Manchester United embarrassed as Louis van Gaal reaches a new low
Three observations on Manchester United's dismal 2-1 Europa League Round of 32 first-leg defeat to Denmark's FC Midtjylland.
1. A nadir for Van Gaal
The Europa League was supposed to be beneath a club of Manchester United's stature. They should not have been visiting a modest club, formed in 1999, from a Danish town with a capacity of under 12,000. They belonged in grander surroundings.
The reality is very different. This is a nadir for manager Louis van Gaal's dismal reign. Thursday's match was supposed to be the road to redemption, a drive towards the more prosperous Champions League. United should have been targeting a Europa League title. Instead, they have hit a bump, created by themselves, right at the start line. The pressure, already high, has been cranked right up.
There were errors aplenty. Not just for the goals conceded themselves but in general play too. The Midtjylland strikes were awful viewing for United, though. There was the careless surrendering of possession by Michael Carrick that led to the home team's equaliser, compounded by the failure to snuff out the danger by Ander Herrera, then a feeble attempt by Juan Mata to keep out the winning goal.
Van Gaal has used injuries a lot as an excuse this season and, fair enough, there was no Wayne Rooney here or David De Gea, after the goalkeeper sustained an injury in the pre-match warm-up. But those are no excuses for what was seen in Denmark in the closing stages -- or even before.
In fact, back-up goalkeeper Sergio Romero was a key man in stopping United from being embarrassed sooner. It has been such a familiar sight to see De Gea make crucial, impressive saves and Romero carried on that pattern.
There were two critical blocks from the Argentinian when the score was 0-0. First, he made an agile stop, diving low to his left to keep out a header inside the six-yard box from Kian Hansen. Then Romero saved a one-on-one from Vaclav Kadlec, with the goalkeeper sticking out his left leg -- and less than a minute later, United would go ahead through Memphis Depay in the 37th minute.
Disappointingly for United, that was a lead they surrendered right before half-time with Pione Sisto beating Romero. At 1-1, the Argentina international made perhaps the best save of the bunch just after the hour mark. He flung out his left hand to push a powerful, close-range header from Paul Onuachu over the bar. De Gea would have approved.
It was not enough, though. United had not done enough in the final third and they were punished by falling behind. This performance continues their regrettable away form in Europe.
FC Midtjylland being formed in 1999 brings back memories of United beating Bayern Munich in that year's Champions League final and celebrations in the Nou Camp. Such illustrious opponents and venues looked further away than ever from United on this night.
The Europa League is serious business for United these days. Even in this competition, though, they have fallen in defeat. And they deserved it.
2. Smalling struggles
The concern for United had been a makeshift defence, but it was the midfield who caused them their most damaging problems. Nothing that Van Gaal did could change that. Morgan Schneiderlin was brought on to try to restore some order for the final 20 minutes, but he lost the ball carelessly soon after his arrival, summarising the night.
United's full-back curse had been striking again in the build-up to this match, with Matteo Darmian and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson both being ruled out, so it was encouraging how Donald Love and Daley Blind approached their task as the replacements, and it was a shame that the midfield did not offer more.
Love was making his first start for United, and the 21-year-old right-back was not afraid of going forward, while Blind was also a useful attacking outlet on occasions. Blind certainly deserves credit for continuing to show his adaptability and reliability. His move to the left side meant that Paddy McNair came into central defence.
With that lineup in place, it looked like Chris Smalling, who had impressed so often this season, would need to be a leader. Although Smalling had played on the Midtjylland turf before, while on England under-21 duty, he did not look at home.
There was one sloppy early header from Smalling, that conceded a corner, and at the other end, he wasted a headed chance from a corner midway through the first half. It was not his night and that unsettles those around him.
Rooney void felt
Watching Depay can leave you feeling abnormally frustrated. At times, there's the excitement generated by some of his marauding runs. At others, it's exasperating when he then makes the wrong decision at the end of said run.
Wayne Rooney's absence through injury meant that it was time for Depay and Anthony Martial to step up in this match and the results were not pretty viewing for United. With Depay, there is a sense that he is still raw in certain scenarios and is very much a confidence player. It is a contrast to Rooney, who is very much a leader as well as someone who can score regularly.
This was Depay's first start since Boxing Day and Rooney's absence means there should be plenty more to come -- and it is down to Depay whether he sinks or swims. The promise is there, but he needs to make it count.
The former PSV Eindhoven player's mind-set should have been helped when he embarked on a long run without being stopped in the second minute. His performance soon seemed to be wobbling, however, as he failed to capitalise on an early opening, then soon afterwards lost possession cheaply. Thankfully for him, he scored eight minutes before the break, finishing well after slipping, but he was mostly anonymous in the second half.
Martial, meanwhile, showed some good early footwork and smart decision-making, but he was also inconsistent. He had a penalty appeal after a decent run, but there was also a poor miss.
Martial was switched to the left-hand side early in the second half and almost created a chance with a piercing run, but the chance was not taken by Jesse Lingard. Like Depay, the Frenchman would go on to have a quiet 45 minutes.
Overall, United got very little from their two playmakers.
Arindam is ESPN FC's Manchester United correspondent. Follow him @ARejSport