Van Gaal’s shameful submission eases Man U out of Europe again
It was always going to be difficult for Manchester United to make it to the Europa League quarter-finals after conceding a two-goal lead to Liverpool in the first leg a fortnight ago. But Louis van Gaal’s decision-making will again come under the spotlight after the 1-1 Old Trafford draw which confirmed their exit.
Van Gaal spoke in his pre-match press conference like a man who knew full well his team was incapable of scoring four goals. He briefly mentioned their 5-1 win over Midtjylland in the previous round but for the most part he remained adamant that a 2-0 victory was his primary target.
“We have to beat them 2-0, not 3-0, because you can also do it in extra time,” insisted the Dutchman. “First, 2-0. And you know we have scored goals within two or three mins this season so it is possible… We don’t think of conceding goals.”
On Thursday night his approach suggested a single Liverpool goal was all it was ever going to take to turn his attentions towards the Manchester derby on Sunday and United’s quest to remain relevant in the Champions League race. Philippe Coutinho’s wonderful strike on the verge of half-time made a beaten man of the United boss.
He had tried to switch things up to begin with, going with a front three when in possession, but even that was somewhat mystifying given the employment of Juan Mata on the right of attack rather than Jesse Lingard when the Warrington-born wide man would have been more capable of pinning back makeshift left-back James Milner.
The continuation with Marouane Fellaini was another dubious call, but it was as much in his substitutions that he most clearly proved his acceptance of defeat long before the end. With his side needing three goals to progress to the quarter-finals and nothing to lose, Van Gaal used his three changes to bring on two full-backs and a defensive midfielder in a trio of like-for-like swaps.
Even David Moyes managed to produce a rallying European performance in his single season with United in 2013-14, but it was simply beyond Van Gaal. Given the way he has his teams play their football, this was always going to be a near-impossible task thanks to the 2-0 deficit they brought back from Anfield with them.
What United needed was a tactical change that would keep Liverpool guessing and would attempt to stem the flow of Scouse attacks. Instead they just caved in. Van Gaal’s work with this United squad over the past two years has been such that he had very few options available to him, and one of the few he did – substitute Memphis Depay – was ignored.
A full 21 years on from his one and only European title, Van Gaal has led United to two ignominious continental exits in one season. Both of them have come in games which they needed to win, started well and simply over-stretched themselves. At least in Wolfsburg in December they kept trying until the end, but on this night at Old Trafford, Van Gaal simply threw in the towel.
He cannot do the same with United’s season. The reduction in fixtures as a result of their Europa League elimination at least gives them a fresher look as players return ahead of the Premier League run-in and the FA Cup assault they could yet build with a number of mid-table types their only obstacles.
But when it comes to reviewing the 2015-16 campaign, there will be a hell of a lot of recrimination regarding Van Gaal’s role in the various failures so far. And this tie will be a prime example of his inability to find the right way to play a situation. A Europa League exit is not the end of the world, but a tame submission to Liverpool is very close to it.