“Awful and horrible,” are two words that might suitably describe Manchester United at the moment, with turmoil on- and off the field continuing to dominate the headlines. I was apt that Louis van Gaal should this week use the line to describe speculation surrounding his job prospects. Few Reds will feel sympathy with the Dutchman.
On the pitch, United now lies bottom of the form table, with only five league wins in the previous 15 games, and seven in 22 in all competitions. It is a team devoid of ideas and hope. Off the pitch, Ed Woodward’s incompetence, ego and lack of football knowledge, has once again left the executive vice-chairman under scrutiny, due to a seemingly defiant refusal to remove a failing manager – or accept his resignation, if media rumours are to be believed.
On Friday night United heads to the midlands to face promotion-chasing Derby County in the FA Cup, a side the Reds haven’t faced since a fifth round tie in 2009. The score that night was 4-1 in United’s favour; few supporters are that optimistic now. Despite United’s 2016 record reading just one defeat, there is a growing feeling among supporters that the club is in permanent decline.
For weeks now a sense of disbelief has grown that the leading executive at the self-proclaimed ‘world’s biggest football club’ continues to back a manager who has amassed fewer points than David Moyes at this stage of his season in charge. Van Gaal, meanwhile, sounds beaten.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]“I am sorry that I cannot live up to the expectation of the Manchester United fans,” he said after last weekend’s home defeat to Southampton. The Dutchman remains in charge ahead of United’s fourth round tie in a competition that is quickly becoming the Reds only chance of silverware this season.[/blockquote]
Southampton’s victory was billed by many journalists as the defining moment of Van Gaal’s United career. Less than a week after a smash-and-grab victory at Anfield the onus was on the Reds to build and mount a serious challenge for the top four. Van Gaal even talked about a title bid.
Instead, what followed was another 90 minutes of aimless football, with United seemingly unable to even move the ball side-to-side effectively. Plan B was a strategy of aiming hopeless long balls at Marouane Fellaini’s chest. In truth, the visitors were little better, but had come to Old Trafford with a plan aimed at frustrating Van Gaal’s side. The reward was Charlie Austin’s late winner on début.
Looking ahead, United has only lost one of the club’s last 44 FA Cup matches against lower league opposition. In normal circumstances the team would be confident of progression despite recent performances. However, the Rams have lost just two of the team’s 14 home games this season, and manager Paul Clement is confident, declaring that a win over United on Friday would not be seen as a ‘giant killing’. Indeed, Clement knows plenty about the pressure of being the ‘giant’ in cup ties, having worked as Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant manager at some of Europe’s biggest clubs. The Welshman is supportive of Van Gaal in a difficult moment.
“When you look at the big clubs – Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Manchester United – there are very few people who can handle those jobs,” said Clement. “He is very much on that list.”
Van Gaal, meanwhile, remained in a bullish mood at his weekly media conference on Thursday. The Dutchman took a swipe at the gathered press, claiming they had ‘sacked’ him three times already this season, and would do so again if United lose on Friday. It was a cryptic and not altogether consistent message.
“I predicted that, before the game against Southampton that I cannot lose anymore because then I am then condemned for the fourth time that I have been sacked,” Van Gaal said. “Maybe you have written the truth, because sometimes it happens.”
Whatever the manager’s fate there must also be recognition of his players’ responsibility, especially the skipper Wayne Rooney. The England man was arguably United’s worst performer in the first half of the season, although he looks to have turned a corner since the New Year with five goals in as many games.
“Derby have nothing to lose. No-one is expecting them to win and they will try to cause an upset,” said Rooney.
“It will be a difficult night for us, Sheffield United at home was a tough game, so we have to be ready to battle and win the battle. Hopefully then our qualities will show through.”
Indeed, the captain will have to be at his best on Friday night if the team is to overcome an opponent that has consistently demonstrated a readiness for the Premier League.
Team news and line-ups
Derby subs from: Grant, Bryson, Hendrick, Russel, Baird, Johnson, Shotton
United subs from: Romero, McNair, Tuanzebe, Fellaini, Carrick, Lingard, Pereira, Keane
With Van Gaal seemingly on the brink, and United hopelessly out of touch in the title race, the narrative of Friday’s match is clear: a win will save Van Gaal his job, and keep the Reds in the hunt for a trophy. Defeat and the pressure may become unbearable.
Van Gaal’s luck on the injury front shows no sign of improving, with Matteo Darmian, Ashley Young, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Phil Jones all joining long-term absentees Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo and Antonio Valencia on the treatment table. Darmian, Schweinsteiger and Jones are all expected back next week, while Michael Carrick should be fit enough to make the bench.
In defence, Van Gaal has little option but to go with the youthful Guillermo Varela and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson in the full back positions. Both have performed well when this season, particularly at Anfield where Borthwick-Jackson stood out in a hostile atmosphere. Chris Smalling and Daley Blind will continue at centre back, with the pair having looked comfortable playing together this season.
In midfield Morgan Schneiderlin was one of few United players to come away from the game against Southampton with any credit. He is expected to partner Ander Herrera, who could take up a deeper role aimed at unlocking a packed Derby midfield.
Further forward Adnan Januzaj is in line for his first start for United since his return from Germany after impressing last week for the under-21s. Juan Mata will move into his favoured number 10 position allowing Rooney to take up a role as United’s lone striker. Memphis Depay may be involved from the start after a poor performance from an overworked Anthony Martial at the weekend. The Frenchman is due a rest and Van Gaal may have one eye on Tuesday night’s game against Stoke City.
“You make your stories and people believe it,” concluded Van Gaal on Thursday. “I am concerned the people are believing it.”
Should Derby win, Ed Woodward may come to recognise why so many United supporters are angry with the manager. Until then the ‘fallen giant’ clichés will persist a little longer.
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Assistant Referees: Peter Kirkup & David Bryan
Fourth Official: Stephen Martin
Derby 1-1 United