With hope lost in the league, Reds look to Wembley for salvation
“The challenge was bigger for me at Manchester United. I am sorry for Tottenham, but Manchester United are a bigger club.”
Louis van Gaal doesn’t regret choosing United over Spurs despite his side’s humiliating 3-0 defeat at White Hart Lane on Sunday. Van Gaal may not regret choosing United, but United fans are certainly ruing his decision. There us little doubt Spurs supporters must have chuckled at the suggestion Van Gaal is “sorry” that the London club missed out on the ‘genius’ veteran manager.
As predictable as it was, United’s performance last Sunday was nothing short of embarrassing. Despite controlling possession for large parts of the opening 60 minutes, the Reds never looked like scoring against a Tottenham side struggling to reconcile slipping 10 points behind Leicester City in the race for the title.
United had a chance to put out a statement of intent to top four rivals. Instead, within five miserable second half minutes, Van Gaal’s team raised the white flag on any remaining hope of making the top four.
As it turned out United’s back four was held together by 18-year-old Tim Fosu-Mensah until the young Dutchman’s injury forced him off, and to be replaced by Matteo Darmian. What followed was an embarrassment, with United torn apart by a Tottenham side that did little more than turn the screw ever so slightly.
While United’s defending was appalling, the blame lies more closely with Van Gaal’s disastrous tactics. Van Gaal started with Jesse Lingard at number 10, who neither has the technical ability nor the eye for goal to play in the position, while Juan Mata was again wasted on the right. It got worse. As the game progressed Mata, United’s most creative player, found himself at right wing-back, tracking Danny Rose, as Fosu-Mensah was sucked inside by Christian Eriksen.
The second half for worse – Van Gaal withdrew Marcus Rashford for Ashley Young, only to inexplicably deploy the substitute at centre forward, with Anthony Martial remaining on the left. It left all four forward players out of position. There is little wonder that United has struggled to score goals this season, or why Van Gaal’s philosophy remains a mystery to everyone but the arrogant Dutchman.
Van Gaal, of course, has previous with baffling tactics, including withdrawing Juan Mata for Nick Powell when chasing the game in Wolfsburg, playing Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie in midfield with Marouane Fellaini up front when losing a home to West Bromwich Albion, and employing Phil Jones on corner-taking duties. No supporter should be surprised at what the Dutchman serves up – and most will be relieved when he is inevitably shown the exit in May.
West Ham United has been proven justified in the decision to dismiss a manager who was holding the club back from reaching its potential. The Hammers are flying high thanks to a combination of positive, quick, attacking football and Dimitri Payet’s genius. The French magician has been hugely influential for West Ham this season ahead of the club’s summer move to the Olympic Stadium. It should be the platform for the club to finally hit the next level.
There have been similar success stories at Watford, Bournemouth and of course Leicester City, although the Irons seem best set to sustain success as a result of the London location, committed owners and large stadium.
On the pitch, the difference between the two Uniteds has been minimal this campaign, with West Ham just a point behind the Reds in the league, and Bilic’s side having held its own at Old Trafford in the first game of this cup tie. Yet, Bilic remains cautious, despite his side having lost only twice in its last 24 games.
“Wednesday’s game is massive for them and massive for us,” Bilic said. “Ok, they lost their last game 3-0, but they are Manchester United and they have great players.
“For their standards, of course, they have not been very consistent but they are still above us in the table, and they are very capable of beating any team on their day.”
Van Gaal seems more concerned with the Irons than his own side, discussing the threat that Andy Carroll carries at length. And the manager concedes that Wednesday night represents United’s last chance at success this season, with a top four finish now looking unlikely.
“It is our last chance at a trophy so it is very important for the players, for the club, for the manager and for the fans,” Van Gaal said, before offering up excuses. “Still, we have one day less than West Ham to prepare and that is also important.”
Team news and line-ups
With Van Gaal’s job prospects now firmly teetering on the edge, the Dutch manager cannot afford another defeat, especially with a trip to Wembley on the line. Wayne Rooney, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Phil Jones all played in Monday night’s under-21 fixture, with all three in with a chance of making the matchday squad.
At the back, Tim Fosu-Mensah was forced off by injury in the second half at White Hart Lane, meaning the inconsistent Matteo Darmian is in line to return to the team, although he may play at left-back after another poor display by Marcos Rojo. This leaves Antonio Valencia, only just back from injury himself, likely to fill in at right-back.
In midfield, Michael Carrick’s performance on Sunday has all but confirmed the end of his United career. Carrick has been a wonderful servant for the Reds, but the veteran struggled against Tottenham’s midfield in the second half. This could mean Ander Herrera’s return, with the Spaniard partnered by Morgan Schneiderlin, who was one of United’s better players on Sunday.
Herrera and Schneiderlin formed a good partnership in the midfield earlier in the season – the hope being that Schneiderlin can neutralise Payet.
Marcus Rashford is set to be rested after being hauled off at half-time last weekend, leaving Anthony Martial to return to his favourite role at number 9. Memphis could return in Rashford’s place despite the Dutchman’s poor form and questionable attitude.
Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata are likely to play, despite a disappointing attacking performance at the weekend, although Van Gaal would be foolish to continue with the failed experiment of using the pair in each other’s position.
“I think the players of Manchester United have to cope with the pressure,” Van Gaal concluded ahead of Wednesday night’s game. Quite how the Dutchman can say it with a straight face amuses considering the pressure is on him more than ever.