Analysis: Youngster Varela struggles on difficult debut for Manchester United
On a night when a disciplined and uncomplicated defensive performance - the likes of which have been testing the patience of the Old Trafford faithful all season - may have been enough to see Manchester United through to the knockout stages of the Champions League, Louis van Gaal’s side fell apart.
The 3-2 loss to Wolfsburg meant they will now drop into the Europa League. For young debutant Guillermo Varela in particular, it was a match that could induce some harrowing winter nightmares.
It was also a night that could be used to measure the team’s progress since Van Gaal took the job in 2014. To that end, the fact that it was one of David Moyes’ chosen re-enforcements who looked so hapless in his role at the Volkswagen Arena made for a sorry caveat to a desperate night for United’s back four. The Uruguayan seemed unsure of his responsibilities and slow to respond to the changing pace of the game, two hallmarks of his former manager’s ill-fated tenure in Manchester.
The stats show that Varela succeeded with most of the tackles he attempted, but this is just as much a reflection on the youngster’s difficult night positionally as his success in winning the ball back for his team
For Wolfsburg’s second goal, the first time United had been asked a serious question down their right, Varela ended up on the ground as Andre Schurrle skipped away from him to release Julian Draxler.
A slip can happen to anyone at any time, of course, but having been dragged inside from full-back he made the decision to get tight to the former Chelsea man far too late and was hopelessly off balance by the time he’d caught up with play.
Against another opponent the slip may not have been so costly; the full-back can consider himself unfortunate to have been thrown in at the deep end against one of Europe’s most surefooted controllers of a football.
It became a pattern whenever Schurrle received the ball out wide: late in the half Varela was caught out again, leaving the German in enough space to build up a head of steam, beat the Uruguayan a second time for good measure and force Daley Blind to intercept the cross from inside the six-yard box.
With the pace of Ashley Young missing from a backline which has looked so solid in the Premier League, United’s first half became a story of Schurrle exercising his ceaseless industry against a full-back whose mind appeared pre-occupied by where on the pitch he was supposed to be standing.
The stats show that Varela succeeded with most of the tackles he attempted, but this is just as much a reflection on the youngster’s difficult night positionally as his success in winning the ball back for his team. The 22-year-old was rarely close enough to his man to be effective against Schurrle and Draxler.
The good news for Van Gaal is that Varela looked more composed going forward than he did when carrying out his defensive duties. He showed a keen eye for recognising the runs of Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata down the right, and generally delivered accurate and well-weighted passes forward in what was one of United’s more fluent attacking performances of a hitherto solid season. Varela attempted just one cross all evening, however, and that drifted aimlessly away from its target. Young, familiar with the possibilities provided by Marouane Fellaini’s aerial threat, would likely have supplied far better service from out wide.
Encouragingly for United fans, the majority of the Uruguayan's passes were played forward and over a distance of more than five yards, a marked departure from the sideways distribution that has drawn frustrated cries of “attack, attack, attack” from the Old Trafford faithful in the Premier League this term.
Change of emphasis
If this is a sign of things to come from United as the season reaches the halfway point, then in Varela Van Gaal has a player who is willing and able to participate in rapid back-to-front transitions
This new-found willingness to take risks was evident throughout the team, as demonstrated when Mata received the ball from the back and set up Anthony Martial with a slide-rule pass to give United an early lead. If this is a sign of things to come from United as the season reaches the halfway point, then in Varela Van Gaal has a player who is willing and able to participate in rapid back-to-front transitions. On another night, had the stakes been lower and the arena less electric, the youngster’s baptism might have been more gentle. Likewise, had he been part of a more experienced and settled backline, United supporters might have been able to reflect on a solid and steady debut.
Instead, the final moments brought a fitting footnote to a tough night, as Varela was booked for a desperate lunge on Marcel Schafer. The incident rather summed up the evening for Varela, who was always a yard or two behind where he should have been and will need to improve if Van Gaal is to rely upon him.