In a season of mixed lows and the occasional high Manchester United’s defeats to Chelsea and Everton were, remarkably perhaps, the first time Louis van Gaal’s side had lost in consecutive games. The data point is a surprise – perhaps a measure of the complex narrative that has developed over the campaign. After all, United will probably finish fourth this season – and yet just a fortnight ago second was a realistic goal. Nobody is forgetting that either is better than seventh under David Moyes 12 months ago.
With those defeats in mind Van Gaal’s side hosts West Bromwich Albion this weekend. The home side is desperate for the win that will take United a step closer to the Champions League. Indeed, victory over the Baggies, and in next weekend’s encounter with Crystal Palace, will see United return to the continent’s premier competition in 2015/16.
Little can be taken for granted after last weekend’s chastening loss at Everton. Although the visitors hogged more than 60 per cent of possession – and created 17 chances – it was Everton that ruthlessly converted opportunities into goals. United’s was a defeat that left Van Gaal more angry at his players than at any other point this season. Not without reason; the manager was forced to blame his players’ lack of “motivation” for the heavy reverse.
More worrying than defeat alone is how effectively both Chelsea and Everton soaked up United’s pressure and secured victory on the break. It is a pattern that United cannot afford to repeat – this season or next and one that is only partially likely to occur this weekend. Tony Pulls’ West Brom side is tight in defence, but lacking the incisive pace to hurt United on the break. Not, at least, within Old Trafford’s safe harbour.
Still, Van Gaal firmly rejects the notion that United cannot overcome defensive opponents, although he remains conscious of the risks of that his post-Christmas possession-based game might bring. After all, while United’s performances and results have been positive over the past two months, double defeat to Chelsea and Everton has brought some soul searching.
“When you have the ball for more than 60 per cent, for example also against Everton, then the chance is bigger that you can lose the ball and there is a lot of space behind us because they are defending and we are standing on the middle line,” explained the Dutchman on Friday. “That is more difficult to defend than when you are defending in your own 60 metres.”
“You need a high ball circulation and then they have to run for 90 minutes behind the ball. After 60 minutes or 70 minutes there are gaps that are forming and you have to take advantage.”
As for West Brom, the Dutchman in cautious of the Baggies’ “long ball,” insisting that United must “disorganise their organisation” to win.
On the pitch Van Gaal will call on Wayne Rooney after early reports that the striker was out for the season proved incorrect, although Luke Shaw, Jonny Evans, Michael Carrick, Rafael da Silva and Marcos Rojo remain on the sidelines. Evans has missed the past six games through suspension, but picked up an injury during the week.
Meanwhile, Angel Di Maria could start, possibly in place of Juan Mata or Luke Shaw, after Van Gaal suggested that the Argentinian midfielder is ready to be included in the United starting team once again. Striker Robin van Persie will be involved at some point after completing 80 minutes for the reserves on Tuesday. The Dutchman scored twice and hit the post twice during a productive outing, although Van Gaal admitted that supporters will “have to wait and see if I let him play.”
Injuries mean that Antonio Valencia and Daley Blind will start, despite the pair being singled out for criticism after United’s deconstruction at Everton. Valencia was at least partially at fault for two of United’s goals conceded, while Blind offered little protection in a defensive midfield role to which he looked ill-suited.
This was a personal and team failure that the Dutch international is determined to right against West Brom.
“I wanted to play this game against West Brom on Monday so that we could move on straightaway,” said Blind. “I think the team wants to show a reaction to the last two games. It is the first time this season that we have lost twice in a row, but now we have a home game with the crowd behind us. We have to pay them back by winning against West Brom.”
Meanwhile, Pullis’ side will include former United midfielder Darren Fletcher. The Scot left Old Trafford in January after 20 years with the club. It was a process instigated, says Van Gaal, by an honest conversation over Fletcher’s future role and United’s playing style. Fletcher made more than 340 appearances for United after joining the club as a youth team player in 1995.
“I am conscious of making sure I walk out on the right side, go in the right dressing room and things like that, so I’ll have to be really focused and concentrated,” said the Scot.
“Beforehand obviously there will be handshakes and different things like that, but for the 90 minutes I’m the opposition and as much as United want to win, I want to win as well. I’m going back with a job to do for my new team. That’s football. That’s the winner inside you.”
Fletcher will receive a huge ovation from the Old Trafford crowd, of course. The Scot battled back from a serious bowel condition and 18 months on the sidelines to regain a place in United’s first team. Pity, in one sense, that Fletcher’s time ended with a succession of underwhelming performances – age and illness too obviously caught on a once effective player. On Saturday Fletcher will return a hero – an ‘honest’ player in an era of galaticos.
Pullis will call on the returning midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu returns from a ban, while loanee Andre Wisdom is available again. The focus will be on Fletcher though. “I think the fans shall give Darren a lot of applause,” added Van Gaal.
There will be even more for United should the Reds end a two-game losing run.
United (4-1-4-1): De Gea; Valencia, Smalling, Jones, Blind; Herrera; Di Maria, Mata, Fellaini, Young; Rooney
West Brom (4-2-3-1): Myhill; Dawson, Lescott, McAuley, Brunt; Gardner, Fletcher, Mulumbu, Morrison; Anichebe, Berahino
United: Valdes, McNair, Blackett, Januzaj, Perreira, Wilson, Falcao, Van Persie
West Brom: Olsson, Baird, Ideye, Gamboa, McManaman, Yacob, Sessegnon, Rose
United 53 – Draw 31 – West Brom 31
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Assistants: G Beswick, P Kirkup
Fourth Official: M Oliver
United 3-0 West Brom
£1 bet club
Di Maria to score and 3-0 @ 35/1
Running total: £8.50 up!
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