gaal’s approach, despite his side blowing more points they can ill afford to give away.
— BT Sport Football (@btsportfootball) January 12, 2016
What was there to applaud from United in the north east? A penalty, a slick counter attack and some rare magic from Wayne Rooney put Van Gaal’s side on course for only their second win in eight Premier League games, but their frailties around the pitch were exposed by a Newcastle side that looked bereft of confidence, belief or a threat until they were handed a lifeline to halve their deficit just before half-time.
Van Gaal is yet to find a balance between defence and attack after more than a season and a half in charge, with United seemingly incapable of being on the front foot without leaving the back door wide open.
The manager can do little about individual errors but he does select the personel. Van Gaal’s defence was composed of a winger at right-back, a struggling right-back at left-back and a midfielder at centre-half. Perhaps we should not surprised that such a unit conceded three goals and numerous other chances to their relegation-threatened hosts.
Man United are yet to lose any of the 12 games when Marouane Fellaini hasn't played this season. They've lost 8 of the 20 games he's played.
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 12, 2016
In front of that defence comes the most puzzling feature of Van Gaal’s philosophy: the continued faith he holds in Marouane Fellaini.
The burly Belgian was employed again as one of the two holding midfielders, but Fellaini simply does not possess the mobility, passing range or ball-winning capabilities to play in such a role. That he was given a start in that position once more is curious, but not as baffling as the fact he was kept there for the entirety of the match. Having being booked in the first half after a series of clumsy fouls, Fellaini was a bystander for much of the second period, with his physique at set-pieces seemingly keeping him in Van Gaal’s XI.
The manager’s substitutions are often a source of great frustration among the United faithful and the decision to withdraw Ander Herrera rather than the ineffective Fellaini is another reason to cause United fans to further lose faith in Van Gaal’s judgement.
Fellaini is not the only United star about which concerns remain. Matteo Darmian is suffering for being shunted around the back four, while Anthony Martial’s talents appeared to be wasted on the right wing, where he was slotted to go up against Newcastle left-back Dummett. Despite notching United’s second goal, it was a poor display from Lingard, who joined Fellaini and Rooney in wasting glorious openings, while Herrera’s intentions were good, but the Spaniard again struggled to assert himself in the No.10 role.
Rooney netted twice – once from the spot – and laid on another, but further evidence is required before we can agree with many of the England captain’s friends in the media that the forward is getting back to his best.
The same goes for United as a unit. Scoring three goals is certainly a positive, but they cannot mask van Gaal’s failings and those of his players.
The manager’s admission that United’s attacking potency relies on their opponents being positive does little to placate the disgruntled among United’s support. Liverpool are likely to take the game to United at Anfield on Sunday, but they possess the quality to make United pay a heftier price than Newcastle did. The Red Devils’ next five opponents – Southampton, Derby, Stoke, Chelsea and Sunderland – are unlikely to feel the urge to go for United’s throats, especially when van Gaal’s team have shown little indication that they can counter a conservative game plan.
Van Gaal’s United can either be functional or expansive but seemingly not both. Only when the manager teases out a series of performances that display both traits can Scholes and the United fans feel at ease.