In keeping with the spirit of the season, Manchester United’s campaign is starting to resemble a pantomime, with Louis van Gaal playing the villain. The Dutchman remains at the helm despite overseeing a run of seven games without a victory – the team’s longest winless streak since January 1990.
United’s Boxing Day defeat at Stoke City was one of the worst United performances in recent memory, with United suffering from a combination of poor tactics, a lack of leadership and little desire on the pitch. Van Gaal appeared a broken man as he trudged off on Saturday, waving to the travelling fans who, despite the limp performance, applauded the team throughout the misery.
The question remains as to where the manager goes from here. Van Gaal already knows that anything other than a win against Chelsea will probably seal his fate, although the truth is the damage has already been done. The Reds now lie sixth in the Premier League table, having won less than half of the team’s games this season. And with each defeat United’s title chances look less likely, albeit with Leicester City and Arsenal losing on Boxing Day the Reds are still in with an outside chance.
The truth is that the second half of the season could very well become a scrap for fourth place. This is not the story fans expected after seeing Van Gaal and Ed Woodward shell out almost £250 million on new talent over the past 18 months. In fact defeat to Chelsea on Monday could see the Reds slip to 10th – an unthinkable situation when Van Gaal became manager.
Chelsea, meanwhile, remains in a crisis of its own. The champions’ disastrous start to the season ended with Jose Mourinho being fired and replaced by Guus Hiddink on a temporary basis. The Blues have lost nine games already this season and amassed just 19 points from 18 games. Chelsea’s longest unbeaten streak has come in the two games since Mourinho’s departure.
This is not how it is supposed to be when United play Chelsea. After all, the two clubs have been the most successful in the Premier League over the past 10 years, sharing the trophy eight times since the 2005/06 season, not to mention the five Champions League final appearances the two clubs have made between them in that time.
United is a shadow of the side that last won the Premier League and many supporters cannot see where the next three points will come from, particularly with tricky games against Swansea City, Newcastle United, Liverpool and Southampton coming up in January. Chelsea, meanwhile, has broken the record for making the worst ever start to a campaign after winning the title the season before. All set up for a classic encounter then.
“Every Chelsea versus Manchester United game is big but this one is especially of course,” said an optimistic Hiddink. “I hope we can show the same ambition there that we showed in a big part of this game [against Watford]”
The combination of Chelsea’s resurgence and a confident Hiddink doesn’t bode well for United. Chelsea has often been a bogey team for the Reds and the Blues are playing with more freedom and attacking flair since Mourinho’s departure. The visitors also possess United’s biggest weakness – pace. Indeed, United’s defence couldn’t deal with Stoke’s front four on Saturday, where the home side interchanged positions and ran in behind all afternoon.
Van Gaal was not his usual self in his post match press conference at the Britannia on Boxing Day. “It is not always the club that has to fire or sack me,” he said. “Sometimes I do that by myself.” It was the first time the Reds manager has resorted defeatism in front of the press, although he went on to say that he had the full support of board and his players.
On the Stoke game Van Gaal admitted his team was poor: “We have lost the game in the first 45 minutes because we didn’t dare to play our football.” That, however, is part of the problem and it remains to be seen if the United players will indeed “stick together” and come through this patch with Van Gaal at the helm. Rumours persist that the manager had only two games to save his job before Stoke.
Michael Carrick was one of few players to brave the media after United’s Boxing Day defeat. Like most of the team, the midfielder had a poor game on Saturday, although he realises the challenge his team faces.
“It’s Manchester United we are playing for, it’s a special club and it’s a privilege to play,” said the Geordie. “We need to do better, it’s as simple as that.”
The England midfielder, along with Wayne Rooney, reportedly challenged Van Gaal at the start of the season, airing the players’ concerns over the standard of training and match tactics.
“We have got another game quickly to get ourselves ready for and we have got to stand up and be ready for that,” he added.
Team news and line-ups
United subs from: Romero, McNair, Borthwick-Jackson, Darmian, Carrick, Fellaini, Herrera, Lingard, Pereira, Memphis.
Chelsea subs from: Begovic, Azpilicueta, Cahill, Mikel, Ramires, Pedro, Falcao, Loftus-Cheek, Kenedy.
The narrative surrounding this match is clear: can United bounce back or will Monday be the last time Van Gaal walks out at Old Trafford?
Hiddink has to make do without the suspended Diego Costa, although Eden Hazard could return to the starting line-up after making the bench in the Blues’ draw with Watford.
Van Gaal is still in the midst of a minor injury crisis at United. Matteo Darmian could be available on Monday and Bastian Schweinsteiger returns after serving a three-match ban for violent conduct. United remains without long-term absentees Marcos Rojo, who was spotted with the away fans on boxing day, Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia. There has been no word on Jesse Lingard’s injury.
Ashley Young suffered a torrid time at right-back against Marko Arnautovic at the weekend, leaving the spot open for Guillermo Varela or Darmian to start at right back. Phil Jones, so shaky against Stoke, will continue alongside Chris Smalling, with few options available due to injuries, while Daley Blind starts at left-back for the third game in a row.
In midfield Schweinsteiger should return. The German’s control of the game has been impressive since the summer and United will need somebody to dictate the game against a strong Chelsea midfield. Morgan Schneiderlin could partner the German after some poor performances from Carrick and Marouane Fellaini in recent matches. There is a strong case for Ander Herrera to start every game in United’s midfield, but the Spaniard was also poor at Stoke is likely to be dropped by Van Gaal.
Elsewhere, Memphis Depay was at fault for Stoke’s first goal and was anonymous before being hooked at half-time. The Dutchman could be dropped with Ashley Young returning to his favoured left-wing position, while Juan Mata will continue on the right with few alternative options available. The Spain international has now gone over 800 minutes without scoring or assisting a goal and his role in the team is under threat if Lingard is deemed fit enough to start.
Wayne Rooney will likely return to the starting line-up after being dropped for United’s Boxing Day defeat at Stoke. The captain was rightly benched, but put in a more positive performance when he was brought on for Memphis at half-time. Despite being largely anonymous against Stoke Anthony Martial remains United’s biggest threat – and Van Gaal cannot afford to rest the Frenchman with his job on the line.
“The circumstances now play a bigger role and will in the next game also. We have to cope with that and look for the solution,” Van Gaal concluded.
He’s not wrong – if Van Gaal’s players do not find the solution the club could start 2016 looking for a new manager.
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistants: M Mullarkey, S Child
Fourth Official: M Dean
United 1-1 Chelsea