United returned to Champions League action with a home game.  This was a chance to qualify for the knock-out stages with a game to spare. Van Gaal though would be forced to make a few changes as a consequence of injuries, but with one or two players coming back from injury also it was a case of swings and roundabouts.


In: Darmian, Rojo, Rooney and Martial.
Out: Young, Jones, Mata and Herrera.


  • United started brightly at a good tempo. Unfortunately despite some good first half chances they did not make the breakthrough and faded.
  • The also started the second half brightly but again faded. Understandably Van Gaal then made changes, but these did not work and in fact seemed to result in United’s performance deteriorating.
  • Schneiderlin had a shocking game. He gave the ball away with careless passing in deep positions on several occasions and then compounded these mistakes by diving-in in an attempt to recover and as a consequence sold himself too easily.
  • Memphis and Rooney had poor games. Memphis came deep and so did not stretch his fullback or ran inside into trouble. This was too predictable. PSV of course know his game but he made life easy for them. Rooney started brightly but thereafter made minimal contribution his play being disjointed. In the second half he was asked to play deeper as Fellaini was pushed forward. It didn’t work. The number 10 role is critical in this formation. Can United afford to persist with a struggling player in this position?
  • United’s second half display after the substitutions was poor. Players looked to be lacking confidence, the midfield shape was flat and square, movement off the ball was almost non-existent and the ball moved forward far too slowly. By the end it looked more likely that PSV would be the team to win the game as United ran out of energy and ideas.


Several players returned to the side for this game having missed the last fixture at Watford. Martial started as the central striker with Rooney behind him in the number 10 role. The continued inclusion of Memphis on the left provided an opportunity for Lingard to play on the right, a position to which we think he is naturally better suited. This meant that Mata stood down. With United set up in a 4-2-3-1 shape this meant that United had pace on both sides and up front ahead of Rooney acting as the link for the runners.

1st half  4712102

United’s first half shape and Memphis who had a disappointing half

United started brightly and playing at a good tempo. They moved the ball well, pressed PSV and put them under early pressure. PSV were set up as a 4-3-3 but as United pressed their wide attackers dropped deep to cover leaving De Jong as a single forward as they became more of a 4-5-1. United didn’t open PSV up in the early exchanges with the visitors maintaining a disciplined shape. A number of patterns emerged which then became more pronounced as the half wore on.

Firstly given the relatively balanced selection of the front four United’s play became decidedly lob-sided. United attacked more often on the left hand side with Schweinsteiger and Rojo advancing in support of Memphis. A lot of the play was concentrated on this side but ironically they were far more effective when they attacked down the right. Why?

There were several reasons for this. It was quite noticeable that as United attacked Memphis would tend to move towards the ball, which is away from goal towards Schweinsteiger of Rojo. He rarely ran behind or outside the fullback without the ball and so did not stretch him. When he had the ball he either laid it off or turned inside running with the ball across the face of the fullback. Of course PSV know Memphis’s natural game and so were ready for this. They positioned the centre back or their right sided midfield play so that when Memphis did run inside he ran into a crowded area. Another factor on this side was Rojo. His forward movement was fairly tentative, he rarely overlapped but instead stayed behind Memphis as a support.

Memphis passing - the graphic shows passing but illustrates Memphis position n the pitch. Not how few of his passes were forward

Memphis passing – the graphic shows passing but illustrates Memphis position n the pitch. Not how few of his passes were forward

Secondly Rojo’s movement can be contrasted with that of Darmian on the right. On this side Lingard’s  movement was much more varied. He too often cut in side but when he did Darmian was far more adventurous in making overlapping runs. As a consequence the vast majority of United’s first half chances came from the right.

A third significant feature was the performance of Schneiderlin. He was playing as the deeper and more static of the two pivots so was usually positioned fairly close to United’s two centre backs. He tended to stay in this position allowing Smalling of Blind to come past him onto the ball, but the principle concern here was that he kept giving the ball away with careless sloppy passing. He did this on countless occasions in both the first and second half and he often compounded the error by then chasing the ball in an attempt to win the ball back. When he did this PSV often played around him and set up a number of chances to break away noticeably late in the half.

Schneiderlin passing - 83% pass completion but gave the ball away a lot in dangerous areas

Schneiderlin passing – 83% pass completion but gave the ball away a lot in dangerous areas

A fourth significant feature was the play of Martial and Rooney. With runners around him Rooney’s main function in the side was to link play in the final third. Unfortunately he did not do this well. The player in the middle of the 3 in a 4-2-3-1 is critical to its success. He is operating in a crowded area and has to think and act quickly to link play and distribute the ball. If he does this well much of the play in the final third should be through him as he occupies space between the lines and attempts to disturb those lines. He is the fulcrum of the attacking movement. If he doesn’t play well, isn’t available to link play and can’t find space the players behind him have to play more square passes; a feature of United’s play recently. As the half wore on the number of square passes being played seemed to increase as Rooney struggled to find space and with a poor first touch regularly lost the ball as it was played into him.

The ball bouncing off Rooney can be contrasted with the way the ball stuck to Martial. Martial is a strong as an ox and his ability to stand stock still with a defender climbing all over his back and hold a ball played up to him is in some ways reminiscent of Mark Hughes. United have to find a way of using this. Maybe he should be the players the runners play off; despite his pace maybe he should be the static link?

Despite all this United had started the half well and did create a number of good clear cut chances. Of course they didn’t take them but one should note that these were better clearer chances than they have been creating of late. Van Gaal has regularly stated in press conferences that we have been making enough chances. This is only half the truth as most of the chances being created have been half chances really. Here they were clearer cut but unfortunately several players were not clinical in their finishing, especially on this occasion Lingard and Martial.

As a consequence the score remained 0-0 at half-time.


United started the second half with three shots in three minutes. Had Van Gaal made the point that the team needed to get more shots in during his half time team talk? Unfortunately over the next ten minutes they failed to register another shot so after 58 minutes the manager made a double substitution introducing Fellaini for Schweinsteiger and Young for Memphis.

Young replacing Memphis was understandable as the Dutchman had made little impact in the game and whilst Young is not the trickiest player he is reasonably quick and direct running at teams and getting crosses in. He didn’t get much service here but on the occasions when he did he delivered a number of good crosses.

Early second half  1448492767419y


United’s shape after the early second half substitutions and Ashley Young who replaced Memphis

The introduction of Fellaini is a harder one to comprehend. Schweinsteiger had been doing okay, no better but he was directing the direction of United’s play. Felliani came on and assumed a position as the right sided pivot with Schneiderlin switching to the left and playing slightly higher. It is a long time now since Fellaini has been played in such a deep position, a position of which the consensus view is that he is not well suit. He did nothing to change that view here. His passing was square and short, his touch was cumbersome and out of possession he tended to chase the ball as the opposition played around him. Schneiderlin was continuing to have a poor game and between the pair the pivots struggled to play United out of their own half, often relying on Smalling or Blind to step out from the back to assist. The introduction of Fellaini just did not work. United’s play deteriorated and encouraged by this PSV started to push their wide players further forward. If anything they now looked the side most likely to score. United’s passing was now too slow and square. The midfield shape was too flat.

Fellaini passing. Two boxes, the deeper one shows him as a pivot, note the number of square passes. The second box shows his contribution when pushed further forward. This was ineffective.

Fellaini passing. Two boxes, the deeper one shows him as a pivot, note the number of square passes. The second box shows his contribution when pushed further forward. This was ineffective.

The fact this was not working was clear and so Rooney and Fellaini switched positions. Fellaini was now in his more usual position playing on the edge of the PSV box. United now directed long passes forward towards his head and chest. Immediately after Fellaini’s introduction PSV had introduced Isimat-Mirim for Hendrix and after the game Cocu, the PSV manager confirmed that this was because they expected United to be more direct after the Belgian’s introduction. This worked for PSV who dealt with this tactic well. Isimat-Mirim stuck to Fellaini after his switch forward and the United man had little success in feeding those around him for the long passes he received.

Late second half  fellaini

United’s shape late in the game and Fellaini who struggled to make an impact when pushed further forward

On 84 minutes Mata was introduced in place of Darmian with Young switching to right back and Lingard switching to the left. There was not enough time in the game for this to engineer in real impact and the game petered out into a disappointing draw.


So this was another 0-0 draw and a lost opportunity to qualify from the group. It is easy sound-off your dissatisfaction in these circumstances and to repeat the same sentiments regarding United’s lack of adventurousness and the entertainment value of the performance. Many are doing this right now but the purpose of our site is to take a close look and analyse the detail of each individual performance. The performances aren’t all the same; different factors are present in different displays.

Van Gaal’s approach is very systematic in that he analyses in detail, makes adjustments and tries different things. If you don’t notice this it is only because you aren’t looking closely enough. Some of the things he tries work, some don’t. Some make things better, some make things worse. In this game the things he tried made things worse; the substitutions certainly saw deterioration in the team performance, but we wouldn’t blame him for trying. If people criticize Van Gaal and his approach for being over cautious this is ironic in that his changes were motivated by a desire to go for the win by improving things when the score was 0-0 after just less than an hour. The point is that he risked losing the game by making those changes.