“We are improving every week and we will be better in 2015, just watch” – Louis van Gaal’s words in December 2014, just after his Manchester United side had ended the year with a draw at Tottenham Hotspur. Although the veteran couldn’t know it, he could not have been further from the truth. Despite finishing fourth back in May, Van Gaal’s side has offered supporters little over the past year other than disappointment. Having not won for eight games the Reds look to start the New Year in positive fashion with victory over struggling Swansea City on Saturday.
United’s scoreless draw against champions Chelsea showed signs of improvement, with a more free-flowing performance from Van Gaal’s side. The home side was unfortunate not to take the much-needed three points, although the improved performance was still deemed ‘not good enough’ by many of supporters leaving Old Trafford. It is an understandable reaction considering that the Reds dropped points against a side that started the day only two points above the relegation zone.
Still, the common belief that Van Gaal would be sacked by New Year’s Day has proven incorrect. The manager has held on to his job despite his team only picking up 35 points from an available 75 in the Premier League since April. In that time Van Gaal’s team has scored just 25 goals in as many games, failed to win 16 of them and drawn a blank in 11. United’s performances have been poor, with very few exceptions, and there are few signs that the outlook will be more positive any time soon.
The Reds are sixth in the Premier League having led the table in November and, worryingly, Van Gaal’s team is now level on points with Liverpool and falling behind a rampant Tottenham Hotspur side. Instead of challenging Manchester City and Arsenal for the title, the rest of the campaign is likely to be a scrap for the top four, with Leicester City showing no signs of slowing down, whilst Crystal Palace in fifth sit a point above United. Van Gaal’s side is also bottom of the form table, with three draws and three defeats in the last six league games.
Van Gaal needs a win – history suggests this is not the fixture in which United will achieve it. The Dutchman has not beaten Swansea in three attempts since arriving in Manchester. Van Gaal’s first game as Reds boss ended in a 2-1 defeat and the pattern has continued since.
Swansea is in a crisis of its own, of course, with the Welsh side having won only four of the 19 league games played this season. The Swans sacked Garry Monk after a 3-0 defeat to Leicester at the start of December, having won only once since an August victory over United. Under interim manager Alan Curtis the Swans form has improved and the team is now unbeaten in its last three. Typical, some might note, that Van Gaal’s bogey team is gathering momentum just before heading to Old Trafford.
Curtis is set to take charge of his fifth game as Swansea caretaker and midfielder Jack Cork has spoken positively of the Welshman’s impact and says the Swans are not daunted by a trip to Old Trafford. “We’ll go there with no fear and wanting to win the game,” Cork said. “We need the points”.
Despite Swansea’s improvement it is a game United should win – and yet Van Gaal does not seem his usual, confident self, defeats to the Swans seemingly having knocked the Dutchman’s bravado.
“I have lost three times against Swansea, and then you have to evaluate why you lost. It is always like that, then you continue with the same vicious circle of working,” he said. “There is no magic; it is looking at what has happened and what can improve, as a team and individually”.
Van Gaal was quick to praise supporters this week, as has become the norm, although left many confused with a claim that, December aside, 2015 has been ‘a good year’. The manager has presumably forgotten May and October, where his side recorded just two victories from a total of 10 games.
In truth both teams desperately need the points. Curtis’ side is hovering above the relegation zone, while the Reds are five points behind fourth placed Spurs.
Chris Smalling, one of United’s better players this season, has a more positive outlook than many, stressing that United is still in the hunt for Champions League qualification.
“It wasn’t long ago when we were at the top. The league is that close”, the England man said. “If you get three wins on the bounce then you can be within touching distance of the lead. Our aim is to get to the end of January and be within touching distance of the top. From there on, anything is possible.”
Like many United players this season Smalling has the right answers. The real question is whether the players can translate talk into a good performance on Saturday.
Team news and line-ups
United subs from: Romero, Jones, McNair, Borthwick-Jackson, Varela, Carrick, Fellaini, Pereira , Memphis
Swansea subs from: Nordfelt, Montero, Cork, Grimes, Emnes, Bratley, Kingsley, Rangel, Routledge, Britton.
With Van Gaal’s future seemingly secure for now the narrative for the match on Saturday is clear: win.
United’s injury crisis is easing, although long-term injured Luke Shaw, Antonio Valencia and Marcos Rojo remain on the treatment table. Saturday’s game has come too soon for Jesse Lingard, although the winger is back in training.
Elsewhere there is little reason for Van Gaal to tinker his line-up after the positive performance against Chelsea. The Dutchman is likely to continue with Ashley Young and Matteo Darmian at full-back having switched the pair to the ‘opposite’ flanks against Chelsea. Young provides a threat down the right when Juan Mata cuts inside, while the more cautious Darmian covers for Anthony Martial’s lack of tracking on the left. Daley Blind was restored to centre back alongside Smalling against the Blues and the pair was rarely troubled by Eden Hazard and co.
In midfield United looked quicker, sharper and more aggressive with Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger restored to the starting line-up. The Reds have only lost just one of the 10 games the pair has started together, and Schneiderlin’s aggression has been missed in recent weeks.
Further forward many fans were pleasantly surprised to see Ander Herrera remain in the starting line up against Chelsea. The Spaniard was poor against Stoke on Boxing Day, yet ran the game against Chelsea and was unlucky not to score. Mata continues on the right – United’s ‘false winger’ improved against Chelsea, but remains in poor form and too often slows down counter attacks. He was unlucky to hit the cross-bar against his old club and remains a genuine goal threat from midfield.
Meanwhile, Martial gave Branislav Ivanovic a torrid time last Monday. The Frenchman often beat his opponent, hit the post, and set up Herrera for a chance in one of his best performances yet in a United shirt.
Wayne Rooney continues as United’s lone striker after a stronger performance against Chelsea. The skipper was dropped against Stoke, returning against Chelsea and was, albeit dubiously, awarded man of the match. Rooney was denied a third league goal of the season by a good save from Thibaut Courtois.
The striker’s best days are well behind him and the Scouser will have to adapt his game if he is to stay at Old Trafford past the current season. Yet Rooney must also know that if his poor form continues it will hamper his chances of a place in Roy Hodgson’s England team during next summer’s European Championships.
Van Gaal is equally motivated: “We still need to win because we want to be at the end, at the top of the league and not in the middle”, he concluded.
‘Wanting it’ is not enough, of course. United must build on a positive performance against Chelsea and pick up the three points against Swansea. Failure to do so will leave Van Gaal ‘twitching his ass’ once more.
Meanwhile, Curtis rotated his squad for the last set of fixtures, but is boosted by a number of players returning to the party – notably Angel Rangel, Leon Britton, Ki Sung-Yueng, Wayne Routledge, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Andre Ayew.
Referee: John Moss
Assistants: J Collin, A Halliday
Fourth official: M Oliver
United 2-0 Swansea
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