As the old saying goes, it’s not despair, but the hope that kills you. On Tuesday night, Manchester United travelled to East London to face West Ham United with Champions League qualification on the line. The Reds needed a win to leap-frog Manchester City into fourth place with one game remaining after the Blues had come unstuck at home to Arsenal. Yet, as has so often been the case during Louis Van Gaal’s disastrous reign as United manager, his team fell apart on the big occasion. On an emotional night in East London the Hammers out-played and out-fought United in every department. It was West Ham’s last appearance at the Boleyn Ground, but in truth the home side did little more than expose United for the poorly managed, disorganised mess that the side now is.
After a largely excellent performance on United’s last visit to Upton Park many Reds, perhaps naïvely, expected Van Gaal’s team to do the business in East London. The team didn’t, and United now welcomes Bournemouth for the final league game of the season knowing that the club’s destiny is now in Manchester City’s hands. Swansea City must beat the Blues if Van Gaal’s side is to qualify for the Champions League next season. In a year when Arsenal, City and Chelsea have suffered poor campaigns, the league table – either way – is inexcusable.
The team has plenty of faults, with many players under-performing this season, while too many are simply not good enough for the self-proclaimed ‘biggest club in the world’. Yet, there is little doubt that the real villains are Van Gaal and executive vice chairman Ed Woodward.
The Dutchman’s downfall is predictable. After early good results at some of Europe’s biggest clubs a familiar script plays out. It is one where Van Gaal leaves under a cloud. History has repeated at United, with the manager creating a platform on which to build last season, only for the campaign to end in tears this time around. It remains to be seen how the story ends, with the cup final next weekend, but the man tasked with writing Van Gaal’s Old Trafford epitaph is increasingly viewed as incompetent as the manager.
Woodward’s story is less dramatic. After a successful career as an investment banker, Woodward became the parasitic right-hand-man to the Glazer family. Bringing money into the club, and the Glazers’ pockets, has become a speciality, yet it is also clear that the Essex-born executive knows too little about the game to effectively steer the club back to the top. If Van Gaal is still in the dugout come August, the blame will lie with Woodward for his refusal to sack an underachieving manager. Ego surely plays a part.
Meanwhile, Sunday’s visitors set an example as a club reaping the benefits of hiring a manager capable of inspiring his team. The south coast side has the smallest stadium in the league, holding just 11,000 fans, and with it the lowest budget, yet manager Eddie Howe has comfortably maintained his side’s top-flight status. In an unpredictable season many had bet that the Cherries would face the drop.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]It’s the hope that kills you. On Tuesday, United travelled to East London to face West Ham with Champions League qualification on the line. The Reds needed a win, but as has so often been the case during Van Gaal’s disastrous reign, his team fell apart on the big occasion. [/blockquote]
Instead, Howe has proven to be a revelation. In the longer-term many pundits believe that Old Trafford, the Emirates or the Etihad could be his home. For now, however, Howe is happy to travel to the Theatre of Dreams without pressure – Bournemouth’s Premier League safety is already guaranteed.Still, Howe manager also understand the fixture’s significance and is adamant that his side will not roll over for the Reds. Victory at Old Trafford would complete an unlikely double over United.
“It’s nice to be involved in a game that means something,” Howe said. “The last few games have been difficult for us because we have not been a team that are used to not having a competitive edge. In the last few seasons there have always been something on every game and we have become very accustomed to it and embraced the pressure.”
Howe’s side arrives in Manchester with little in the way of form. The visitors have won just once in the last two months and a leaky defence has conceded 19 goals in that period. Howe is fortunate that the home side scores few at Old Trafford, with the Reds boasting more sponsors than league goals this season. And after farcical performances at home against relegated Aston Villa, Norwich City and Newcastle United this season optimism is not high among the home support.
Van Gaal remains confident though, claiming that he expects to remain in charge next season. The jury is very much still out, although that did not stop the manager evaluating the campaign, and offering an optimistic outlook on the path ahead.
“We have to improve still. I don’t think we have to improve in our defensive organisation because we are doing well,” Van Gaal said. “We have to score more in our attacking organisation which is something I have said at the start of the season. We need creative, fast players in the attack and we have to change that.”
It’s an odd claim, with Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Memphis Depay on the books. While Van Gaal has only himself to blame for pushing the club’s most creative player, Juan Mata, to the wing. Meanwhile, Van Gaal says it’s “unrealistic to expect United to be champions” in the year that Leicester City lifted the trophy. He went on to confirm many suspicions about the philosophy: “You don’t always have to score, sometimes it is better to keep possession, ” he claimed.
The atmosphere at Old Trafford could become venomous should United put on yet another timid display. Indeed, some might think that a clear message aimed at Van Gaal has been long overdue.
Team news and line-ups
As United fans prepare to say goodbye to Old Trafford for the summer they do so hoping that it is also farewell to the manager. The Dutchman knows that the book is not yet closed on his career though. Should United win and City lose on Sunday then Van Gaal may well be given a shot at seeing out his contract, with Champions League football to look forward to. The prospect of another year with Van Gaal at the helm is enough to keep fans awake at night. Still, with the FA Cup final only a week away at least his players know that a good performance could reserve a spot at Wembley.
There is unlikely to be a wholesale change despite United’s limp defeat at West Ham. Every member of the back four disgraced themselves in some way in East London. Antonio Valencia could not live with Dimitri Payet and was often caught out of position; Chris Smalling and Daley Blind were bullied by Andy Carroll; and Marcos Rojo once again demonstrated that he is not good enough at this level. Still, injuries and match fitness restrict Van Gaal’s options: Matteo Darmian and Luke Shaw miss out through injury, while Guillermo Varela, Phil Jones, Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson have been frozen out by the Dutchman.
Van Gaal’s midfield did not perform better on Tuesday night and it would be surprising to see either Morgan Schneiderlin or Ander Herrera lining up on Sunday. Michael Carrick could be partnered by Wayne Rooney. Further forward, a half-fit Anthony Martial inspired United to a brief comeback at Upton Park, only for the back four to collapse under West Ham’s pressure. The Frenchman has been one of the few positives in an otherwise dismal campaign.
Juan Mata has provided a goal and an assist in his last two games and will occupy the attacking midfield role in the absence of Marouane Fellaini and Herrera, while Jesse Lingard could be restored to the right-wing despite some questionable behaviour during the brief attack on United’s team bus last Tuesday.
In attack Marcus Rashford continues in the wake of earning a call-up to the England squad ahead of this summer’s European Championships. Rashford will not be included in the final squad, but has been granted an opportunity to train with the national team. Alongside Martial, Rashford has carried United’s hopes since February. He has two more games to save United’s season.
Assistants: A Holmes, H Lennard
Fourth Official: G Scott
United 2-0 Bournemouth