Manchester United’s up and down season finally looked like it was going to get back on track. They had scored three goals each in back to back games against Derby County and Stoke City before drawing at Stamford Bridge. But of course just like it has all year, whenever things seemed like they started to get on a roll for United, it all fell apart.
It started with Wayne Rooney not making the trip to FC Midtjylland, then it was revealed he would be out for eight weeks. Next thing you know David de Gea was coming up injured in the warm up. Then it was the shocking loss to Midtjylland in the first leg.
By the time Manchester United came limping into their FA Cup tie with Shrewbury Town, Louis van Gaal was forced to field a very make shift team, a mix of some fringe players and academy kids. United would win that match, but were only able to celebrate for so long before more bad news came. In the warm up before the second leg against FC Midjylland young sensation Anthony Martial had to withdraw from the team due to a hamstring injury.
It’s safe to say that one saw what happened next coming. 18 year old Marcus Rashford was entered into the lineup to make his debut. He scored two goals on his debut against Midtjylland and followed that up the following weekend by scoring another two goals on his Premier League debut against Arsenal.
Suddenly, Manchester United’s razor thin squad had won four in a row and were were even on points with Manchester City for fourth place. To make matters better, players were starting to get fit and it looked like the squad would have some much needed depth in the coming days.
And that’s when everything fell apart.
During United’s four game winning streak they scored 12 goals over those four games. That’s a lot from a team that’s been struggling to score goals all season. That offensive outburst came mostly because of two players not named Marcus Rashford: Ander Herrera and Memphis Depay.
In their time at Manchester United, both Herrera and Memphis have gone in and out of Louis van Gaal’s doghouse. Most recently, if van Gaal had his full team available, they would be on the bench. But eventually van Gaal didn’t have any choices left and was forced to start Memphis on the left wing and Herrera as the second holding midfielder.
What happened next was Memphis Depay put together what were by far and away his best displays in a Manchester United shirt, absolutely tormenting defenders down the left wing. As the second holding midfielder Herrera brought another element to the team, another player to join the attack as he is able to make those late runs that Michael Carrick, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin, and Marouanne Fellaini don’t make. That means instead of attacking with just their front four, United now had a fifth player getting forward. This is exactly how Herrera scored his winner against Arsenal.
One of the biggest reasons United went on their winning run was because they stumbled onto their best XI. Now that players are returning, Louis van Gaal no longer has a ‘selection crisis’ he now has a selection dilemma, he has more then enough players at each spot and he has to make a choice.
And van Gaal has gotten those choices wrong. Every single time since their 1-0 win at Watford to be exact.
It started when Anthony Martial returned to the team against West Bromwich. He immediately returned to the team and Memphis immediately went to the bench. United never looked dangerous in that match.
A few days later against Liverpool, van Gaal opted to move Marcus Rashford out wide so Martial could play centrally, rendering Rashford useless. Even worse he opted for a midfield pair of Schneiderlin and Fellaini. The two never established a presence in the middle of the field and thus allowed Liverpool to control the whole match.
Last weekend against West Ham he once again opted for Fellaini in the middle and Memphis on the bench. United managed to salvage a 1-1 draw late in the game, but that came after van Gaal brought Memphis on for Fellaini. In fact, once Memphis came on, United once again looked incredibly dangerous and looked like they may even steal a winner.
While the world was busy heaping praise onto van Gaal for having faith, that was immediately rewarded, in teenagers Marcus Rashford and defender Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Fox commentator Alexi Lalas had a very interesting thought on the matter.
“I can’t give you credit for playing youth out of necessity.” Lalas said before United’s Europa League match against Liverpool. “I’ll give you credit when you play youth over one of your high priced stars.”
At the end of the day Lalas is right. A few weeks ago van Gaal didn’t have any choice but play young hungry kids along with some of his less favored senior players in their best positions. The result was United playing the best football they played all year.
However as soon as some of those ‘stars’ started returning from injury, van Gaal inserted them right back into the team, whether they deserved it or not. This caused some in form players to be dropped and ruined the dynamic of the team, as some of those starts don’t show the same hunger that the younger players do. The results have been the team is now back to looking like the dull squad that they’ve been most of this season.
Two weeks ago United looked like they would charge up the table into the top four. Now it looks like they’ll go back to middling away in the middle, all because van Gaal can’t get a team selection right.