Well that was the end of that – an 11 match unbeaten run ended by Southampton’s determined victory at Old Trafford last weekend. It brought Louis van Gaal’s record to 37 points in 21 games; a record identical to his supine predecessor David Moyes. Worse still, the Scot’s record against the same teams last season earned a point more than Van Gaal in similar fixtures.
Or in other words, Van Gaal’s storied reputation remains the insulating factor between the Dutchman and the downpour of criticism that eventually broke Moyes’ spirit. After all, the extended unbeaten run always masked a less palatable truth; that United’s vintage under Van Gaal has been every bit as insipid as that deployed by Moyes. United’s inability to register a shot on target against Southampton said much for the work yet to come if the club harbours ambitions to become England’s preeminent force once again.
The genuine curiosity in this is not the time taken to turn United around, despite the headlines drawn by the club’s £150 million summer spend, but real absence of an obvious strategy for improvement. Van Gaal’s much vaunted philosophy is no clearer six months into the role than it was last July when the Dutchman walked into the job.
None of this predicates Van Gaal’s failure of course. The 62-year-old’s record at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and with the Dutch national team suggests that he will make a success of the challenge, integrating new talent alongside an anticipated clear-out next summer.
In the here-and-now, however, the Dutchman is slowly facing up to greater scrutiny. This is true of the repetitive tactical metamorphosis, but especially of an attacking unit that has scored just once in the past three league fixtures.
“You can see we have not created too many chances in the last three matches but, before that, we played at Tottenham and we had six big chances with the same system,” the manager told MUTV.
“It’s always dependable on the opponents also but I have to say, in the last phase of our attack, we’ve failed in the last pass and that is the most important pass. I hope we shall improve that in the coming matches.”
That break down in the final phase has come whatever combination of attacking players; Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Angel di Maria contributing fewer assists between them than Cesc Fareham this season. Meanwhile, one of last season’s few attacking successes, Adnan Januzaj, remains an outcast. The Belgian failed to make United’s matchday squad last weekend.
Whether Radamel Falcao, another underperforming star name, plays a leading part as the season concludes is still open to question, although the Colombian could return to the United’s starting line-up following Robin van Persie’s injury. Falcao missed out on the squad altogether against Southampton – a humiliating demotion that led to more than half of Van Gaal’s Friday press-conference dominated by questions about the 28-year-old’s future.
That Falcao has scored just three in 13 appearances this season adds weight to an increasingly popular thesis that one of the world’s finest attacking players was permanently blunted by the cruciate knee injury suffered last season. Certainly, Van Gaal has little time for Falcao’s past if his future does not include a greater contribution to United’s cause.
“He has to prove himself, that we have agreed,” said Van Gaal. “We have made this deal and everything is clear and it is not the end of the year so he has the chance for that. If a player costs 95 million or 5,000 it’s not any difference for me. You have to prove yourself. A player of £95 million has to prove himself also.”
Van Persie remains a doubt with a minor ankle problem, but Rafael and Marcos Rojo could play following minor injuries. Ashley Young is the only United player definitely out of the match at Loftus Road.
The largely fit squad offers Van Gaal the opportunity to switch to a back four at Loftus Road after the curious 3-3-2-2 system deployed at home to Southampton. It has been rare that the Dutchman’s side has impressed when deployed in a back three this season and defeat such as that suffered on Sunday might ordinarily point to a change in direction. Not that Van Gaal has ever followed an obvious pattern in team selection this season.
In the opposite dugout Harry Redknapp is without defender Armand Traore because of a toe injury, with Sandro and Yun Suk-Young also sidelined. Niko Kranjcar has recovered from a thigh complaint and could make the bench. Former United defender Rio Ferdinand has recovered from a groin injury but is not fit enough to start.
Redknapp remains bullish despite a run of form that has left the west London side without victory since 20 December and just two points of the bottom. If nothing else, striker Charlie Austin provides hope. The Englishman has scored eight goals in his last seven Premier League matches matches at Loftus Road.
“We’ll have a right go tomorrow, for sure,” said Redknapp on Friday. “We’ll get at them as best we can and really take the game to them.
“I love football – and games like this is what it’s all about. “I’m excited about playing United at Loftus Road. They’ve spent some serious money and they’ve got a great squad of players and a top manager. But we are at home and we’ve played very well in front of our own supporters this year. We’ve shown what we can do at Loftus Road and our results have been good.”
Still, the omens could hardly be much worse for the former Tottenham Hotspur manager. Aside from secure just 11 points from the past 30 his side has allowed more shots against them than any other side in the Premier League.
It’s a trait that even United’s gun-shy forward line should exploit. Van Gaal certainly needs it.
QPR (4-5-1): Green; Isla, Dunne, Caulker, Hill; Vargas, Henry, Barton, Fer, Taarabt; Austin
United (4-1-2-1-2): de Gea; Rafael, Jones, Evans, Shaw; Carrick; Di Maria, Blind; Rooney; Wilson, Falcao
QPR: Traore, Phillips, McCarthy, Onuoha, Mutch, Zamora, Zárate
United: Valdes, Lindegaard, Smalling, Valencia, McNair, Rojo, Blackett, Anderson, Pereira, Fellaini, Januzaj, Herrera
QPR 13 – Draw 33 – United 52
Referee: Neil Swarbrick
Assistants: S Ledger, E Smart
Fourth Official: C Pawson
QPR 0-2 United
£1 bet club
Wilson to score first @ 9/2
Running total: £(-)11