It has been a half-season of mixed achievement at Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United. After all, United recorded the club’s worst start to a season since the mid-1980s after suffering three defeats in the opening 10 games. One record that David Moyes failed to break during a dismal 10 months as manager. In stark relief lies the past seven matches in which Van Gaal’s outfit has claimed six victories – a run halted only by Saturday’s draw with Aston Villa. It is a mark of the revival that the result was treated with dismay by coach and fans alike.
There are other contrasts that concern and delight, such as the disparity between United’s home and away form this season. At Old Trafford the Reds have secured 22 from a possible 27 points, including seven victories – a record bettered only by Chelsea. Yet, there are six clubs with a better record on the road than United, including West Ham United, Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton. The 10 points claimed away from Manchester has come with a negative goal difference that says much about an erratic season
Indeed, as United approaches the second half of the campaign it is the consistency achieved during the recent run of matches that Van Gaal now seeks – and not just at home. Still, if Old Trafford is the foundation on which United’s renaissance is built then Van Gaal will, at a minimum, win over any remaining doubters among United’s legion support. An observation the veteran Dutchman is quick to recognise ahead of Boxing Day’s fixture with Newcastle United.
“We want to build a fortress at Old Trafford but we have made that already because we have won a lot, also with great results,” said the 62-year-old on Wednesday. “I’m happy with that but then we have to continue because seven is too few. That’s the most difficult point because it is not easy to win games in the Premier League.
“My record in away matches is not so bad when you compare it with my home matches. Away the teams are more open but here they want to defend which is why it’s more difficult. That’s why we want to create a certain play-style where we can dominate. Every week we dominate for 45-60 minutes. We must do it for 90 minutes.”
Friday’s match is likely to be another test of the Dutchman’s attacking philosophy, with Alan Pardew’s side no longer in the mood to play the open attacking football that brought a two-month unbeaten run from the end of September. Not least after visitors shipped eight goals in the past two away matches: four at Arsenal in the Premier League and another four at Tottenham in the Capital One Cup.
Still, Van Gaal again enjoys a squad that is short just a handful of players for Newcastle’s visit, with Ander Herrera, Marouanne Fellaini and Luke Shaw not yet ready to return, and Chris Smalling more likely to feature against Spurs on Sunday. With Rafael da Silva short of match-fitness Van Gaal is again likely to persist with the 3-4-1-2 system that has brought results but not always attractive performances this season. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia are likely to be retained as wing-backs until Shaw and Rafael are ready for first team action.
“I am more or less obliged to play with wing-backs because the real full-backs, Shaw and Rafael da Silva, were not fit enough and that is not good,” explained Van Gaal. “I have to select what I want but now I am forced to select. For a manager, that is not so good.”
By contrast, in attack, the Dutchman boasts plenty of options, with Angel di Maria pushing for a return to the starting team after recovering from injury and Radamel Falcao on a high following his goal against Villa.
Elsewhere Darren Fletcher could retain his place if Michael Carrick is again deployed as the spare man in a back-three, while Wayne Rooney is again likely to be deployed in midfield alongside Juan Mata. It is a role the Englishman performed well against Villa, although not always with the balance of a natural attacking midfielder. Rooney’s tendency to hit long diagonal balls has long been noted, but his energy is a trait Van Gaal clearly values.
“Wayne is a player who can play in different positions and I like that because I like multi-functional players,” added Van Gaal. “That’s why I can use him as a midfielder, also as a striker and as an attacking midfielder. The last game he was more a defensive midfielder. He has the ability to run from box to box and to read the match. But that’s a matter of time and he can do that. I like him closer to the area than our own goal.”
In the opposition dugout Pardew is without key midfielder Cheick Tiote through suspension in what is rapidly becoming one of those ‘must win’ games the 53-year-old coach seems to stumble into now and then after four mediocre years at Newcastle. Meanwhile, Steven Taylor has recovered from a facial injury, but Jonas Gutierrez is not match-fit after making making an appearance for the reserves on Monday.
For Van Gaal the equation remains simple: victory at Old Trafford to counter-balance inconsistency on the road. Still, three points remains the essential festive gift and history is on United’s side. The Reds have won the past 10 games on 26 December, losing just once on Boxing Day since the Premier League’s inception.
“It’s all about keeping this good run going and keeping going with good results,” goalkeeper David De Gea told MUTV.
“These are the fixtures you really enjoy. It’s a good period in the season. It’s a bit strange for all of us who are coming here from other leagues where we’ve been used to having a winter or at least a Christmas and New Year break. But we appreciate it’s really important for the people who are watching the games.
“This one is going to be a very, very big game. It’s very important for us. We’re at home, so we have got the backing of our fans as usual. It’s really vital that we get the three points and keep this run going.”
United (4-1-3-2): de Gea; Jones, Carrick, Evans; Valencia, Rojo, Young; Carrick; Rooney, Fletcher, Mata; Van Persie, Falcao
Newcastle (4-4-1-1): Alnwick; Janmaat, Taylor, Coloccini, Dummett; Colback, Gouffran, Sissoko, Pérez; Ameobi; Cissé
United: Lindegaard, Blackett, Smalling, McNair, Rafael, Anderson, Di María, Januzaj, Wilson
Newcastle: Williamson, Haidara, Cabella, Riviere, Armstrong, Woodman, Streete
United 81 – Draw 37 – Newcastle 41
Referee: Mike Jones
Assistants: J Collin, I Hussin
Fourth Official: R Madley
United 3-1 Newcastle
£1 bet club
Falcao hat-trick @ 25/1
Running total: £(-)6