While everyone savoured a weekend of exciting football action involving Liverpool upending Man City’s title push and Chelsea plodding their way to a League Cup win over Spurs, I took in Manchester United’s deadly dull, stagnant, sloppy 2-0 win over Gus Poyet’s Sunderland, decided in part by the possibly mistaken sending off of Wes Brown.
My weekend wasn’t a total loss—one can learn a lot from what makes bad matches so awful. In Man United’s case, the team was at home at Old Trafford against a Sunderland side with no attacking ideas except to stay back and clog the centre of the pitch.
On the one hand, there wasn’t much United could have done; Poyet’s team wasn’t going to risk a series of speedy counter-attacks. But the most grievous sin committed by Louis van Gaal’s side was a disrespect for tempo. One of the best approaches for breaking down a defensive team like Sunderland is to take advantage of speed in order to get behind a disciplined backline. But van Gaal’s United were often painfully slow in developing their attack.
Image 1: Herrera passing options
Here, in the 15th minute, Ander Herrera is in possession with three open passing options. It’s not entirely ideal with everyone covered, but Wayne Rooney has a decent chance of moving on the break on the left. Instead, Herrera waits a beat and Rooney is suddenly well-covered. And so Herrera chooses Antonio Valencia (off screen to his right), essentially a square pass.
Image 2: Valencia passing options
With nothing in front of him, Valencia hits a long ball which is easily picked off the forward player by the Sunderland defence.
Image 3: Herrera passing options (again)
Here again in the 34th minute, Herrera has held the ball too long and is too far forward to be comfortable. Nevertheless, he can pass out wide—but it’s cramped, or he can hit Young—but he’s well covered, or he can take a safer but flexible option in Daley Blind.
Image 4: Young shoots from distance
Instead, Herrera simply waits for Young to come to him, makes the simplest of square passes, and Young, with a Sunderland wall ahead of him, sends a fairly decent but long range shot which goes wide. You snooze, etc.
Image 5: Safe, square passes, zzzz
And on the hour mark, a telling set up. Here the United midfield is in a straight line with a sea of blue shirts in the final third, with two isolated red shirts. What follows is a series of safe, mind-numbing, and time-wasting square passes. From Blind to Smalling…
Image 6: Safe, square passes, zzzz
...Smalling to Herrera…
Image 7: Safe, square passes, zzzz
...and the brutal coup de grace, a square pass to Valencia, who decides to take things into his own hands (feet?) and runs into the centre of the box and wins a foul. Sunderland barely adjusts their shape. They simply wait for United to slowly move the ball across the pitch.
What are United trying to accomplish under van Gaal? Both the manager and his players have talked about keeping the ball for long periods and tiring the opposition out. But teams like Sunderland can just sit deep and sit relatively still, with barely any drain on their batteries, as Manchester United’s defenders and midfielders move the ball harmlessly around the middle of the field.
And yes, United’s goals in this 2-0 win came late in the second half, but those goals were more to do with a penalty being awarded and Sunderland being reduced to 10 men than with Sunderland being worn down by endless slow, square passes across midfield. Unless, of course, the Sunderland defenders had been lulled to sleep.
The van Gaal era plods on…