Commentary

Bold Trafford factor compromised, while Chelsea surrender blue riband

Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal looks dejected during his team's 2-0 defeat to Stoke City on Dec 26.
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal looks dejected during his team's 2-0 defeat to Stoke City on Dec 26.PHOTO: REUTERS

Normally if you are talking about Manchester United playing Chelsea over the Christmas period, you would focus on all the excitement associated with it.

Who is going to nudge whom off top spot? Who will be second going into the new year?

But just look at what we are discussing this time. Chelsea are just outside the relegation zone and United are playing a brand of football that's foreign to anyone who has watched them during my lifetime.

Both sides lack that vital spark in the final third of the field and have been struggling to score. We are extremely unlikely to witness a carnival of attacking play at Old Trafford.

United are frustrating the life out of their supporters. It seems Louis van Gaal has no regard for the traditional attacking style which excites them. United keep the ball but they don't go anywhere with it.

Over the past 25 years, when Alex Ferguson was the manager at United, there were question marks on a bad day against maybe two or three players because they had some injuries. Now you are struggling to name two or three whom you know will contribute, week in, week out. Who are the supporters confident in and excited by? There are just too many question marks there.

If you had come to our training ground when I played at Liverpool, one of the most common phrases you would have heard was "look forward". Despite our reputation for retaining possession, you weren't allowed to just pass it square. United have become a team who are happy to keep possession and not go anywhere with it; to pass it for the sake of passing it.

They are so slow in their build-up that when they do get to the opposition's box, they are left passing it in front of their opponents, who have dropped back into their defensive shape.

They no longer have a Ryan Giggs or a Cristiano Ronaldo, someone who can dip a shoulder and skip past people for fun. They get to the last third time and time again, but because they've been so slow in getting there, they are then confronted by eight or nine opposition players.

Wayne Rooney didn't play in the recent defeats at Wolfsburg and Bournemouth, but the way he's playing this year, would he have made a difference in those games?

Rooney is having his worst season since he started playing first-team football. Does he walk straight back into the team when he's fit, even though United are struggling? He has not scored since mid-October, against Everton, which was also the last time United scored three goals in a game.

You think of Barcelona's slow build-up but when they get to the box, they have three or four special players who can suddenly speed it up by skipping past someone.

Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial should supply that for United, but Depay hasn't really taken off and Martial has fizzled out after a decent start.

The basis is there, but they don't have the door-openers when they get to that last third, that piece of magic from two or three players to open up the opposition.

It says a lot that Juan Mata is their top scorer with four league goals from midfield. Chris Smalling has been their best defender domestically but even he was all over the place at Wolfsburg when they lost 2-3 in the Champions League.

Bastian Schweinsteiger is slowing everything down. He is only at Old Trafford because Bayern Munich saw something in him that they no longer liked. He takes too many touches and plays too deep among his own back four to be an influence in midfield.

Michael Carrick moves the ball far quicker than him and I would play Carrick beside Morgan Schneiderlin. Carrick passes it forward at every opportunity.

Going into big games as a manager or coach, you are looking at your players and thinking: "Where are we strong tonight and where are we vulnerable?"

I'm not sure van Gaal would have got beyond two or three he could be sure of. David de Gea, Smalling and Mata maybe? Martial has just turned 20, while Depay and Jesse Lingard are inconsistent.

Over the past 25 years, when Alex Ferguson was the manager at United, there were question marks on a bad day against maybe two or three players because they had some injuries. Now you are struggling to name two or three whom you know will contribute, week in, week out.

Who are the supporters confident in and excited by? There are just too many question marks there.

The football they're playing should certainly be different. This is a Manchester United that I don't recognise, one that nobody recognises.

Chelsea, meanwhile, are unrecognisable from the team who won the title just last season and they are also struggling in the final third of the field. When they lost at Leicester, they were good on two-thirds of the pitch but they didn't have that spark.

It's revealing that Willian, who was a bit-part player last season, has been their best performer this season. Pedro has been a major disappointment - he fizzes around without any real end product.

I thought that Cesc Fabregas would be a perfect fit for Chelsea, but last year he didn't turn up in the big games, so the writing was on the wall, and Eden Hazard, last season's player of the year, simply looked like he didn't want to be there when Jose Mourinho was still in charge.

You are struggling to name Chelsea's strongest XI, whereas last season you could put nine names down right away. Now the majority are not sure if they are going to be playing. That tells its own story of how ordinary they have all been.

THE SUNDAY TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2015, with the headline 'Bold Trafford factor compromised, while Chelsea surrender blue riband'. Print Edition | Subscribe