Good god. That was dreadful. The second half of United's dull draw against PSV Eindhoven was as bad as anything seen under Louis van Gaal - and under Louis van Gaal, we certainly have been spoilt for choice, in terms of terrible games. Still, even an atrocity such as this can be instructive. Here are three things we learned.
Pace Alone is Not Enough
For much of the season, United have been crying out for pace in attack. The fans have long realized that part of the reason for the team's turgid displays is the lack of genuine pace on the wings. By dropping Juan Mata and playing Memphis Depay, Jesse Lingard, and Anthony Martial, Louis van Gaal injected as much speed into the front end of the team as was available. With the notable exception of our illustrious captain, who has neither the touch nor the vision to operate as an effective number ten in this system. Mata may be one of the slowest players in the squad, but he is also easily the most creative, and his scheming in the attacking third was sorely missed.
Wayne Rooney actually had one of his better games of the season. He was still largely useless, of course, because Rooney is finished as an elite player. Unfortunately, his privileges as captain seem to guarantee him a starting place when "fit."
Rooney, for all his glaring weaknesses, is far from the only culprit. United's first choice midfield of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin is as solid as any in Europe, but it is also severely conservative. Schweinsteiger in particular has been disappointingly risk-averse in his passing and movement, and given his pedigree, it's fair to assume that he is playing this way because that is precisely what his manager wants. Restoring Ander Herrera to the line-up when he returns to fitness would be a step in the right direction, but United's attack will never improve until the manager allows the team as a whole to play with more freedom.
Daley Blind Has His Uses
Daley Blind may be The World's Weakest and Slowest Center BackTM, but there's a case to be made that he should be first choice next to Mike Smalling in the majority of games. United's (sterile) domination of possession means that in games such as yesterday's, the center backs spend as much time starting attacks as they do defending. And in those long stretches of possession, Blind's weaknesses (literal weakness, lack of pace) are not exposed, and he can make the most of his intelligent passing. There is no question that Smalling is now the finest defender in the country (faint praise, etc.), but his distribution is, frankly, crap. With so little invention in the team as currently constructed, it's helpful to have a partner for Smalling that at least knows what to do with the ball. As a bonus, we found out yesterday that Blind is an excellent deliverer of corners. The Dutchman put in more threatening corners yesterday than United have managed in the last several years combined.
Against good teams that will put United under pressure, a proper defender will be required, but there aren't too many of those in the squad anyway. Phil Jones is potentially very good, but also potentially a hilarious mess, and - crucially - cannot stop injuring himself. Marcos Rojo is currently needed at left-back, and in any case no one has any idea what his best position is or whether he's any good or not.
Fellaini and Van Gaal: Equally Useless in Games
What is the point of Marouane Fellaini? Other than the most memorable example of the game against West Brom last season, there are very few times when his introduction has had any positive impact. This despite the fact that "throwing on the big lad" is van Gaal's favorite "tactical adjustment." Fans may be correct in expecting more adventure from Schweinsteiger, but removing the German for Fellaini had an immediate negative impact on the team's composure. Fellaini is slow, clumsy, and a laughably poor passer of the ball. His only useful attribute is his dominance in the air, and playing him deep in midfield renders even that pointless. By my count, he gave away more cheap fouls against PSV than he won headers in or near the box.
Van Gaal has repeatedly sent Fellaini on in place of a real midfielder, and United invariably cede control of the game almost right away. It is a shame that instead of the speed of James Wilson or the invention of Andres Pereira, van Gaal cannot seem to look beyond the height of Fellaini. It is not Fellaini's fault that his manager sees him as the solution to every problem though, and van Gaal's dependence on such a limited player to change games is a damning indictment of his own limitations as an in-game manager.