It is hard to believe that it was only a few weeks ago that Manchester United fans, along with the club’s manager, had conceded defeat in the race for Champions League football. United’s loss at Sunderland left the Reds six points off Manchester City in fourth place, with the Blues having played a game less. Rumours circulated that Louis van Gaal was close to the sack and that José Mourinho had a gentleman’s agreement with the Reds to take over. Fast forward three weeks and none of that has happened, yet. Van Gaal remains United’s manager and has guided his side to within touching distance of City. Game on.
Goal difference is all that separates the two Manchester clubs now, who look set to play out the rest of the season battling for the top four. Few would have predicted that outcome when Pep Guardiola was announced as City’s new manager on transfer deadline day in January.
Van Gaal’s side travels to West Brom on Sunday in the best form since March 2015, where six blistering performances secured Champions League football. Van Gaal is looking to repeat history, with his team still to play three of the four sides above United before the end of the season.
Could Van Gaal still deliver Champions League football next season? Don’t bet against it, although there is still an open question whether it will be the Dutchman leading the team out next season. Many take the view that too much damage has already been done, while whispers persist that United’s hierarchy has already made the decision to change the manager in the summer. Despite an upturn in results uncertainty remains at Old Trafford – fitting in the most uncertain Premier League season of all time.
United has lost just three times in 2016 to date, although of the 14 games played this year, only three have come against sides in the top eight. In other words – not too much can be read into improved results on the basis that United should be winning comfortably anyway. Still, Van Gaal looks rejuvenated, his team is playing with freedom after the Dutchman finally removed the shackles and, bizarrely, his team is benefiting from long-term injuries to ‘key players’.
It is worth noting that United’s improved performances have coincided with injuries to Marouane Fellaini, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Wayne Rooney. While Fellaini is still viewed as a lost cause, and it baffles as to why Van Gaal picks the Belgian so regularly, Rooney and Schweinsteiger have been included in the starting team on a more logical basis. Yet, yet the England and Germany captains have often been at the root of United’s poor attacking performances, with Schewinsteiger in particular slowing the team down. The Fußball Meister will be welcomed back given the number of injuries in United’s squad, but the German’s injury means that Van Gaal has finally stumbled on his best midfield pairing in Ander Herrera and Morgan Schneiderlin. Schweinsteiger may find it difficult to get back into the side.
The same cannot be said of Rooney, who will certainly return to Van Gaal’s team in the coming weeks. Rooney’s injury has paved the way for Juan Mata to start at 10 – and shine in his favourite position. Meanwhile, Memphis Depay has also seized his opportunity on the left. Rooney’s ‘special privileges’ means that when he returns Mata will be shifted back to the right and Memphis will almost certainly drop to the bench. Despite the upturn in results Van Gaal remains a manager who does not budge on his philosophy and has rarely learned from his mistakes. Few will shed a tear for the Dutchman if he leaves the club this summer.
Meanwhile, West Brom has traded the club’s ‘yo-yo status’ for mid-table mediocrity; neither under the threat of relegation nor challenging for Europe. The Baggies must be one of the most frustrating teams to support in the league. Yet Tony Pulls’ team has a reputation for raising its game against the top sides.
“We have looked a threat going forward, which is good and hopefully we can be a threat again on Sunday,” Pulis said. “We have to maintain it, we are still four points short of what everybody wants and we have to get their as quickly as we can.”
Still, Pulis’ record against United remains poor, having lost 11 of his last 13 games against the Reds. Not that Van Gaal can afford complacency. The Dutchman’s side has gotten away with being poor this season remains fortunate to be in the hunt for Champions League places. The Dutchman thinks it is possible, although seemed unusually cautious in his pre match press conference on Friday.
“We have to go step by step,” Van Gaal said. “We now have four victories in a row, which is fantastic, but we have a very small selection at the moment. Players are coming back, but I still have to solve a problem in my line up every week.”
Van Gaal has been unlucky with injuries, although the way his younger players have seemingly save his job, perhaps the manager should be grateful instead.
Team news and line-ups
Subs from: Myhill, Anichebe, McClean, Gamboa, Lambert, Pritchard, Sandro
Subs from: Romero, McNair, Blind, Carrick, Valencia, Fellaini, Pereira, Rashford
With the playing squad at City seemingly focused on Guardiola’s arrival, Van Gaal will not have a better opportunity of overthrowing one of the current top four. United must win most of the remaining 11 games to comprehend finishing higher than fifth.
Injuries once again dominate Van Gaal’s selection, although the manager gave positive updates on Fellaini and Antonio Valencia this week, stating that both have trained and are close to a return. With Matteo Darmian fit again and playing for the final 30 minutes on Wednesday night the Italian will come back in at full-back. It may allow Van Gaal to rest Daley Blind, a player described as being “in the red zone,” with Marcos Rojo a candidate to partner Tim Fosu-Mensah at centre-back.
Blind suffered his poorest game for United on Wednesday night, although he has played more than any other United player this season. Rojo’s shift to the centre means Darmian will play left-back, with Guillermo Varela keeping his place on the right after four impressive performances on the bounce.
In midfield, Michael Carrick was rested for Watford’s visit so is an option, although Van Gaal would be foolish to break up the Herrera-Schneiderlin pairing that has brought his best results this season. Schneiderlin was again excellent on Wednesday night and is slowly showing why United paid nearly £30 million for the Frenchman in the summer. Herrera, meanwhile, compliments Schneiderlin perfectly, allowing the Spaniard to float in between the lines and start attacks. It is testament to Van Gaal’s naivety and arrogance that he has discovered his best midfield by accident.
Further forward, Jesse Lingard was rested for the midweek game against Watford and should return for Sunday. United missed the winger’s off-the-ball movement and the Englishman will be looking forward to testing himself against a particularly slow Albion defence. At number 10, Juan Mata is proving supporters and pundits right, and his manager wrong, with a series of excellent performances in his favoured role. The team has been far more pleasing to watch since the Spaniard’s move inside and the stand-in skipper has scored a respectable eight goals this season. Only Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial can boast more.
On the left Memphis can build on his recent positive performances. The Dutch winger suffered a relatively poor game against Watford, although a vulnerable Albion back-four will represent a good opportunity to put that right. Marcus Rashford has been a revelation for the Reds since he was brought in for United’s game against Midtjylland. The 18-year-old will play plenty of football between now and the end of the season and could be rested for the trip south. Too much, too young can lead to unwanted injuries, meaning Martial could return to his favourite number 9 position after an indifferent display on the right-wing against Watford.
West Brom 1-2 United
Referee: Mike Dean
Assistants: S Long, S Bennett
Fourth official: S Attwell