Manchester United’s possession game deserts them on the occasion that they actually need it

Oh the irony.

For much of the Louis van Gaal era Manchester United have employed a heavily possession-based and sometimes mind-numbing style of play.

This has been to the general chagrin of the short-suffering Old Trafford faithful who are much more accustomed to seeing their teams have the ball in devastating bursts under Sir Alex.

So you would expect that, if nothing else, this revision of The Red Devils would be well-drilled in the art of ball retention.

But, when they actually needed to keep the ball while protecting an oh so precious advantage at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, they seemed strangely incapable of doing so.

Generally more convincing

Overall Manchester United have been much more convincing to these eyes of late. In the last three games they have played with the sort of daring rarely seen under the management of their cocksure Dutchman – a man who seems utterly convinced by his old-school tactics like a computer engineer who got his degree in 1976 and has refused to retrain since.

Manchester United now pass and move more aggressively and appear increasingly comfortable in a formation which houses pacy forwards out wide and the once more majestic Juan Mata in the middle where he can rely more on vision and less on the power generated by his puppet-like legs.

It’s an obvious solution which has paid instant dividends. Which begs the question, why do managers get paid so many millions to make things so complicated?

Wayne Rooney is sharper of late and it could even be argued that Marouane Fellaini – a man who seems only to use his feet as a last resort when the chest, elbows, knees and head just won’t do – has brought something to the midfield since replacing the absurdly cautious second defensive midfielder that Van Gaal so often employs at Manchester United.

But still not really that good

But, when United needed to kill a game off by reverting to recent type and passing the ball sideways and backwards, they couldn’t do it. In those final 15 minutes against Chelsea they had all the composure of a hammered Chris Smalling on his way home from a fancy dress party.

More points dropped on the pacekeepers then and more questions asked about Manchester United’s leadership in the short, medium and long-term. Can Van Gaal possibly stay in the job, having spent a large fortune, if he doesn’t guide United into the top four come Sunday May 15th? At that point, Ed Woodward would surely be forced to speak to the senior members of the squad. Again. To canvas opinion about Van Gaal. Again. Scary.

Room for optimism

Whether he keeps his job or not there is no denying the bravery shown by Van Gaal in using his youths.

Cameron Borthwick-Jackson has been steadily improving over the last 2 months and, at 19 years and 6 days, he has composure well beyond his years.

The youngster is making defensive errors at times and his inclusion in critical fixtures may not be universally applauded. His entrance against Wolfsburg at a pivotal moment of the season was highly debatable when the well-versed and dynamic Ashley Young was sitting on the bench.

But he’s an exciting player with a wonderful left foot and he’s getting vital experience for which he can thank Van Gaal. The Dutchman may not be espousing Manchester United’s attacking traditions but he is at least respecting the age-old Trafford mantra that if you’re good enough you’re old enough.