If Louis van Gaal leaves Manchester United this summer, his two years in charge of the club will widely be considered a disappointment. Ultimately, largely underwhelming football has coupled with a distinct lack of a genuine title challenge.
One of Van Gaal’s habits across his career, however, is an impressive track record of developing young talent. He’s continually placed faith in youngsters throughout his two years at United – sometimes by choice, sometimes purely because of injuries – and in yesterday’s 1-1 at Stamford Bridge, United’s two most impressive performers were both products of their academy.
Caught on Cameron
Manchester United started the game extremely brightly, putting Chelsea on the back foot and forcing an incredible succession of corners during the first half. In this opening period, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson was particularly notable for his advanced positioning down the left, and his excellent whipped crosses which forced Chelsea’s defenders into nervous clearances.
This was an encouraging development for Manchester United, considering they’ve often played poorly in terms of width throughout this season. Borthwick-Jackson’s constant overlapping worked well with Anthony Martial, who sometimes positioned himself wide on the left touchline to receive forward passes, but also sporadically cut into inside-left positions before attempting right-footed shots.
This was a big test for Borthwick-Jackson, because he was up against Chelsea’s best attacking player, Willian. Defensively, he had some nervous moments: Willian produced a wonderful piece of skill to leave the left-back on the floor, and twice created good opportunities towards the end of the first half.
Willian leaves Borthwick-Jackson on the floor.
Borthwick-Jackson was also partly culpable for Chelsea’s equaliser, too, as Van Gaal acknowledged, putting the issue down to “Daley Blind slipping and Borthwick-Jackson not taking the line of the defence. Costa is not offside because of that.”
But the Dutchman gave the 19-year-old plenty of credit for this performance. “It was such a pity because Borthwick-Jackson was playing fantastically and I was very proud of him,” he said. Another notable feature was that the youngster was also impressive at blocking crosses when Chelsea attacked into his zone.
The other star performer was Jesse Lingard. A technical midfielder who featured in Van Gaal’s first league game in charge, he’s been in and out of the first team over the past 18 months but now seems to have nailed down a regular starting place. It’s easy to understand why – with three goals in five Premier League games, Lingard is contributing impressively in the final third.
Four years older than Borthwick-Jackson, he’s at a very different stage of his development to the left-back. The former looks immediately impressive in some aspects of his game, but also has clear weaknesses, and is a raw talent that needs refining. It takes time to fully appreciate Lingard, but the more you watch him, the more it becomes obvious that he’s simply a tidy, efficient and effective footballer, comfortable in possession and intelligent at finding space.
His drifts into narrower positions to open up space on the overlap for right-back Matteo Darmian – but more importantly, Lingard was excellent at finding space on the edge of the box, close to the ‘D’. He stuck his excellent arrowed equaliser into the top corner from that position, and all five of his attempts at goal came from a similar area.
This movement inside from wide positions has often been lacking from United this season, and Lingard rotates positions nicely with Juan Mata, who needs freedom to move laterally without robbing United of a central creator.
Lingard spoke about this concept after United’s impressive victory over Stoke in midweek, implying that Van Gaal had afforded his creative players more flexibility.
“Now we are playing with that freedom and we’ve got a lot of energy in the team, he said. “We’re mixing up the positions and entertaining the crowd. We have to do that. But it's that freedom that we have, it's a weight off our shoulders and we can just play football now.”
Van Gaal didn’t seem particularly impressed when these comments were put to him, but Lingard’s comments tally with the performances we’ve seen over the past week.
Both Borthwick-Jackson and Lingard look good bets for the future – the only question is whether Van Gaal will be around to develop them further. If not, and the Dutchman leaves United trophyless, these two – should they fulfil their potential – might turn out to be his most obvious legacy.
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