M K Dons 4 – 0 Manchester United

I’m not entirely sure what Angel Di Maria is thinking at the moment, but, if his open letter to Real Madrid fans is any indication, he’s currently got at least half an eye on a return to the Bernabeu if his Manchester adventure doesn’t work out.  And who can blame him?  In the context of yesterday’s English record (£59.7 million) signing of Di Maria, last night’s 4-0 thrashing from the M K Dons takes on a distinctly surreal, almost perverse, air.

There’s plenty of reaction on the internet today about the result so I thought I’d offer my perspective as a lifelong United fan who’s generally been feeling very positive about the appointment of Louis van Gaal as United manager and yet been feeling equally frustrated with our failure so far to address the glaring problems in defence and central midfield, more of which in a moment.

“It’s only the League Cup.”

I’ve seen a fair bit of comment this morning pointing out that last night’s result doesn’t matter all that much in the grand scheme of things as the League Cup is the least of the domestic trophies United are capable of winning.  In that sense, van Gaal’s fielding of an under-strength team is carrying on a tradition established by SAF in the 90s and we shouldn’t be too bothered about last night’s result.  Well, the disdain shown to the League Cup over the years has never struck me as particularly clever and it makes even less sense now that United don’t have European competition to preoccupy them.  This is a competition that last year David Moyes took seriously enough to earn a semi-final place against Sunderland.  Would he still have been sacked if he’d successfully negotiated that tie and the final that followed it?  I don’t know but it would surely have bought him more time and, perhaps more importantly, it would have provided some impetus to an under-performing team.  There is a strong case to be made that LVG should have put out the strongest team possible.  A win is a win at the end of the day (whereas a loss – particularly like this one – is a humiliation).  That said, LVG’s post-match comments suggest he had concerns about fielding a substantially similar side to the one that drew against Sunderland just 48 hours after that game.  Fair enough, I guess – and it’s also important to remember that…

“They were only kids.”

Well, no, they weren’t, were they?  That was our first choice goalkeeper the Dons put four goals past.  There was a first team regular ‘marshalling’ our defence.  There were three World Cup players up front.  Admittedly, Anderson is never going to set the world on fire, but he was a part of the team that thrashed Arsenal 8-2 three years ago.  Van Gaal’s selection was not a team of callow youth.  The injury to Kagawa was unfortunate (and Januzaj as a replacement was not ideal), but the team should have had enough quality to see off a League One side, albeit one who were very much up for the fight.

“LVG knew what he was doing.”

Yeah, I think he did.  Although what you think he knew he was doing and what I think he knew he was doing may be two different things.  Some comments I’ve seen have suggested that last night’s match was a deliberate attempt to send a ‘message’ to the board and chief executive Ed Woodward that, even after the capture of Di Maria, the team needs strengthening in key areas.  This strikes me as unpersuasive for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, the United hierarchy already know where they need to strengthen and, as the signing of Di Maria demonstrates, they’re not afraid of splashing some cash around.  Secondly, LVG just doesn’t strike me as the kind of manager to effectively throw a game just to prove a point.  Rather, when he says that he wants to be fair to the existing players, I believe he’s being scrupulously (painfully) honest – even if that means giving a start to (gulp!) Anderson.  Well, if he wants to see who will fit into his ‘philosophy’, last night hasn’t been a total loss.  It’s difficult to believe that Anderson will start a game for United again and Hernandez is looking increasingly surplus to requirements, for a start.  (If last night also puts paid to the notion that Januzaj can act as a central midfielder, then that will also be an admittedly very thin silver lining.)  But these are the most meagre of consolations.

“The confidence has eroded…”

Well, quite.  One of the notable things about both last night and the Sunderland game was that, in both games, there were some very pleasing passages of fluid and quick passing, but, once the opposition scored, that fluidity vanished like mist before the morning sun.  Last night was particularly poor.  There was no leadership on the pitch, but then, when your captain’s responsible for your opponents’ first goal, that’s perhaps not surprising.  One thing that was revealed last night is that, not only do we need players of skill, creativity and pace, but we also need players with commitment, passion and leadership.  Great.

All of this shouldn’t take away from M K Dons’ performance which was committed, skilful and fast-paced – all of the things that United weren’t.  They were good value for their win and, Dave Martin’s late saves notwithstanding, we simply weren’t good enough to merit even a consolation goal.

So where does this leave Louis van Gaal and his philosophical project?  Well, right back where we were on Sunday afternoon, really.  He’s devised a system to get the best out of a ‘superstar’ forward three of Rooney, RVP and Mata but, with injuries to Carrick and Herrera (and the understandable, but nevertheless worrying, decline of Fletcher), there’s no creativity or incisiveness to supply the front lines.  Add to that a threadbare back five and you end up with a result like an unsatisfactory draw against Sunderland or here, without the class of Rooney et al, a hideously embarrassing performance against lower league opposition.  Am I happy?  Crikey, no!  Am I ready to panic?  Not just yet.  And not for a while, to be honest.

And, unlike Steve Claridge, I’m also not too bothered by LVG signing autographs at the end of the match.   That’s not being arrogant; it’s just not being a dick to people who’ve asked you for your autograph.  Mind you, his claim that he wasn’t shocked by the result is somewhat belied by this image (thank you, Daily Telegraph) …

Not shocked.  Riiiiight.

Not shocked. Riiiiight.

Clearly, United still need to adjust to a new way of playing.  The acquisition of a genuinely quick and skilful midfielder in Di Maria is exciting, but we also need to buy some quality in defence and midfield.  Vidal and Blind would do nicely, but whoever comes in, they’ll need to show the kind of commitment and passion that was glaringly absent last night.