Perspective can be hard to find; near impossible in football. Louis van Gaal’s? Seemingly ebbing away. It is, says the Dutchman, not his side’s form that is erratic, but “the media that is inconsistent.” It was, he says, not such a bad thing that his team lost at 19th-placed Sunderland, but that the “media makes it bigger than it is.” It is, he claims, not another campaign racing towards the scrap-heap, but a season “not as bad as the media are writing or telling to the fans.” Presumably it is also the media’s fault that Van Gaal’s side has won just three of its past 10 Premier League matches.
Yet, with two cup victories in the past week the Dutchman’s team arrives at a pivotal moment in better spirits. It is now or never in United’s quest for Champions League qualification.
“I have never seen the dressing room quite so happy,” Van Gaal said after his team beat Midtjylland and Shrewsbury Town. Those victories place United within two games of an FA Cup final, while securing a mouth-watering Europa League last-16 tie against Liverpool. No trophies have been secured just yet, but victories were a timely boost for a manager on the verge of being hounded into retirement and a squad shorn of confidence.
Still, Van Gaal’s weekly press briefing proved to be oddly bullish given that his team lies sixth in the Premier League, effectively seven points from Champions League qualification. Victory over mediocre opposition has not always been secured this season, but it is hardly a good barometer of progress, despite United scoring eight in the past week.
United’s fixture with Arsenal, by contrast, is both “on another level” according to the Dutchman – and one in which a win is essential. Defeat will leave United in a fight with West Ham United, Stoke City, Southampton and Liverpool for places from fifth to ninth. This is far from United’s standards, despite Van Gaal’s claim to the contrary. Indeed, defeat is the bookmakers most likely outcome against an Arsenal side chasing silverware.
Back in October the Gunners eased to victory in the reverse fixture, scoring three inside the opening 20 minutes as Van Gaal’s bizarrely open tactics backfired on the chaotic visitors. Van Gaal pushed Bastian Schweinsteiger forward, leaving an out-of-form Michael Carrick badly exposed on the day. It is a mistake the Dutchman is unlikely to repeat, with Arsenal some 10 points ahead of United and seeking a first Premier League title in more than a decade.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]In October the Gunners eased to victory, scoring three inside the opening 20 minutes as Van Gaal’s bizarre tactics backfired.[/blockquote]
Arsenal Wenger’s side has gone two matches without victory after drawing with Hull City in the FA Cup and losing to a Lionel Messi-inspired Barcelona in the Champions League, although the Gunners beat leaders Leicester City in the last Premier League round to close within two points of the Midlanders.
“We are in a strong position in the league, that’s for sure, but there is still a long way to go,” said Wenger. “Winning at Old Trafford in 1998 put us on a good run, but the second time [in 2002] we knew that if we won there we would become champions. It was a decisive game, which is the case again on Sunday.
“It is the key period. We work the whole season for this period and that’s where you are really tested but it’s where you have an opportunity to show your quality as well. Everybody drops points and it is unpredictable. We have put ourselves in a strong position again. We want to take advantage of that.”
League form is certainly with the visitors, who look to reverse a trend that has seen United win six and lose none of the club’s last eight Premier League home meetings with Arsenal. History provides little confidence for United in the context of the season, although the Reds’ morale boosting cup wins certainly do – especially with up to 15 first team players potentially absent on Sunday.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Form is with the visitors, who look to reverse a trend that has seen United win six and lose none of the club’s last eight Premier League home meetings with Arsenal.[/blockquote]
“We can take confidence into the game from our last win but we have to play against one of the best teams in the Premier League, and we have to do it after playing on a Thursday evening,” said Van Gaal. “That is more of a challenge but I think the recovery shall go better than ever after winning so well.”
The sense of renewed confidence has spread “not only to the players who played, but those on the bench and those who are injured” too. It is reflected in a squad that is a little more relaxed ahead of Arsenal’s visit: “They were all laughing and talking with each other and happy. It has been quite a long time since that happened.”
Whether Van Gaal’s side can translate cup form to the league is another question, with the side having beaten only Stoke City, Swansea City and an ailing Liverpool since the turn of the year. It should prove to be a decisive month ahead, with Arsenal’s visit followed in March by games against Liverpool, twice, West Ham United and Manchester City.
Then, perhaps, Van Gaal can turn on the media’s “inconsistency” with a little more substance.
Team news and line-ups
United subs from: Romero, Riley, Smalling, Love, Rojo, Pereira, Herrera, Valencia, Januzaj, Martial
Arsenal subs from: Ospina, Chambers, Gibbs, Gabriel, Flamini, Arteta, Elneny, Campbell, Walcott
United’s injury list reads 15 strong, although Van Gaal may be able to call on David de Gea, Anthony Martial and Chris Smalling. None is a guaranteed starter, with a late decision set to be made on the key trio.
“I expect [David can return] because I saw the way he was today,” said van Gaal. “Chris is a question mark, but you never know.”
If the Spaniard fails to make it, Sergio Romero will again deputise between the sticks, while Smalling could be replaced by Paddy McNair in a make-shift back-four.
Up front double goalscoring teenager Marcus Rashford is unlikely to start, despite his star-turn against Midtjylland on Thursday.
“I didn’t know how long it will take Rashford to recover,” said Van Gaal. “When you have just played your first game it is not so easy. He can come off the bench maybe. I can’t risk it. I’m a long-term coach.”
Even if Smalling returns, Van Gaal faces a burgeoning set of defenders in the treatment room, with Matteo Darmian, Luke Shaw and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson all absent. The Dutchman will chose between teenager Joe Riley and a returning Marcos Rojo at left-back, with Guillermo Varela set to continue on the right after another positive performance for the Reds last week.
Meanwhile, the burden may well be on Memphis Depay to continue his resurgence after a man-of-the-match turn against Midtjylland. The Dutchman nutmegged his full-back opponent three times in the kind of display that prompted United to pay nearly £30 million for the player last summer. Better late than never, perhaps, with Memphis a key part of United’s youth-inspired resurgence in the past week.
“I have seen a fantastic performance from Memphis, everyone has seen that – I think he was spectacular,” said Van Gaal on Thursday. “I hope he will also show that against Arsenal; it’s another level, but I am very confident he’ll do it. I’m very happy for him. Maybe it’s a turning point. I hope it is, with all my heart.”
United may well need it.
Referee: Craig Pawson
Assistants: L Betts, M Perry
Fourth Official: M Dean
United 1-2 Arsenal