Supporters waited years for an FA Cup draw against a lower league club and then two come along all at once. After dispatching Yeovil Town in the third round, with a little difficulty it has to be said, Louis van Gaal’s side faces League Two outfit Cambridge United under the Friday night lights in East Anglia. It is a game Van Gaal’s side simply must win.
Having faced Premier League opposition in the FA Cup nine times in succession prior to Yeovil it might be tempting to view Friday’s game as a bye into the fifth round. After all, there are 76 places between the mid-table League Two outfit and Champions League hunting United. The reality, as Van Gaal’s men discovered in Somerset earlier this month, is somewhat different. Not least because the Dutchman is likely to make more than a half-dozen changes to a side that is already struggling for fluency.
The match at the Abbey Stadium is also critical to the narrative surrounding United’s season. Absent from Europe, out of the Capital One Cup and some 12 points behind Premier League leaders Chelsea, the FA Cup remains United’s sole route to silverware this season. It is tempting to conclude that the Cup is more important to the club than at any time in the past decade.
Yet, Van Gaal’s story has gone just a touch sour in recent weeks following a disappointing festive period in which United dropped six points away from Old Trafford. Then came defeat at home to Southampton a fortnight ago. It was United’s second home reverse of the campaign and perhaps the first occasion on which Van Gaal’s critics emerged in force.
In truth there is something just a little meta in the critique. Pundits, so long quieted by Van Gaal’s outstanding record and natural gravitas, finally have some ammunition in the Dutchman’s persistent use of a 3-4-1-2 system that has so rarely performed this season. Not just in the media either. Supporters’ call for Untied to “attack, attack, attack” at Queens Park Rangers on Saturday was followed by the demand for a switch to a more traditional “4-4-2” system.
Little wonder some, who have been so reluctant to criticise United under the new manager, now openly question the Dutchman’s approach.
“They play out from the back but the tempo is too slow. Far too often they are keeping possession and passing it backwards. They’ve become quite predictable in the past few weeks,” said former United defender Gary Neville on Saturday.
“Louis van Gaal wants them to recycle the ball and switch the play. I’m not a fan of 3-5-2 because the centre-backs are the free men and they become the safe option. United looked far more dangerous on Saturday when they changed the system.”
Indeed, the three-man system has only intermittently looked fluent this season – and only really when midfielder Michael Carrick has been deployed as a central defender. The knock on is to limit United’s ability to retain possession in midfield. It is a circle that Van Gaal, for all his supposed brilliance, is yet to square.
The Dutchman retreated onto the defensive this week, claiming that he cannot “please 600 million fans.” Yet, it will be a team sheet of greater interest than normal against Cambridge, with supporters and critics waiting to see if the former Barcelona manager uses a three-man defence or retains the back four that finished last weekend’s victory over QPR.
The data supports a change too, with Van Gaal’s side having scored more goals, secured more wins and averaged more points using a back four this season.
Yet, the system, however controversial among fans, is one the players appear to back. Despite the mixed results this season Van Gaal is far from losing the dressing room as David Moyes did around this time a year ago.
“This is what the manager wants and I agree with it,” said midfielder Daley Blind. “I don’t think the whole philosophy of the club has changed. If you have played another system for a long time then you have to get used to a new one, but that is not a problem.
“There are games when we are doing it very well and games when we can do it better, but I feel we are improving. It doesn’t happen overnight but the players are comfortable in the system. The people on television can say what they want.”
Aside from the tactical make-up United will hand a début to former Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes, while youngsters Patrick McNair, James Wilson, Adnan Januzaj and Tyler Blackett could all feature. Blind, together with Marcos Rojo, could also play, with both needing minutes. Carrick is expected to drop to the bench, while Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney could be rested, but Luke Shaw and Robin van Persie are available. Jonny Evans, Ashley Young and Chris Smalling missed the game through injury.
Meanwhile, Cambridge manager Richard Money is confident ahead of Friday’s game, not least after his side thumped Newport Town 4-0 last weekend. The club lies in mid-table, but is on an upward trajectory after securing promotion to League Two from the Conference last season. Money, who is a former Liverpool player, says his team is ready to take advantage of any complacency in the visiting dressing room.
“I hope they come to the game full of optimism,” Money said. “I hope they come to the game with some belief that Friday can be the one in one hundred days that we can cause an upset. We want everyone to embrace the evening and an opportunity to showcase not just the football club, but the city.
“We won two trophies last year. We’ve got a group of players that know what it means to win. We’ve been lucky that two trips to Wembley last year has given us some kind of thought process as to what might happen and what needs to be done. I’ve got absolutely no doubts that they will play well Friday night.”
One Cambridge player looking forward to the game more than most is 34-year-old former United winger Luke Chadwick. The Cambridge-born player appeared on 25 occasions for United between 1999 and 2004, scoring two goals before going on to play for West Ham United and Milton Keynes Dons, among others.
Chadwick, who has appeared 14 times for Cambridge this season, watched the draw with his family earlier this month.
“I’d just been to mums to get my hair cut and I came home and watched it with the Mrs and the kids,” Chadwick told MUTV. “It was the only two numbers we took notice of. When it came out, we were happy at first to be at home and then when Man United came out it was bedlam in the house. The kids were going crazy. It was a great, great draw.”
That’s a sentiment to which Van Gaal will agree only if United emerge victorious. Given the Dutchman’s struggle to balance attacking and defensive imperatives this season there are no guarantees, although the critics really will enjoy significant ammunition if United’s veteran manager doesn’t get this one right.
Cambridge (4-4-2): Dunn; Tait, Taylor, Coulson, Nelson; Donaldson, Champion, Hughes, McGeehan; Elliott, Bird
United (4-3-1-2): Valdes; Rafael, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Fellaini, Blind, Di Maria; Mata; Wilson, Falcao
Cambridge: Norris, Miller, Hunt, Dunk, Simpson, Bird, Chiedozie, Chadwick
United: De Gea, Lindegaard, Valencia, McNair, Blackett, Anderson, Pereira, Herrera, Januzaj, Van Persie
Cambridge 0 – Draw 1 – United 1
Referee Christopher Foy
Assistant Referees: Stephen Child & Darren Cann
Fourth Official: James Adcock
Cambridge 1-3 United
£1 bet club
Wilson to score twice @ 7/2
Running total: £(-)12