Much has been said about Louis van Gaal’s approach to winning football matches at Manchester United. While his team is doing just that, their manager can continue to fend off criticism, especially following a weekend in which Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur all failed to pick up three points.
While fans urge his team to attack, Van Gaal can point to the facts. A fourth consecutive clean sheet in the league at the weekend leaves them with the best defensive record in the top flight. They have conceded just eight times and now sit just two points off the top spot. Van Gaal’s side were also fourth after 12 matches last season, but this time around they are five points better off.
Seven teams have scored more goals than United this season and 15 teams have taken more shots. Their meagre tally of 10.3 shots per game is less than every club but for Sunderland, Stoke and Newcastle. However, despite their struggles going forward, Van Gaal’s team keep picking up clean sheets and decent results. Such a modest number of shots has come despite averaging the most possession (57.2%) in the league, though their desire to keep the ball is as much a defensive measure as an attacking one in United’s case.
Van Gaal seems welded to the idea that, if the other team don’t have the ball, they can’t any goals. It might be frustrating viewing for fans, but his approach is bearing some fruit. Only league leaders Manchester City have conceded fewer shots per game (8.8) – and dominating possession tends to correlate more closely with defending against shots than creating them. Bournemouth’s passing approach has helped them limit the number of shots on their goal but it hasn’t helped them hurt the opposition. And Crystal Palace (16.8 shots conceded per game), Newcastle (16.7) and Sunderland (16.6) have conceded the most shots while surrendering possession.
However, will keeping the ball for long periods without committing many players forward be enough to maintain United’s title challenge? Is a better defensive record more important than a free-flowing attack?