It says something for Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United evolution that, while the club is one victory away from clear blue water at the summit of the Premier League, murmurs of discontent remain audible on the Stratford End. The Dutchman’s side is indisputably in with a shot at wining the league next May, but has become so soporific that it is, for want of a better description, alien to many supporters.
Yet, with United at table-toppers Leicester City this weekend, the discontent remains jarring. After all, logic says that United will conclude the weekend as favourites to become champions of England three years on from Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. It was – an event that sent the club into a tailspin.
Leicester, meanwhile, continues to defy the pundits and logic, having become a force for the first time since the club topped the Premier League in September 2000. Led by former non-league striker Jamie Vardy, Claudio Ranieri’s side not only leads the table by a point, but is the league’s top scoring side. The Foxes are entertainment to United’s opiate; spirited openness to the Reds’ rigid structure. And while United’s improved defensive nous means that a repeat of last season’s 5-3 defeat in the east Midlands is highly unlikely the momentum is not necessarily with Van Gaal’s side despite a nine game unbeaten streak.
The gap in quality, on paper at least, between the two sides, leaves Saturday’s fixture as one that United will surely view as a significant opportunity for progress. Indeed, Van Gaal has been open in his belief that his side can win the Premier League this season, despite a poor goal-scoring performance to date and the jeers ringing out around the Theatre of muted Dreams. Whatever United’s limitations in attack, displayed once against in the side’s bore-draw with PSV Eindhoven last Wednesday, points matter most, says the Dutchman.
“I don’t think anybody has expected [Leicester to be top], even Leicester,” Van Gaal told MUTV. “But they are deserved at number one because points are the most important thing; goals are important, but winning points is more important. The teams that is having the most of these points are ahead and it’s always like that. I have always said that the Premier League is a rat race, the difference between teams is not so big. You can win or lose against anyone, so they prove that with the results.”
That assessment is born out in the data, with the number of away wins in the top division at its highest rate – more than 30 per cent – since the Premier League era began in 1992. Van Gaal’s team has won four times on the road this season – just once fewer than Arsenal.
That record is set to be tested by Vardy, who has now scored in 10 Premier League games in succession, a run that matches Rudd van Nistelroory’s league record. The England striker was playing non-league football with Fleetwood Town less than four years ago, one of the few lower-league players to make it into a Premier League environment that is increasingly alien to players who have come up through the ranks.
“Of course it’s a big achievement,” added Van Gaal. “I had Dennis Bergkamp in my selection at Ajax and he also scored 10 goals in a row. That was amazing, and this is also amazing. Last year, Vardy scored against us – I do remember that, it was a crazy game last year and I hope we can do it better this year.”
Still, United’s campaign is built on a highly impressive defensive record, with Chris Smalling and David de Gea the club’s two outstanding performers this season. Van Gaal’s side has conceded just once in the past seven fixtures and just nine times in the league campaign to date.
“We know we can build on the strong back four, we aren’t going to concede many goals and it’s very good to be sure about a strength like this,” said French midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin. “It’s very important to start this period on top of the table and carry on building confidence before games on Boxing Day and over Christmas. If you want to win the league, you need strong foundations and a strong defence and that’s what we have. We want to take this game and win; we’ll make sure that Leicester find it difficult.”
Ranieri, meanwhile, can bask in the confidence that Leicester’s progress brings. Not bad for a manager mocked as “Tinkerman” during an ill-fated spell as Chelsea coach in the early 2000s. Back in England after a decade managing in Spain, Italy, France and Greece, Ranieri believes that his team “deserves” its moment in the spotlight, even if most pundits assume that the midlanders will fall away as the season progresses. The form and fitness of Vardy, and the outstanding Riyad Mahrez, remain key to the Foxes fortunes.
“It’s the big match of the Premier League this week. We are top of the league and in this moment we deserve this,” said Ranieri. “For us, it’s another match to see how we have to improve. When we play great teams, great champions, I have to see how our team show the tactics – how we react if we lose a goal and how we react if we score a goal.”
That’s the critical test of course: the league’s top scorers versus the most parsimonious defence. It is also an observation that brings an obvious question: why is it, with all Van Gaal’s attacking resources, that United has scored nine times fewer goal than Saturday’s hosts? It is the fact that underlies the current dichotomy between the Reds success and the supporters ire.
“We create chances and the fans want only to see us finishing the chances,” concludes Van Gaal, who has repeatedly sought to defend Wayne Rooney’s form this season. “Wayne is making area contribution to the team so I am satisfied with him.”
The captain has scored just twice in the Premier League this season.
Team news and line-ups
Van Gaal’s mini injury crisis is abating, although Phil Jones and Ander Herrera will miss the journey south. Michael Carrick is unlikely to feature, although the Geordie is back in training, while Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia are out until 2016.
“I don’t think it is weeks, but I think within two weeks one of the two can come back,” said Van Gaal of Jones and Herrea. “But I don’t know, you can never predict that, because injuries are unpredictable.”
The Dutchman is unlikely to make wholesale changes from the side that drew with PSV, although Juan Mata could come back into the team at Memphis Depay’s expense. Wayne Rooney is set to partner Anthony Martial in attack, with neither enjoying a good run of goalscoring form over the past two months. Youngster James Wilson, the only other natural striker in Van Gaal’s first team squad, has joined Brighton & Hove Albion on a season-long loan.
Vardy is fit for the hosts after overcoming a hip problem, but former United midfielder Matty James is out with a long-term knee injury.
United subs from: Leicester subs from: Schwarzer, Moore, De Laet, Chilwell, Benalouane, Wasilewski, Okazaki, King, Inler, Dyer, Ulloa, Blyth, Kramaric, Dodoo
Romero, Tuanzebe, Borthwick-Jackson, Carrick, Pereira, Fellaini, Depay, Rashford
Referee: Craig Pawson
Assistants: S Ledger, D Bryan
Fourth Official: R Madley
Leicester 0 -1 United