Van Gaal faces toughest test as United travel to Spurs
Once upon a time Manchester United’s fixtures against Tottenham Hotspur were settled before a ball was kicked. United’s record at White Hart Lane is excellent – and the side has not lost there since 2001. However, long gone are the days when Sir Alex Ferguson could construct Tottenham’s downfall with three simple words: “Lads… It’s Tottenham.” It doesn’t do the North London side justice; the balance of power is shifting in the Premier League.
“Lads… It’s Tottenham” doesn’t do this current United side justice either. The confident swagger oozing from the Reds has long gone too, replaced by mediocre football and an atmosphere of relentless fear foster by an outdated manager. Spurs are now everything United used to be. To say that it hurts is an understatement.
The North London side has struck gold with manager Mauricio Pochettino, whose policy of counter-attacking, free-flowing football is at odds with Louis van Gaal’s still mysterious philosophy. Tottenham, like the United sides of days gone by, is built on a young English spine, with speed, strength and technical ability in abundance. Eric Dier, Deli Alli and Harry Kane have already become England’s present, never mind the future. Alli and Kane, in particular, earned high praise from observers in recent England games. Indeed, Ferguson described Ali as “the best English talent since Paul Gascoigne.”
Pochettino and Van Gaal do share some beliefs, such as a trust in youth, although the Argentine encourages his young players to express themselves with devastating results. Van Gaal, in contrast, stifles and over-coaches his players to the point where all confidence is lost. See Adnan Januzaj, James Wilson and Andreas Pereira for evidence.
Pochettino has taken Spurs to the next level, finally challenging for the title after years of under-achievement as the Premier League’s ‘nearly men.’ Van Gaal has managed to underachieve despite an outlay of £250 million since he took charge in 2014. Daniel Levy was reportedly furious at how at how United stole the Dutchman from under his nose two summers ago; one can only imagine the relief the Spurs chairman will feel as the two sides take to the White Hart Lane pitch on Sunday.
Despite the significantly different paths the two clubs have taken this year United fans should remain confident. In addition to the Reds having a sound record at Spurs, United has also won four of the last five league games this season. Pochettino also boasts a surprisingly poor record against United, having failed to win any of the six Premier League matches in which he has faced the Reds.
United’s fixture against Spurs was the catalyst for last year’s push for the top four when it looked increasingly likely that the Reds would miss out. Tottenham travelled to Old Trafford as the favourites that day, with United stuck in a run of poor form. Many pundits suggested a loss would signal the end of United’s top four challenge, but the Reds won the game within 30 minutes, with goals from Marouane Fellaini, Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney sparking a run of six impressive wins on the bounce. One year on, Van Gaal finds his team in a similar situation, although even the most optimistic fans might struggle to foresee a repeating history.
As United chase the top four, Spurs chase the title. Leaders Leicester City kick off Super Sunday at Sunderland at 1pm, meaning Tottenham will know the result before play begins at White Hart Lane. The pressure is on Spurs, who know that regardless of Leicester’s result, the home side must win if the title is to be secured.
“You need to believe in football that things can change,” Pochettino said. “It is important for us to be focused and prepared but we can’t play when Leicester play. We can only do our job and be focussed on the three points, there are six games ahead and anything can happen.”
The Argentine’s nerves are understandable ahead of his side’s biggest game of the season. Should Spurs win Pochettino’s side will remain in the title race for another week. In contrast, a loss could leave Spurs 10 points behind Leicester with only six games to play. Meanwhile, Van Gaal is keen to up the pressure, claiming that for once all eyes are on Tottenham this Sunday.
“It is not so easy for them – very difficult in fact,” Van Gaal said. “The pressure is now on Tottenham Hotspur because they have to close the gap on Leicester City. I think that Leicester is in a very good position. But they have a very good squad and he [Pochettino] has made a team of this squad, a team that presses high with a good positional game and they score a lot of goals.”
High praise. So much so that United fans might wonder if the Dutchman will compare notes with his counterpart before Sunday’s game. After all, Tottenham looks much more like a United side than Van Gaal’s current crop have ever done.
Team news and line-ups
Despite Van Gaal’s claims, the pressure is certainly on both teams ahead of kick-off . Only a win will do. Pochettino knows that defeat effectively hands Leicester the title; should United lose, then the Reds will be four points off Manchester City with only six games to go.
At least United’s injury crisis is over, with Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Phil Jones all returning in recent weeks. Wayne Rooney is close as well, and is scheduled to play for the under-21s on Monday. Luke Shaw is back in training, hoping to make an appearance before the end of the season, although the same cannot be said for Bastian Schweinsteiger, who may not make the European Championships in the summer, let alone play for United.
At the back there is little reason for change after last week’s impressive defensive performance against Everton. Chris Smalling and Daley Blind excelled against Romelu Lukaku, allowing the Belgian forward very little space. Marcos Rojo suffered another poor game though and could be replaced by Tim Fosu–Mensah after another shambolic 45 minutes from the Argentine.
In midfield, Ander Herrera’s return to fitness has left Van Gaal with a dilemma. Michael Carrick has performed well in Herrera’s absence and it would be harsh to drop the vice-captain when he traditionally performs well in big games. However, Herrera’s introduction last week lifted United in a somewhat flat performance. The Spaniard improved United’s passing and quickness in the final third. Herrera’s blossoming partnership with Morgan Schneiderlin should not be ignored ahead of Sunday’s must-win game. After all, United’s performances drastically improved when the two were paired together in midfield before Herrera’s recent injury, while Schneiderlin has begun to hit form after an inconsistent first season at Old Trafford.
Further forward, injuries limit Van Gaal’s choices. Memphis has not performed well enough on a consistent basis after a promising start, while Marouane Fellaini remains a liability. Adnan Januzaj’s United career looks to be over after Van Gaal confirmed that the young Belgian winger had not applied himself after his return from his disastrous loan spell at Borussia Dortmund.
Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford will start at White Hart Lane, although the exact formation changes from game-to-game. Lingard and Mata have shared the role at number 10 and on the right recently, although Danny Rose’s tendency to get forward may mean the more disciplined Englishman will line up on the right on Sunday. This would leave Mata in his natural position at 10, where he is United’s most creative player.
Marcus Rashford continues up front in Rooney’s absence, while Anthony Martial, who remains United’s most potent attacking threat after another goal against Everton last week, starts up on the left.
Chris Smalling and Daley Blind have excelled this term and will rightly challenge for the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award at the end of the season, but Martial has all but carried United this season. The award would be a fitting ‘thank you’ to the young Frenchman, who has – at times – restored credibility to this United side.
Referee: Mike Dean
Assistants: S Burt, E Smart
Fourth Official: J Moss
Spurs 2-1 United