Pressure. If Louis van Gaal hasn’t been feeling the heat of late, Liverpool’s resurgence under new manager Jurgen Klopp has certainly put the Dutchman’s progress in perspective. Just eight weeks into the job and Liverpool is a club transformed under the German’s direction; a team on the up, with legitimate talk of a title challenge now in the air on Merseyside. By contrast Manchester United’s season has been a slow burn. Van Gaal’s team is just one point off Premier League leaders Manchester City, but in deploying a prosaic playing style, the Dutchman’s team has impressed few and frustrated many.
Van Gaal’s position is not under threat, of course. How could it be, with United’s progress in the Champions League still in the team’s hands, while a record of just defeats in the league this season means that the Reds are certainly viable contenders for honours. Yet, there is little doubt which set of fans from England’s two greatest clubs is more buoyant at this moment.
United’s meeting with Liverpool in January could yet prove pivotal in the final outcome this season. Certainly, the Merseysiders are genuine challengers for a place in the top four – which, if it were to be achieved at United’s expense, would spell the end of Van Gaal’s time at Old Trafford.
In the same spirit West Ham United is a club once mentioned in dispatches as a contender for European qualification. The Hammers‘ season has brought victories over Liverpool, City, Arsenal and Chelsea, although results have been harder to come by in the autumn. Once pushing for a place in the top four, Slaven Bilic’s side now lies eighth – five points off the Champions League, but also a couple of defeats from being drawn into a more familiar relegation tussle.
Still, the Hammers have made progress under Bilic, a coach whose defensive instincts sometimes mirrors Van Gaal’s, but one whose credentials and familiarity with the club have earned a significant bank of credit in east London.
“I know the coach a little bit. I have seen how he works with his teams. He always has them well organised and he plays always more or less from out of the defensive organisation. So they will be difficult to beat and they have proved that already because they have won more games away than at home and also against top teams so it shall be very difficult again.”
At the top end of the table United came through last weekend’s clash at Leicester City with a point. Creditable enough against the league leaders. Yet, it was another game in which Van Gaal’s team dominated possession, but created few chances in a typically mundane performance. Plus ça change under the Dutchman. Still, with United’s position in the top four not guaranteed, the club cannot afford to drop further points this weekend – especially at home.
“It is very important to continue in the top six,” van Gaal said. “I don’t think this moment shall decide who are the champions. December and January are very important but you have to be in the month of May at the top and not now.”
Van Gaal’s outlook is not aided by a spate of injuries that now numbers six first team players, including the captain Wayne Rooney. The striker’s absence may not be felt in the team – Rooney has enjoyed a wholly indifferent season – although his manager is at pains to emphasise the player’s leadership qualities. It has become the only, and rather dubious, defence of a player who has featured in 499 games for the club.
Given the heavy number of absences Van Gaal eased down training this week, offering a mid-season rest to what is a small squad even without injuries. On the pitch the manager is likely to shift around his attacking selection, with Memphis Depay and Marouane Fellaini both pushing for a recall. Either way, United’s attack must improve on a record that includes just 20 goals in the league this season.
Indeed, United’s lack of flair, and not inconsistency in results, is the cause of any resentment building on the terraces. Supporters’ frustration is a factor Van Gaal rarely acknowledges.
“I’m happy that when I’m gone, people are saying nice things about me,” the Dutchman said. “But the most important thing is not always that. It’s in my opinion the chemistry between players and staff and when I have the feeling that the chemistry is there, I will always work to my utmost best.
“But when I have a single feeling that it is not like that, I’m the first coach that quits and I have proved that already with my former clubs and former jobs. The most important thing for me as a trainer, coach and manager is the chemistry between me and my players and my board.”
Reports of some frustration building in the team have leaked out of United’s dressing room in recent weeks. Rooney and Carrick reportedly approached the manager about his rigid training regime, while Ander Herrera denied that he is unhappy at the club.
Meanwhile, over at Anfield a club has seemingly been rejuvenated in just two months. It places Van Gaal’s work at United in stark contrast after more than 18 months into the role. Van Gaal is under more pressure than he should be given the Reds’ position in the Premier League table, but there is pressure nonetheless.
Team news and line-ups
Van Gaal relaxed training this week, but is without a significant core of his squad for the Hammers‘ visit to Old Trafford.
“The week after next we have two weeks that we can have more recovery,” added the Dutchman in his weekly press conference. “I have already given the players two days off this week. I am giving them a lot of rest because I think it is necessary now, nevertheless we have six injuries most of which are contact injuries. You cannot avoid those because football is a sport with direct resistance. We are unlucky I have to say.”
“Rojo has been injured. It’s his shoulder, the same as last year, in a training session. It’s very unfortunate, also in the position of Luke Shaw, so I have a great problem. Also the injury of Wayne Rooney is more heavy than we thought, so neither can play.”
Elsewhere Jesse Lingard is available after injury, but Phil Jones is still out. Rooney’s is “a nasty injury,” according to his manager. The striker’s ankle problem is also likely to keep Rooney out of United’s pivotal Champions League fixture against Wolfsburg in Germany in midweek.
Without Ander Herrera or Rooney, either Depay or Fellaini could partner Anthony Martial in attack, although Brazilian youngster Andreas Pereira remains a left-field option.
United subs from: Romero, Varela, Tuanzebe, Borthwick-Jackson, Carrick, Pereira, Fellaini, Depay, Rashford
West Ham subs from: Randolph, Spiegel, Collins, O’Brien, Oxford, Tomkins, Antonio, Cullen, Obiang, Song, Jelavic
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Assistants: S Beck, J Collin
Fourth Official: S Attwell
United 2-0 West Ham