Under growing scrutiny for his side’s performances, Louis van Gaal has hit back at claims from West Ham manager Sam Allardyce that Manchester United are a long-ball team. In a bizarre press conference ahead of United’s meeting with Burnley on Wednesday, Van Gaal brought out a dossier of statistics in an attempt to back up his rebuttal of Allardyce’s “long-ball United” gibe. Allardyce, often derided as a purveyor of the long- ball style, suggested it was Manchester United who had been the chief employer of the tactic in the sides’ 1-1 draw on Sunday, when the introduction of the physical presence of Marouane Fellaini helped provide a late equalizer.
“When you have 60 percent ball possession do you think that you can do that with long balls?” Van Gaal said. “Yeah, long balls, in the width, to switch the play. You have to look at the data and then you will see we play long balls, but long balls wide, rather than to the strikers.
“I am sorry, but we are playing ball possession play and after 70 minutes we did not succeed, in spite of many chances in the second half, then I changed my playing style. Then, of course, with the quality of Fellaini we played more forward balls. We scored from that, so I think it was a very good decision of the manager. But, when you see overall the long ball, and what is the percentage of that, then West Ham United have played 71 percent of the long balls to the forwards and we 49.”
Van Gaal’s indignant response will do little to assuage the growing critics of his team’s performances. In terms of results, Manchester United are not in bad shape. On the back of just one defeat in 17 matches in all competitions, United sit in fourth place in the Premier League and on track to complete the primary objective of returning to the Champions League for next season. But the evidence in front of the eyes has been less than convincing.
Seven months into his job, the sense remains that the experienced Dutch coach is still unsure of his best team. Wayne Rooney looks a questionable choice in a midfield role, Angel di Maria has lost the spark of his early performances and Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie appear too one-paced for a strike partnership.
And the statistics show that only the visitors to Old Trafford on Wednesday have utilized more long balls in the Premier League this season than Manchester United. In the case of Burnley, few could fault any legal tactic deployed by manager Sean Dyche in his efforts to guide a club with the smallest budget and lowest wage bill in the division to survival.
Currently he remains on track to achieve that goal, with Burnley outside of the relegation zone by a single place and solitary point. But after taking just one point from their last three Premier League encounters and ahead of a run that sees them play all of the Premier League’s current top seven in their next eight matches, the pressure remains firmly in place. For the rest of the season they will have to do without midfielder Dean Marney, who suffered a cruciate ligament injury in a 2-2 home draw with West Bromwich Albion on Sunday.
Prediction: Manchester United continue to desperately lack fluidity and, despite Van Gaal’s comments, it should be a major concern how often such an expensively assembled side has had to revert to firing the ball long to Fellaini in recent times. Missing the suspended Luke Shaw, United’s lineup will be rotated once more on Wednesday, with further alterations likely. Given the current scrutiny on the side, they are fortunate to be taking on a Burnley team that has won just once away from home this season and conceded 15 goals in the last six matches on the road in all competitions. It is again unlikely to be pretty, but Manchester United should pick up the three points.
Manchester United 2-1 Burnley
Kickoff time: 2:45 p.m. EST
TV channel: NBC Sports Premier League Extra Time
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra