MANCHESTER — Following Manchester United’s 1-0 defeat to Manchester City in the 168th Manchester derby on Sunday, Louis van Gaal made it clear what the main problem for his team is this season. Keeping the ball.
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After the game I asked van Gaal about his sides poor finishing, as United fired a blank for the first time since August in their fourth-straight PL defeat to bitter vials Manchester City. Scoring goals isn’t the big issue according to van Gaal, protecting the ball is what he’s worried about.
“I think our problem is that in the first half we gave the ball away too much unnecessarily,” van Gaal said. “In positions that we can hold the ball easily. We call that, positional game. We have to do that better.”
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United have to do a lot of things better. And on Sunday they actually shaded the possession stats with 52 percent in their favor, despite being reduced to 10-men for 51 minutes. But needless giveaways from the likes of Daley Blind and even Wayne Rooney dropping back deep into midfield put United on the back foot time and time again in the first half. Van Gaal likes his teams to dominate the ball, dictate the game and control the tempo. United have been hanging on in games and don’t start forcing the issue until their backs are against the wall.
So far this season they Red Devils have accumulated 13 points from their opening 10 games. That’s their worst start to a season since 1986-87 and that campaign they finished in 11th as Sir Alex Ferguson saved the day. Despite this defeat which leaves United 13 points behind league leaders Chelsea, van Gaal was keen to point out that his side aren’t far from the level of Chelsea (who they drew with 1-1 last week) and Manchester City.
“Despite the result, we are very close,” van Gaal said. “You saw it against Chelsea and now against Manchester City. They are the two best clubs in this league and the difference is zero I think.”
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Really? United created plenty of chances in the second half and a nervous-looking City were hanging on the end. But van Gaal praised good defensive work from City rather than blaming his own players for slack finishing.
“There was also a good goalkeeper in Joe Hart, the goalkeeper always plays a role,” van Gaal said in a defensive manner. “We score a lot of goals, it is not so often that we are not scoring a goal. Now we had a clean sheet, but the last time we did this was against Burnley I believe. I don’t think that is our problem.”
With United’s defensive issues worsening following Chris Smalling’s red card and a dislocated shoulder for his starting center back partner Marcos Rojo in the second half, van Gaal isn’t having much luck. With Jonny Evans and Phil Jones out injured, young Paddy McNair is the only central defender they have left. Midfielder Michael Carrick was chucked back there in the derby and did a decent job as United looked much better in the second half when they were down to 10-men and up against, compared to a poor first half where they kept needlessly turning over the ball.
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In the final 20 minutes Robin van Persie, Angel Di Maria and Marouane Fellaini all had chances to score but were either off target or found Hart in inspired form. LVG was impressed by his sides spirit to surge back and almost snatch a point against their closest rivals away from home, but acknowledged the situation is not good.
“Of course as a coach, you can be proud of the last 20 minutes because the players showed unbelievable willpower and we could have scored,” van Gaal said. “I think the first half was not a half that as a coach that everything was good. We give the ball away to easily to Manchester City in unnecessary situations. I have seen the willpower of this team. It is fantastic. But we still only have 13 points out of 10 games. That is not so much.”
We know Louis, we know.