Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United side begins Sunday’s fixture in east London 13 points behind Premier League table-toppers Chelsea. The distance to José Mourinho’s side remains the final indicator of progress under the Dutchman, although European qualification is the only real ask of Van Gaal this season. In truth the Reds’ remain some way off the country’s best even if Van Gaal believes his team is moving forward, despite being locked in a five-way battle for third and fourth places in the Premier League.
Still, victory over Leicester City last weekend and then Cambridge United in the FA Cup has proffered a little momentum after the Dutchman’s side faltered over Christmas and New Year. Three points last Saturday was much needed with Southampton, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and even Liverpool in pursuit of Champions League qualification. There are just 14 Premier League games to go. It is a measure of United’s slide since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement that a place among the continent’s élite can no longer be taken for granted.
Van Gaal has spent the best part of the last two decades at the sharp-end of European football, largely a stranger to the uncertainties that now face his new club. Little wonder that he is a man in no mood for failure this season; the weekend’s fixture against West Ham United coming with a demand for victory.
“When I see where we are now – we are already third, and we have to improve still a lot, in my opinion – at the end maybe we can see we are the best team,” said Van Gaal on Friday. “But it’s also dependable on the process of Chelsea and Man City because you have to compare always.
“I said that at the beginning of the week that this is an important week and we have to win all three matches. After we beat Leicester we were third in the league. After that, we beat Cambridge and we are in the next round of the FA Cup. Now, we have to win in London, but it’s not so easy because we have to play away against West Ham.
“Until now we could have played better in possession. We have to improve that, but I think that we are fourth in the goalscoring league and third or fourth in the defensive way of playing. We are very good but we can improve.”
That improvement may well be supported by the return of Adnan Januzaj and Luke Shaw, who missed the midweek victory over Cambridge. Indeed, only Michael Carrick is now out following a spate of injuries before the New Year that left United’s coach with, at times, a threadbare squad. Van Gaal now boasts more options than at any time during his eight months in charge at Old Trafford.
The former Barcelona manager is likely to stick with the 4-4-2 diamond formation that brought victories over Leicester and Cambridge, although the Dutchman could yet surprise with the exact balance of his team. The Reds mismatched shaped against the Us included Wayne Rooney starting from the right and Marouane Fellaini on the left in a formation that brought little fluency despite United’s dominance of possession.
Angel di Maria should start, despite moving out of his family home and into a hotel this week following a traumatic burglary attempt, while Daley Blind will again deputise for Carrick. Paddy McNair may well keep his place in defence after impressing at right-back during the FA Cup victory.
One player unlikely to feature from the start, however, is Ander Herrera. The Basque has become a fans’ favourite since joining in a £29 million deal from Athletic Bilbao in the summer. Herrera’s busy style and penetrative use of the ball seemingly offers the balance between attack and defence that his manager has sought all season. Still, with others ahead in the pecking order, Van Gaal says Herrera must add to his game if he is to feature more.
“I have to compare him with people like Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata for example, so that is difficult. They all have a high level, so he has to improve,” said Van Gaal.
“He is a great guy and a great professional also, so that’s not the problem. His problem is that he has to compete with high-level players. Rooney is also the captain, so he has a privilege. The other reasons are the players who are in his positions. In this system for example – what we are playing now – that is Mata and that is Angel Di Maria. It is difficult to compete but he did already know that the moment he signed for Manchester United.”
Meanwhile, West Ham manager Sam Allardyce faces the kind of injuries problems that beset the Reds earlier this season. Andy Carroll limped out of last weekend’s defeat at Liverpool, while centre-backs James Collins and Winston Reid will both miss United’s visit. Allardyce is without a clutch of defenders – James Tomkins and Carl Jenkinson may have to start despite doubts surrounding each player’s fitness.
“The injuries are worrying at the moment,” admitted the former Newcastle United manager. “I have brought my list with me here: Reid, Collins, Demel, Henry, Carroll, Poyet are all doubtful and lie in our medical room at the moment. We are not sure how many if any of those will make Sunday’s game. Very few risks will be taken. Unless they are 100% fit they won’t be playing. We will go to battle with that we have got.”
However, Diafra Sakho will play despite the Hammers being fined by FIFA for playing the Senegal striker during the Africa Cup of Nations. Sakho had pulled out of the tournament with a back injury.
Van Gaal’s side faces a West Ham outfit higher in the table than at any other point during Allardyce’s tenure at Upton Park. In fact the Hammers have lost just one of the last 10 top-flight matches in east London, although Allardyce’s team has not beaten United in the Premier League in the last 12 attempts.
Either way Sunday’s fixture is set to be a real test of United’s progress. The type of fixture that United should win if the Dutchman truly harbours a dream of building the “best side” in the Premier League.
West Ham (4-4-2): Adrian; O’Brien, Jenkinson, Tomkins, Cresswell; Amalfitano, Song, Nolan, Downing; Valencia, Sakho
United (4-1-3-2): De Gea; McNair, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Blind; Rooney, Mata, Di Maria Van Persie, Falcao
West Ham: Jaaskelainen, Spiegel, Burke, Oxford, Kouyaté, Jarvis, Cole
United: Valdes, Smalling, Evans, Blackett, Valencia, Herrera, Januzaj, Young, Fellaini, Wilson
West Ham 42 – Draw 26 – United 61
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Assistants: S Beck, J Collin
Fourth Official: A Marriner
West Ham 1-1 United
£1 bet club
1-1 draw @ 11/2
Running total: £(-)14