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Five things we’ve learnt from United vs Wolfsburg

Man-Utd-vs-Wolfsburg (2)Manchester United picked up their first three points in the Champions League as they overcame a good Wolfsburg side on Wednesday night. Following their 2-1 defeat in Eindhoven, United found themselves a goal behind after less than five minutes but restore parity through a Juan Mata penalty in the first half, before Chris Smalling scored the winner soon after the break.

However, it was far from for United and here’s five talking points from last night.

1) The Special Juan

In his first campaign at Manchester United, Louis Van Gaal transformed Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young from pantomime villains into pivotal figures in his side. This season the Dutchman seems to have repeated the trick with Juan Mata.

The Spaniard was instrumental against Wolfsburg, as he won and scored the penalty that clinched United’s equaliser and provided the assist for Chris Smalling’s winner. Mata’s impact, however, was bigger than numbers reveal, as every attacking move seemed to go through him during a first half in which he picked out his teammates with sumptuous passes and proved to be a constant thorn in the visitors’ side.


Earlier this week, Mata revealed United were coming to terms with Van Gaal’s methods. Four goals and four assists in the first two months of the season surely back up the statement, as the Spaniard looks as more inspired than he’s ever looked since arriving at Old Trafford.

2) United depend on Smalling

United’s defensive frailties have been well documented and, at times, ruthlessly exposed this season. One has to wonder the fate their back four would have suffered this season had it not been for Chris Smalling.

On Wednesday night, the England international showed the kind of mercurial form that has made him arguably the Premier League’s best defender so far this season. Composed on the ball, covering up the right areas when off it, Smalling looks an incredibly more accomplished than he ever did at any stage of his career.

Man-Utd-vs-Wolfsburg (1)

While he might not be as vocal as some of his predecessor, the former Fulham man is developing into the sort of leader United’s rearguard need and he even scored the winner against Wolfsburg.

At the same time, the lack of defensive options at Van Gaal’s disposal means an injury to Smalling could have drastic repercussions.

3) The Rooney conundrum continues

Having brought his Premier League drought to an end on Saturday, many hoped Wayne Rooney could embark on the kind of goalscoring streak he’s become renowned for. Unfortunately for United, not only did the England captain not find the net, he also conjured to deliver arguably his worst performance of the season.

Sluggish in possession, utterly abysmal off the ball, Rooney was lucky not to be substituted, as he looked increasingly like the paltry imitation of the footballer he was once was, wasting a glorious chance to draw United level midway through the first half.

Not even playing alongside Mata and Anthony Martial seems to be enough to rescue the soon-to-be 30-year-old from the mediocrity that’s engulfed him for the best part of the last three seasons and one has to wonder how long it will be until Van Gaal drops him.

4) Martial rules

He might be only 19 years of age, he might not have scored often for Monaco and he might be the most expensive teenager in world football, but Anthony Martial is the real deal.

In his first Champions League game at Old Trafford, the Frenchman displayed all the qualities United fans have grown to love since he joined the club on deadline day, as Martial gave Dante an absolute torrid time.


The former Bayern Munich defender, who won the trophy with the Bavarian giants, could not cope with the Frenchman’s speed and footwork and while Martial failed to find the net, he again looked like the sort of exciting striking option United had desperately lacked.

Van Gaal described the former Monaco as a man for the future but Martial is very much a man for the present.

5) Valencia is not a right-back

Luke Shaw’s injury has forced Van Gaal to reshuffle his back four, with the United manager opting to move Matteo Darmian in Shaw’s role and deploy Antonio Valencia at right-back.

However, while the plan might work against clubs languishing at the bottom of the table in the Premier League, it is likely to come undone against teams in the Champions League, for Valencia lacks the positional awareness of a proper right-back.

Against Wolfsburg, the former Wigan man failed to step up alongside the rest of United’s backline, as the Germans took an early lead. Daniel Caligiuri would have been onside anyway, but the mistake highlighted Valencia’s shortcomings when deployed in such a crucial position and Van Gaal’s decision to replace him at half-time with Ashley Young was an ominous sign for the Ecuador international.




  1. storm

    1 October 2015 at 11:08

    In years to come, Van Gaal will be remembered as the man that steadied the Utd ship and stopped it from sinking, he won’t be remembered as the man that inspired exciting and attractive football. It would seem churlish to criticise a team that has just won a champions league match and when you consider that they got the job done, perhaps there isn’t that much to criticise. There is great potential in the Utd side, but it would take a few daring decisions from LVG for it to be realised. The problem is that LVG is more geared toward playing it safe than taking risks, so I can’t see it happening. For example, it would have made more sense to play Darmian as RB and Blind as LB instead of playing both out of position. It’s also time to drop Rooney, but of course, it won’t happen. I think it’s fantasy to believe that Utd will get that far in the CL this year, we don’t honestly look like real contenders. Due to our main rivals floundering in the EPL we should have no problem making the top four. Safe but not that inspiring. I won’t lie, I’ll be glad to see the back of LVG, I think he’s strangling the life out of Utd and his footballing philosophy stinks. But it’s a results business, and after all, that’s what he’s getting at the moment.

  2. colver

    1 October 2015 at 13:01

    storm i think you are being a little harsh on Van Gaal. Steadying the ship is a difficult job because we have lost several world class players over the last five years-Scholes, Giggs, Rio, Vidic, Evra, Van Persie etc. And in all honesty I would add Rooney to that list because while he is still at the club it is in name only.

    Look at how Liverpool and Tottenham struggled losing just ONE world class player in spite of reinvesting all the funds. Even with all the funds at our disposal we’ve had to play grossly inflated prices for promising players who are good rather than great and in most cases have no Premier League experience. And we remain incredibly vulnerable defensively. So in a way I understand Van Gaal’s cautious approach even if he does overdo it. The main area I’d fault Van Gaal is his refusal to invest aggressively in central defence but then again maybe the players simply weren’t available.

    He has done very well integrating all the new signings and creating an organized team. He has also improved many of the players he inherited such as Mata, Young, Smalling and Fellaini. If he can improve most of the new signings then we’ll have a really great team.

    The lack of creativity is a worry but I think a lot of it relates to the personnel. Depay struggled at the start of the season and Mata has only just started to hit form, Rooney has been super poor in all respects and Fellaini was a joke upfront. The arrival of Martial has made a huge difference as has the recent form of Mata.

    What we really need to do is to ditch Rooney, play Mata in the hole, and buy a fast, tricky, creative right winger to give us more width and pace.

    As for the full back issue. Why not play Varela at right back? He got glowing reviews during his time at Real Madrid and has to be better than Valencia.

    • storm

      1 October 2015 at 14:14

      @colver: My main problems with Van Gaal is his negativity and over defensiveness and his insistence on playing players out of position. For instance, Darmian is showing fantastic promise at RB, at LB he’s struggling. Utd have Blind who can play LB, they have Jones and Rojo who can partner Smalling as CB. We don’t need two holding midfielders, Schweinsteiger is fine on his own and playing Herrera to the right and Schneiderlin to the left would give us a solid enough midfield with enough creativity to turn defence into attack. In attack playing DePay on the left, Young on the right and Martial through the middle would give us blistering pace causing opposition defences all kinds of problems. But LVG is either too scared or too negative to play 4-3-3 or simply doesn’t understand how it works. You yourself have been an advocate of 4-4-2, an even more attacking style, but it’s never going to happen under Van Gaal. So, yes I am harsh on him, simply because Utd could be so much better.

    • storm

      1 October 2015 at 14:40

      @colver: One more thing. I don’t like the fact that LVG has no passion for Utd. When he was manager of Holland in the WC, and they scored, he was on his feet and animated. Last night, when Utd scored, barely a flicker of emotion passed his face, it was all he could do to look up from his notebook. A passionless manager makes a passionless team, and that is not Utd. It seems to me that he has a specific job to do at Utd, from which he won’t deviate, and he’ll do it until he retires. Good money, no risk, results not entertainment.

      • Karl

        1 October 2015 at 14:45

        @storm: in the previous article on LVG adopting 433, I shared my opinion on his “philosophy”. I also hate the lack of excitement, but I am starting to see where LVG is heading with his philosophy. And, I have to admit, it is strangely beautiful … aahhh… I can’t believe I said that … 🙂

        • storm

          1 October 2015 at 15:39

          @Karl: Maybe if Utd had given Moyes an extra year, I too might now be finding LVG’s football philosophy beautiful. At the moment however, as hard as I try, I just can’t see it. Give me time.

  3. bestie

    1 October 2015 at 14:11

    Here’s what I learnt:
    Rooney should be donating his wages to his teammates, cos with him on the pitch they’re playing 10 vs 11
    Depay has been worse than Nani on a bad day. Coincidentally, both he and Rooney have had their only good games vs that pub team from Brugge
    So Valencia is not a RB? Of course he isn’t. But VG has spent 250mm and we’re still short defensively –playing wingers at RB and a DMF/LB at CB
    We overstocked at DMF, but I still haven’t seen much out of Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger can’t really play for 90′, Carrick seems past it, and Blind is playing CB
    On the positive side, Smalling, Martial, Darmian (and Shaw) should work out

  4. Karl

    1 October 2015 at 14:40

    A lot of people might disagree and very few would understand, but I believe it is a pity for Rooney, United and England that LVG took over at United so late in Rooney’s career (after making huge strides in his decline). Rooney is exactly the type of player LVG craves and LVG’s philosophy is exactly what would have turned Rooney from a “potential” into a “worldclass”. As things stand now, I cannot even class Wazza with Gazza.

  5. colver

    2 October 2015 at 12:35

    I agree the formation needs to change. 4-3-3 is very appealing but I do not think we have the personnel. Perhaps when Januzaj is back at the club and Depay has started to fulfill his potential or if we sign a really high quality winger. But until then we need Mata and it is difficult to see LVG dropping Rooney this season.

    But I support the decision to keep Blind as a centre back. He adds much needed leadership and Smalling has never looked better benefiting from Blind’s composure alongside him. Rojo has had a hamstring injury so he hasn’t been an option. So we didn’t have a huge amount of options. But with Jones and Rojo back I would expect one of them to play as fullback.

    We don’t need two holding midfielders in a 4-3-3 but maybe we do in the current formation especially as our defence is still vulnerable. And what Carrick and Schweisteneger lack in the ability to get up and down the pitch they make up for in their passing range. Although I wouldn’t recommend playing the two of them together. Schneiderlin has been pretty average so far but hopefully he will improve and earn a place alongside Schweisteneger or Carrick.

    As for the passion, I think a lot of it is that we aren’t yet playing the way LVG wants us too and he is a perfectionist so won’t get much joy winning unless he feels we are good value for the results. A lot of the fans feel the same way.

    I agree part of the problem is the system but it may be the best option for now (although I would support a bit more ambition against the weaker teams) but I think also a lot of the new signings such as Depay and Schneiderlin are struggling to settle in and Rooney has been a lead balloon holding us down and we haven’t really as a team stepped up to top gear. LVG wants the pace and the movement and that is why he brought in Martial but the message hasnt quite got across yet which is why we are still a bit static and plodding. But we started slow last season and I think we’ll be in a better position to judge midseason

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