It is far from the narrative that Louis van Gaal seeks: criticism from supporters, pundits and ex-Manchester United players about his team’s style as well as its substance. After all, the Dutchman has guided United to just one defeat in the past 18 matches – a record that, had it not included eight draws, might have United challenging for the Premier League title. As is it, United remains locked in a five-way battle for European football next season – and Van Gaal is increasingly on the defensive.
Respite, albeit brief, comes in the FA Cup, with United facing a lower division club for the third successive round. Van Gaal’s side struggled to beat Yeovil Town and Cambridge United in earlier rounds, with Preston North End no more likely to provide a walkover this time around. Supporters expect victory on Monday night, of course, but whether the Dutchman is able to bring a degree of cohesion to an attacking unit that has been largely sterile during that 18-match run remains a key question.
The accusation that Van Gaal has developed a ‘long ball game’ came at West Ham United, where Sam Allardyce drew a bizarre and unnecessary reaction from the Dutchman in the wake of United’s last-gasp draw in east London last weekend. That performance also brought a stinging rebuke from former United midfielder Paul Scholes.
“United’s history was built on attacking football, which does not always mean that the team kept clean sheets or did not concede chances,” said the player who appeared on 718 occasions for United. “Why do you think United have had some of the best goalkeepers in the world over the years? They needed them because the team committed so many players forward. At the moment I’m struggling to watch Van Gaal’s team with any great enjoyment.”
It was perhaps worse at home to Burnley in midweek, where United won but the visitors deserved so much more for a vibrant attacking performance that was in stark contrast to United’s recent approach. Then, amid the sterility, there is anything but tactical cohesion. Eight months into the job, Van Gaal is seemingly far from finding the balance that his philosophy demands.
“I have played five or six systems and I am looking still for the balance,” admitted the former Barcelona manager this week, who has switched to a 4-4-2 diamond in recent weeks.
“This system is more attractive than normally and I can play with more attacking players. In spite of the fact that we are looking for the balance, our results are not bad and our defensive organisation is not bad. So, I cannot say that I am very disappointed about that.”
Preston offers Van Gaal’s men the chance to progress in the only tournament United stands a realistic chance of claiming. Perhaps equally important, in the current atmosphere, is for the Dutchman’s side to put on a real show. Not that Van Gaal is tempted to talk up the chances of an open, attacking game.
“It’s always the same because you know the world is for the underdog and we have to play away under the same circumstances as at Cambridge or Yeovil,” said Van Gaal.
“You know that they play more or less with two rows of four and a striker who is dropping in, as did Cambridge and Yeovil and also for example Queens Park Rangers and Burnley. It is always difficult to play against a defending team.
On the pitch Van Gaal is unlikely to risk Phil Jones, who departed after only a few minutes against Burnley. Daley Blind could be involved, but Michael Carrick has suffered a setback in his rehabilitation is will not be available. If Blind does not feature hen Wayne Rooney could continue in a more defensive role. The Scouser finished United’s victory over Burnley sitting in front of the back four.
Van Gaal reserved praise for second-half substitute Ander Herrera, who again brought balance and energy to United’s midfield, although there is no guarantee that the Basque will feature. United’s manager has normally prefer Rooney, Juan Mata and, recently, Adnan Januzaj in deeper roles this season.
Meanwhile, Preston manager Simon Grayson, is without cup-tied Daniel Johnson while goalkeeper Sam Johnstone cannot play against his parent club. Thorsten Stuckmann takes over in goal, with Calum Woods and Callum Robinson also in the match-day squad. However, former Leeds United striker Jermaine Beckford, who scored in the FA Cup at Old Trafford in 2010, is out injured.
Preston has enjoyed a positive season under Grayson, with the Lilywhites chasing promotion to the Championship. With 16 games remaining Grayson’s side is within four points of automatic promotion after missing out in last season’s play-offs.
“We’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain, and that is what we’ll do,” said Grayson of United’s visit on Monday night.
“We’ll go and enjoy playing against some of the best players in the world – fantastic atmosphere, massive profile for the football club and a tie we’re looking forward to and should enjoy. We’ll do ourselves justice, but what we’ve done is focus on the last two league games and getting results and performances.”
That freedom seemingly liberated both Cambridge and Yeovil in previous rounds. Or, in contrast, inhibited United’s performance. It took the late entry of Angel Di Maria at Yeovil to secure victory, while Cambridge enjoyed a huge payday in embarrassing United at the Abbey Stadium to earn a replay. For Van Gaal it remains a difficult task no matter how many places between the sides on Monday.
“You know the world is against you, the environment is against you because everyone is with the underdog,” said Van Gaal. “It is difficult to accept but it’s like that. But the chance that you can survive is higher because you are playing against lower qualities. But you have to beat the team with better motivation and in the atmosphere where everyone is against you.”
Fail at Preston and Van Gaal may find more of his own on the turn – not just the former players. It is the thin line the Dutchman treads this season.
Preston (3-5-2): Stuckmann; Clarke, Huntington, Wright; Wiseman, Welsh, Kilkenny, Laird, Gallagher; Davies, Garner.
United (4-1-3-2): Valdes; McNair, Smalling, Rojo, Shaw; Blind; Herrera, Rooney, Di Maria; Wilson, Falcao
Preston: Humphrey, Buchanan, Reid, King, Ebanks-Blake, Woods, Robinson
United: De Gea, Evans, James, Blackett, Valencia, Januzaj, Young, Fellaini, Pereira, Van Persie
Preston 22 – Draw 22 – United 31
Referee: Philip Dowd
Assistant Referees: Michael Mullarkey & David Bryan
Fourth Official: David Webb
Preston 1-3 United
£1 bet club
1-3 @ 12/1
Running total: £(-)8.50