Biggest game of the season? Quite possibly. For so many years Tottenham Hotspur’s visit to Old Trafford had the air of a gimme; three points for Manchester United, time to move on to bigger and better things. No longer, with Louis van Gaal’s side now in a five-way “rat race” with the north London side, Arsenal, Liverpool and Southampton for Champions League football next season. After Manchester City’s defeat to Burnley on Saturday that race may well pull in six teams before March is out.
Crucially, defeat in the FA Cup to Arsenal last week has knocked confidence at Old Trafford. United’s last chance of silverware this season shattered, rivals’ boosted in the process, and at the worse possible time to boot. Following Sunday’s fixture with Spurs in Manchester, Van Gaal’s side faces Liverpool, a resurgent Aston Villa, City and Chelsea in a period that will decide the club’s fate this season. It was always thus; one reason among many that United’s run of 22 matches with just two defeats through the winter was a little misleading.
Little wonder that many supporters believe it is time for Van Gaal to live up to a lofty reputation. After coaching Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich to silverware, United’s apparent demise may just be the Dutchman’s greatest challenge. And yet, after months of seemingly indecisive tactics and an ever-changing strategy, United’s manager appears no closer to the optimal formula for success with United than when he walked into the job last summer.
In typical fashion Van Gaal rejects the notion that he has been indecisive over the course of the season, despite switching between multiple formations and using more players than any other club in the division. “I don’t think that is fair,” said the Dutchman this week. “There was a lot of education we had to do.”
There is precious little time for learning now though, with his side beginning a pivotal few weeks. Spurs’ visit will set the narrative – positive or otherwise – for a “decisive” period.
“You are right. It is very decisive, the coming matches,” said Van Gaal on Friday. “Of course, after a defeat at home, it is also to see the reaction of the team. We play against a very good team in Tottenham. We are so close with a lot of clubs. We can be second or third. It is not a big difference I believe.”
The Dutchman holds few excuses for failure now, although he is without four players for Tottenham’s visit. Robin van Persie is absent with an ankle injury, while Jonny Evans and Angel Di Maria are suspended. Marcos Rojo suffered a minor thigh strain against Arsenal and may not be risked.
Although it has become a fruitless undertaking predicting Van Gaal’s starting formation – let alone selection – the Dutchman is now seemingly set on a 4-2-3-1 system, with Wayne Rooney likely to be deployed as the lone striker. Is the absence of Evans and United’s manager is likely to pair Chris Smalling and Phil Jones in central defence.
Rafael da Silva may start his first game since January after coming through an Under-21 fixture in midweek – a match in which Victor Valdes, James Wilson and Radamel Falcao also played.
Van Gaal denied that the experience was “humiliating” for the Colombian striker, who is now highly unlikely to remain at United beyond the close of the season. Falcao has scored just four times this season and was substituted after 70 minutes of the Under-21’s draw with Tottenham on Tuesday night.
“I have 25 players and all of the players can play the next game,” said van Gaal. “I have to maintain the rhythm of the game with every player. I have read about the ‘big humiliation’ for Falcao, but also Valdes was playing and Rafael as well. Michael Carrick has also played for the second team this season.
“That shows the professional attitude of the player, but also the management of the club. It is not a humiliation, it is a professional attitude. In a training session, you never reach the intensity of 90 minutes. Of course, the second team level is lower but that is also good that a player from the first team is playing much more minutes at a lower level, because then he can build up his confidence.”
Meanwhile, Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino enjoys a fully fit squad. The Argentinian will choose between Danny Rose and Ben Davies at left-back, while two from Mousa Dembele, Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason will form a central midfield partnership. The latter pairing was the subject of praise from former Red Paul Scholes this week.
Pochettino has come through a difficult start to the campaign to find his side within reach of the Champions League this season despite a flat net transfer spend over the past 12 months. Indeed, Pochettino’s consistency of strategy and formation despite a relatively modest summer lies in stark contrast to Van Gaal’s unsettled outlook.
Despite being dumped out of the Europa League last month Pochettino’s men have enjoyed a run of just two league defeats in the past 10 fixtures. It leaves Spurs three points behind United with, says the Argentinian, the confidence to attack at Old Trafford.
“I am brave. I never think in another way. My football idea is always to concentrate on the opponents’ goal, so why should I change?” says the Argentinian. “My football is about trying to have the ball, playing attacking football and damaging the opponent. This is my feeling, my idea, and I need to translate those ideas to the team.”
It is, one might say, a philosophy. One built on Harry Kane’s goals and the attacking instincts of Danish midfielder Christien Erikssen.
Van Gaal, meanwhile, is yet to fully translate his ideas into a team that is too often less than the sum of its considerable parts. That is a formula that cannot last much longer.
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Jones, Smalling, Shaw; Carrick, Blind; Januzaj, Fellaini, Young; Rooney
Tottenham (4-2-3-1): Lloris; Walker, Dier, Vertonghen, Rose; Mason, Bentaleb; Townsend, Eriksen, Lamela; Kane
United: Valdes, Lindegaard, McNair, James, Blackett, Valencia, Herrera, Mata, Wilson, Falcao
Tottenham: Vorm, Yedlin, Dembélé, Kaboul, Fazio, Stambouli, Davies, Chadli, Adebayor, Soldado
United 84 – Draw 49 – Tottenham 48
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Assistants: S Beck, H Lennard
Fourth Official: R Madley
United 1-1 Tottenham
£1 bet club
Draw @ 13/5
Running total: (-)£0.50
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