In time Louis van Gaal will preside over far more important matches than Manchester United’s 5-3 defeat at Leicester City in September. There will, presumably, be title deciding games, trophies and glory along the way before the 62-year-old leaves Old Trafford – richer and more successful than when he started. That, at least, is the hope. But in the narrative of a campaign that is only moderately successful, and even less entertaining, the Reds’ defeat in the Midlands last year is central. So important, in fact, that it has driven Van Gaal’s strategy for months.
Nigel Pearson’s side thumped United 5-3 at the King Power Stadium after Van Gaal’s outfit had opened up a 3-1 lead. The defensive chaos that ensued, even before Tyler Blackett’s dismissal for a professional foul, has shaped the Dutchman’s thinking in the intervening months. No longer visible is the relatively free-flowing football of the late summer. Instead, United has retreated into a shell, keen to develop the security of a three-man defensive system rather than gamble on creating chances up front. It is for some just not the ‘United way’.
Van Gaal’s perspective is different of course. The Dutchman has spent a season searching for balance between the attacking and defensive sides of his squad’s game – hampered in no small part by a persistently high level of injury. Yet, even as absences have abated, the Dutchman has settled on a largely conservative game; one that has contributed to a run of just one defeat in 14 matches and the third best defensive record in the league. It is also a strategy that has brought little genuine entertainment along the way.
“It is true we have not been scoring enough goals, but there is a reason for that,” added Van Gaal.
“We have been playing teams who put 10 men behind the ball and make space very narrow. We are working to increase our ball speed, the speed of our passing, to try and counteract that.
“I thought we played a very cultured game against Southampton, we were the better team and created several chances, but we didn’t take them. Southampton had one chance and took it. That can be hard to take but that’s football.
“I know that goals are what the fans enjoy the most. We have a lot of attractive players in our squad but we have to score more goals.”
Leicester’s arrival on Saturday is a reminder of the campaign’s turning point and a test of Van Gaal’s thinking now that his squad is almost completely fit. Is the Dutchman prepared to throw his trust behind a back four and diamond midfield that has on occasion sparkled this season? Or even a more attacking mindset.
The Dutchman’s cause is not helped by a fresh injury to Michael Carrick – the Geordie set to miss a month with a muscle rupture. Carrick is the only absentee in Van Gaal’s squad though, with Ashley Young now back in training.
“We don’t have many injuries,” confirmed the Dutchman. “Ashley Young is coming back, but Michael Carrick has been injured now so he is out at the weekend. He can be important for the team but he is now injured. I think it shall take more than four weeks, so it is not a minor injury. I have to say that’s part of the job of a manager, especially this season at Manchester United, because we have suffered a lot of injuries.”
Elsewhere, Van Gaal set to restore Luke Shaw to left-back with Daley Blind moving into midfield alongside Marouane Fellaini and Angel Di Maria. Despite positive performances against Cambridge United in the FA Cup it is likely that Ander Herrera and Adnan Januzaj will remain on the bench for the Premier League campaign.
One man unlikely to feature is Darren Fletcher after he travelled to London this week to conclude a deal with West Ham United. Although named one of United’s vice captains this season, Fletcher has started just five games in all competitions. The last was a disastrous showing against Yeovil Town in the FA Cup third round.
Fletcher has been at the club for more than 15 years, appearing on 342 occasions and scoring 24 goals. Although struck with a serious bowel condition over the past three years, the Scot fought back from months out of the game to reestablish himself in the United first team squad over the past 18 months.
“He is now at West Ham so we have to wait and see,” added Van Gaal on Friday.
“He is an important guy in the dressing room. I like him as a person and as a human being so we shall miss him. But he hasn’t played so many times and that is always the main goal of a player. We have talked about that and he preferred to play. It is a loss and, for the club that buys him, he is another player with a lot of quality – as a midfielder, but also as a captain.”
Meanwhile, Pearson’s side arrives in the midst of a revival. After defeating United in September the Foxes went on a 13 match winless run. However, victories against Hull City and Aston Villa in the Premier League were followed by a 2-1 win at Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup last week. Leicester scored twice in the last 10 minutes to secure victory.
Matthew Upson is in line to make his Leicester début after recovering a broken foot, but Kasper Schmeichel and Chris Wood remain on the sidelines. Former United academy player Matty James is suspended, while Riyad Mahrez is on international duty with Algeria at the Africa Cup of Nations.
The recent uplift in confidence will do Pearson’s side good even if the Foxes remain bottom of the Premier League. Pearson is also keen to play down the impact of victory over United last autumn – a game that seemingly affected both sides more than it should have.
“We’ve spent so long putting that behind us. It’s long gone,” said the 51-year-old manager. “We’re looking at this game from the perspective of where we are now, and that’s it. We just want to concentrate on how we prepare for this game, knowing full well that a lot has changed since then.
“They’ve had a very good run of results, played different formations. It’s always a difficult place to go, but our players are looking forward to it and we need to look forward to games like this. Big stadiums, big teams.”
United’s manager has put little public store in Leicester’s victory at the King Power either, but there is little doubt that behind the scenes it resonated strongly with the Dutchman. Could a hefty win and a revival of the four man diamond midfield be a precursor to a dynamic season’s end? Perhaps, although the evidence of the past few weeks suggests caution lies ahead.
And even if Van Gaal is playing the long-game, seeking to ensure United’s challenge for European qualification remains on track, then short-term revenge will also be sweet over a side that produced one of the Dutchman’s more embarrassing moments this season.
Or, as midfielder Juan Mata wrote this week, last September’s match left United’s players “with a bad taste.”
“We want to change that and offer a good game to our crowd.”
United (4-3-1-2): De Gea; Valencia, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Fellaini, Blind, Di Maria; Rooney; Van Persie, Falcao
Leicester (4-4-2): Hamer; Simpson, Morgan, Moore, Knochesky; Vardy, Drinkwater, Cambiasson, Schlupp; Krameric, Ulloa
United: Valdes, Lindegaard, Rafael, Smalling, Evans, McNair, Blackett, Pereira, Herrera, Mata, Januzaj, Wilson
Leicester: Logan, Schwarzer, King, Knockaert, Wasilewski, Upson, Albrighton, Hammond, Nugent
United 59 – Draw 26 – Leicester 33
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistants: M Mullarkey, H Lennard
Fourth Official: T Harrington
United 2-1 Leicester
£1 bet club
United to win 2-1 @ 15/2
Running total: £(-)13