United on the brink as Europa League exit beckons
In a season of frustrating mediocrity Louis van Gaal has few chances left to achieve redemption. Despite the Dutchman’s, frankly, ludicrous assertion that his “philosophy” is working, Van Gaal’s time at Old Trafford has been little short of a catastrophe. With the club some 13 points shy of the Premier League summit, facing a tough FA Cup replay at West Ham United, and starting Thursday night’s Europa League game two goals down to Liverpool, it is likely Van Gaal will leave Old Trafford having presided over two barren years.
What greater incentive could there be to find a big result on Thursday night, with Manchester United welcoming rivals Liverpool in a fixture that the hosts must win by at least two clear goals? No time for Van Gaal’s usual circumspection – this one requires the kind of fluid attacking performance that has rarely been seen over the past 21 months with the Dutchman in charge.
United rarely looked like troubling the score-sheet at Anfield in a performance that, if not the worst under Van Gaal, was certainly close to the most frustratingly meek. United caved under Liverpool’s pressure; the Anfield side thrived on the occasion. While Van Gaal tinkered with his team’s shape in a desperate attempt to salvage something from a horror performance, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp witnessed the emergence of a new team with a clear philosophy.
At times Anfield felt like a battle not just of coaches, or systems, but eras. Klopp won, leaving Van Gaal one game closer to an ignominious retirement at the end of a career that is petering out with little sign of its former life. It was, after all, one of the most limp United displays in modern memory – at Anfield, against Liverpool, on a special European night of all times and places. Unforgivable, some might say.
Thursday is Van Gaal’s opportunity to correct that narrative; to rage against the dying of the light; to fix the perception that the 64-year-old has taken on one challenge too many.
It needs a performance of genuine quality from a United side that increasingly looks forlorn to an inevitable and disappointing end to the campaign. The occasion requires, says Van Gaal, his team to play for the fans. Few players appear ready to perform for their manager.
“We owe always to the fans a big result because the fans are paying to see that,” said the veteran coach. “We have to deliver. But in sport you can lose and you can win; that you have to accept. It’s very difficult but you have to accept that.
“Tomorrow we only have to think we have to beat Liverpool – and beat them 2-0 not 3-0 because we can do it in extra time. We can do it 2-0 and then we have a chance to reach the next round. You know we have scored goals within three or four minutes this season so it is possible.”
Yet, scoring goals has been his side’s principal challenge all season. The home side has scored just 37 in the Premier League this year – two more than relegation contenders Sunderland. And while the Reds scored five against Midtjylland in the competition’s previous round, Liverpool presents a significant step up in quality, albeit a side that is also in a transitional period.
While United must score three to progress, Van Gaal’s side cannot afford to concede – a challenge that is significant given the number of opportunities that Liverpool created in the first leg. United could not cope with Liverpool’s Gegenpressing style, with Morgan Schneiderlin and Marouane Fellaini guilty of losing possession far too often.
"Scoring goals has been United’s principal challenge all season. The side has scored just 37 in the Premier League – only two more than relegation contenders Sunderland."
“We don’t think about conceding a goal,” Van Gaal adds. “We think about making goals. We have done that against Midtjylland. I think the challenge is to beat Liverpool and the challenge that we are two goals down is a big challenge. We have to believe in it – it starts with the players of course but it starts also with the fans. They have a lot of impact on the pitch. We have to believe in it.”
Meanwhile, Klopp remains relaxed after last week’s win – one of the best of the German’s 36-game stint at Anfield that has brought a creditable, if inconsistent, 47 per cent win rate. That inconsistency is likely to keep the club out of next season’s Champions League, while some observers will note that victory over United at Anfield was significantly aided by United’s incompetence. Time will tell whether Klopp’s emergent team is the real deal or not.
Wednesday brought the odd sight of Liverpool training at Old Trafford – a move to obtain “the whole package,” said Klopp. He is unlikely to make many changes to the side that defeated United at Anfield.
“I always enjoyed it when I played with my former clubs in European tournaments to breathe the stadium air where you play the next night. I like to imagine what will happen.
“Tomorrow is the third time we’ve played Man United since I’ve been here and we were always in the game. The world doesn’t change overnight. It is absolutely clear there is a chance for Man United – 100 per cent, that is football – but we know that we know how to play them.”
The real question, of course, remains whether Van Gaal can say the same? The Dutchman’s odd tactics in the first leg suggests not – that Klopp already has the Dutchman’s number. For the sake of his legacy and United’s season, Van Gaal must learn fast and his players find a way to break out of a slump.
Team news and line-ups
United subs from: Romero, McNair, Darmian, Riley, Tuanzebe, Carrick, Herrera, Schneiderlin, Weir, Rashford
Liverpool subs from: Ward, Touré, Smith, Allen, Ojo, Lallana, Benteke, Origi
To play Fellaini or not to play Fellaini? The Belgian has performed dreadfully in the two games since he returned from injury. At Anfield Fellaini lasted the full 90 minutes despite being well short of the “match rhythm” that Van Gaal normally demands. Then, on Sunday, Fellaini was again disappointing in United’s draw with West Ham in the FA Cup. Van Gaal has continued to defend the player for whom supporters have so little time.
Elsewhere, Van Gaal is unlikely to tinker with a back four that has looked vulnerable in recent matches. Chris Smalling, Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo are certain starters, with Guillero Varela and Matteo Darmian competing for a slot at right-back. The Uruguayan youngster offers a fresh attacking vibe to Darmian’s more conservative approach.
In midfield Bastian Schweinsteiger could come in for Schneiderlin to partner Fellaini in a central duo that would offer little in the way of pace, but a more of the composure on-the-ball that the German brings. Schweinsteiger play the last 15 minutes against West Ham, achieving a 100 per cent pass completion rate.
Michael Carrick, who was exceptionally poor in central defence against Liverpool in the opening leg, and Ander Herrera, present alternatives in central midfield. Herrera is the attacking option, although Van Gaal is often reluctant to gamble on the Spaniard’s more open approach.
Juan Mata could return at number 10, with Marcus Rashford, Memphis Depay and Jesse Lingard competing for two roles in support of Anthony Martial.
The big question, of course, is whether Van Gaal is prepared to gamble – chasing victory by opening up United in search of the goals that have rarely been a feature of his team this season? History says Van Gaal will remain circumspect; the occasion demands another approach.
Match officials (Serbia)
Referee: Milorad Mažić
Assistant referees: Milovan Ristić, Dalibor Djurdjević
Additional assistant referees: Danilo Grujić, Nenad Djokić
Fourth official: Nemanja Petrović
United 1-1 Liverpool