It has become a pattern – and not a good one – that Manchester United’s hopes founder on the fate of injury. David Moyes suffered for frequent bouts of player absence last season; new manager Louis van Gaal’s plans have similarly been disrupted by a clutch a players permanently staffing the physio room. So many, in fact, that United’s aggregate injury count is the highest in the Premier League this season at 55 cumulative matches missed. Just as Van Gaal needed a win more than at any time in his short United tenure ill luck has struck hard once again.
Yet, it is not solely the total number of injuries that counts this weekend against West Ham United at Old Trafford – there are nine – but where they feature in central defence. United’s 5-3 humiliation by Leicester City last Sunday included one of the most calamitous defensive performances in recent memory. The Dutchman must have hoped for anything but further disruption to his ever-changing back-line.
Indeed, United’s veteran manager has called up two youngsters in Paddy McNair and Tom Thorpe for the weekend’s match, with only new recruit Marcos Rojo available in central defence. Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones are injured – same story, different day there – while Tyler Blackett is suspended followed the youngster’s dismissal at the King Power Stadium.
“The amount of injuries is worrying me and they are not coming back,” said Van Gaal on Friday.
“Smalling is already, for the third time, injured. Evans also. Jones had one injury in the national team, which was unfortunate. I am a coach who has a lot of experience and I believe I was never in this situation before so it is surprising me. I am evaluating myself and my staff and also the players and what is wrong. I have already adapted to a certain level that I think we can play during a game but I cannot train at a lower level.”
Whether an untested youngster or, perhaps, Darren Fletcher lines up alongside Rojo £30 million summer recruit Luke Shaw is likely to make his full United début. The teenager featured during the summer tour of the United States, where he was criticised for a lack of fitness, before suffering a hamstring injury that has kept the 19-year-old on the sidelines.
“The injury got me down a little bit as I’ve never been injured for so long before,” Shaw told MUTV.
“I was a bit annoyed, but I’ve been back in training now for a couple of weeks. It was literally in the last training session ahead of the game. I had to stop because I was in too much pain. I’m back up now, raring to go and hoping to stay injury-free and fit for the rest of the season.”
Injuries aside United must rebuild confidence after the heavy defeat at Leicester. In a season where the Reds have secured just five points from as many games Van Gaal is struggling to build momentum. Already eight points behind Chelsea and five adrift of Arsenal, United cannot slip further behind if Champions League football is to return to Old Trafford in 2015. More than 30 games remain this season, but a lack of momentum – as Moyes well knows – can linger.
Still, United’s players and management held an in-depth post-mortem after Leicester scored four times in a calamitous second half United performance on Sunday lunchtime. Van Gaal’s men looked secure after gaining a two goal lead until the final 30 minutes of a game that has provoked talk of crisis at Old Trafford.
“It shouldn’t be possible, but it still happened,” said striker Robin van Persie, who is one of a clutch of players yet to find any form this season.
“We have to deal with it. We had a proper look at it next day. Sometimes it was a bit confronting and it was a long meeting. One hour. We went from there, started again this week [and have put] a couple of really good sessions in. Everyone feels ready to face West Ham.
“When you look at the defensive mistakes, it starts somewhere else. That’s where we looked at as well. It’s not just the one mistake which happens. There’s a mistake before the mistake and before the mistake, maybe positional wise. Everyone knows where we have to improve.”
Meanwhile, West Ham arrive having secured a positive result against Liverpool last weekend. It has been a mixed campaign with defeats to Tottenham Hotspur, Crystal Palace and Sheffield United – but the Hammers’ seven Premier League points leaves the East Londoners in the top half of the table.
West Ham boss Sam Allardyce this week criticised United for spending some £150 million on new players this summer having not similarly endowed Moyes with new recruits in 2013. Still, Allardyce brought it seven new players in the summer as the Hammers seek to consolidate a place in the Premier League ahead of the move to the Olympic Stadium next year.
On the pitch West Ham will be without midfielder Cheikhou Kouyate this weekend, while Kevin Nolan and Matt Jarvis are not yet ready to return to first team action. But it is not injuries that concern Allardyce, with the former Blackburn Rovers manager predicting that the home side will return to form this weekend.
“I’m thinking a backlash because of the determination of the Man United players and the fact they are playing at Old Trafford.” said Allardyce.
“I know there’s quite a lot of new players playing there but certainly the demand of Manchester United is huge and they’ll be really fired up to make sure that they try and perform like they did against QPR and beat us. They will be pretty down about that performance they gave at Leicester and they will be hurting and they know the only way they can put that right is to get out onto the field and punish us for it – so we will have to be careful about that.”
Indeed, there have been few good days for the Hammers at Old Trafford in recent years where the Londoners have suffered 16 defeats in 18 Premier League matches. The last victory in Manchester came as Carlos Tevez scored a late winner to keep West Ham up in 2007.
Still, with United’s form anything but consistent this season and injuries biting hard there is little reason for Old Trafford’s regulars to hold thoughts of easy victory. Van Gaal can but hope his luck turns for the better. The injury count certainly isn’t.
United (4-1-2-1-2): de Gea; Rafael, Fletcher, Rojo, Shaw; Blind; Herrera, Di Maria; Rooney; Van Persie, Falcao
West Ham (4-5-1): Adrian; Jenkinson, Tomkins, Reid, Cresswell; Amalfitano, Noble, Song, Downing; Sakho, Valencia
United: Lindegaard, McNair, Vermijl, Thorpe, Mata, Pereira, Carrick, Valencia, Anderson, Januzaj
West Ham: Jaaskelainen, Spiegel, Collins, Demel, Potts, Lletget, Poyet, Cole, Vaz Te, Zarate
United 128 – Draw 60 – West Ham 26
Referee: Lee Mason
Assistants: A Garratt, I Hussin
Fourth Official: M Dean
United 3-2 West Ham
£1 bet club
Falcao to score twice @ 7/2
Running total: £(-)6