There is nothing inherently unacceptable in scrappy a 1-0 victory. After all, with just five games to go in the Premier League season, three points carry a little more significance than normal – especially with Manchester United chasing unlikely qualification for the Champions League. They were three points that keep the pressure on Arsenal and Manchester City, even if United’s chances of returning to the top table of European football remain slim.
Except, of course, the definition of acceptability changes when the opponent is Aston Villa, the venue Old Trafford, and supporters’ patience remains incredibly thin. Despite Saturday’s victory over the Midlanders, two years of Louis van Gaal’s soporiphic football means that there is little room left for the Dutchman’s hackneyed excuses for poor quality on the field. To paraphrase Sir Alex Ferguson: there’s no value at Old Trafford these days.
Saturday’s performance might be forgiven if it wasn’t the norm and last week’s victory over West Ham United an aberration. Indeed, United’s reversion to type against Villa on Saturday should have surprised few, and not just because the Dutchman selected another Frankenstein-formation with a strategy based on circumspection.
United played poorly, in part, because of Van Gaal’s choice to field a half-fit Wayne Rooney in the team’s principle creative role. Yet, the Scouser isn’t the real reason for United’s limitations. Nor even is it because United’s engine room on Saturday contained Marouane Fellaini in the kind of deeper role to which he has never excelled.
Rooney’s inclusion as a creator has rarely paid dividends, even when the Scouser is fit, while Fellaini offers neither the subtly of defensive instinct, nor the box-to-box athleticism or passing range, to succeed at eight or six. Add the ponderous, if creative Juan Mata, and Morgan Schneiderlin’s willing but limited football to the mix, and it is little wonder that United’s attacking unit elicited a predictable level of ennui.
Yet, the real clue that Old Trafford’s supporters would head home frustrated lies in the pattern of a campaign. United’s ability to craft a result when Van Gaal needs it most has sometimes been impressive, as it was during the Reds’ victory over West Ham in the FA Cup. But with each step forward, Van Gaal’s team takes one even further back.
Victory at Upton Park was followed by another at the weekend, but against one of the Premier League’s worst ever sides, and marginally so in a game of such low quality that United might be flattered by and not disappointed in a fifth-place finish come 15 May. Whatever goodwill Van Gaal earned after United’s victory in the east end was rapidly lost at Old Trafford.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]There is nothing inherently unacceptable in scrappy a 1-0 victory. With just five games to go, three points carry a little more significance than normal. Except that the definition of acceptability changes when the opponent is Aston Villa and the venue Old Trafford.[/blockquote]
There is no question that after two years Van Gaal has failed. Boardroom inaction speaks as much about executive incompetence at the club, as it explains the apathy in the stands. Van Gaal misunderstands United just as much as Ed Woodward and the Glazers exploit it.
In the aftermath of another disappointing game, in which United created just four chances from open play, Van Gaal sought easy excuses in the opposition’s tactics. It has always been a red herring for Van Gaal’s self-imposed limitations.
“It was not our best performance, of course, you have seen it for yourself,” he told MUTV. “I think we played too slowly and it was also difficult as they were playing very defensively and very compact. So then you need quicker play, quicker ball-speed and so on.”
The Dutchman argued that United could have scored more, although Marcus Rashford’s goal was the Reds’ first shot on target.
“In the first half we created enough chances to finish with two goals and then the motivation also with the players of Villa shall be less and the game is more easy. It is not like that though – we didn’t finish and, at the end, could have drawn which is not good,” Van Gaal added.
In a rare event the Dutchman at least acknowledged supporters’ frustrations. Fans “deserve more entertainment,” admitted the Dutchman, whose team has scored just 21 times at Old Trafford this season. It is rarer still for Van Gaal to climb down from his crumbling ivory tower; not when the opposition’s gameplan so effectively traps the Dutchman in his own introspection. The Reds’ inability to create is less about the opposition’s lack of ambition than the Dutchman’s.
Villa remains a tragi-comedy of Shakesperian proportions. It is a club without direction, fielding a team that was horrifically misshapen for much of Saturday’s game, and lacking neither the will nor the ability to attack the limited hosts. That United could not find a second against a team that conceded four to Chelsea and Manchester City, and six at Liverpool, is damning enough. That Villa, as good as relegated before kick-off, almost secured a point at Old Trafford should be unforgivable.
The Midlanders’ rally brought a fine save from an otherwise untroubled David de Gea, while the Spaniard was beaten by late header only for the strike to hit his left-hand post post. The visitors were inches from claiming just a 17th point of a cataclysmic season – a result that should, but wouldn’t, have brought instant dismissal for United’s ailing coach.
Once again it took 18-year-old Marcus Rashford to limit his manager’s embarrassment. The Mancunian’s run, check and finish brought his seventh goal in 12 games during an increasingly impressive debut season. Rashford is one of very few visions of light in a third disappointing campaign in succession.
“It was good movement, I have to say, as he runs for the first ball and then cut off because there was no space for that. Antonio Valencia was very good to see that and Rashford scored a very good and important goal,” Van Gaal added.
The goal did not mask United’s limitations or that of the Dutchman. Two years into his time at the club and Van Gaal continues to repeat the mistakes of old. Van Gaal’s selection and approach, which included two defensive midfielders again, brought a highly predictable outcome. So much so that it is apparently only the Dutchman who remains surprised at another prosaic display. This is, after all, the same introspective approach that brought defeat in home games against Norwich City and West Bromwich Albion, and so few results of note elsewhere.
Mata’s substitution for a defender, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, as United clung to victory at the death explained everything about Van Gaal’s tenure – and why he must not continue beyond the summer. Fosu-Mensah will become a fine United player, but on Saturday he was the symbol of a coach that has let fear guide his decision-making.
Still, there are opportunities for Van Gaal to leave a final mark at United – one more positive than anything that has he has offered to date. The Reds face five winnable Premier League games and an outside chance at Champions League football, albeit it is a run that includes a game against Champions elect Leicester City and another trip to Upton Park.
Then there is an FA Cup semi-final against Everton next weekend, another once great club that is now in the third decade of a slump, and suffering a palpably below-par season. There but for the grace goes United. Victory will bring a final against Crystal Palace or Watford – and United’s best shot at silverware since Ferguson’s retirement.
The carrot is clear. Whether Van Gaal has the vision to seize it remains to be seen.