Louis van Gaal’s side gave it a real go but are miles behind the top teams, Anthony Martial can be a thrilling forward and other things learned from Wolfsburg 3 Manchester United 2

By Editor Wayne Veysey

Van Gaal is willing to lift off the shackles

United narrowly failed in their ultimate quest but they could not be accused of negativity or lack of adventure on this occasion. Red shirts poured forward one moment, white-and-green the next. The result was a dramatic, end-to-end feast. Both sides went all-out for the win from the off and the result was an uplifting occasion in keeping with United’s tradition of attacking football. Were it not for the brilliance of the two goalkeepers and some less than precise finishing, the scoreline could have been 5-4 or 6-5.

United can’t find the right balance between defence and attack

Valiant as the effort of United was tonight, and wonderful as it was to see the players un-caged by Van Gaal, the cold truth is that the Premier League giants are a long way off Europe’s elite. United have the quality and resources to safely navigate a group containing Wolfsburg, PSV Eindhoven and CSKA Moscow, and their failure to do so shows how far they have fallen since the end of the Sir Alex Ferguson era. It was wonderful to see United’s renewed attacking vigour, but they were ripped apart far too often at the back.  Van Gaal can’t find the right balance between defence and attack.

Man man: Bastian Schweinsteiger has emerged as Van Gaal's No1 midfield operator

Man man: Bastian Schweinsteiger has emerged as Van Gaal’s No1 midfield operator

Carrick’s omission is baffling

Van Gaal’s decision to overlook Ashley Young in favour of the rookie Guillermo Varela was curious enough. But the omission of Michael Carrick was totally baffling. With United needing goals and not exactly bursting with creativity in recent months, it seemed perverse to leave their best long-distance passer on the bench and recall Marouane Fellaini to partner Bastian Schweinsteiger. It did not pay immediate dividends. Fellaini made a nuisance of himself, especially in set-piece situations, but lacked composure on the ball. Within minutes of replacing Schweinsteiger midway through the second half, Carrick provided precisely that with a sumptuous pass to Martial. But Fellaini had a crucial role in the crucial equaliser when he rose at the back-post to nod down a corner and make it 2-2, courtesy of an own goal.

Martial can be an electrifying forward

The world’s most expensive teenager has had a quiet few months since his impressive early matches in a red shirt. But he rose to the occasion with a display full of menace as he benefitted from United’s most uninhibited performance for what seemed like an age. Martial put Van Gaal’s side ahead with a clinical Michael Owen-esque finish after striding on to Juan Mata’s through pass and was dangerous every time he was in possession. Martial showed that he can be an electrifying forward if his team-mates can get the ball to him with space to run into.

Crisis management: Rojo is one of the four senior United full-backs out injured

Crisis management: Rojo is one of the four senior United full-backs out injured

United’s full-backs are cursed

First Luke Shaw. Then Antonio Valencia. Then Marcos Rojo. Now, Matteo Darmian has joined the extensive list of injured United full-backs. The position is cursed. With Ashley Young omitted and Varela making his first start at right-back, Darmian had been asked to slot in at left-back. Just 40 minutes later the Italian departed the action and further questions will be raised as to why United cannot keep their players out of the treatment room.