What if…. United finishes fourth and wins the FA Cup?
How Manchester United fans have missed that feeling: late winning goals in huge fixtures such as the FA Cup semi-final. Anthony Martial’s superb winner against Everton on Saturday has granted the 11-times FA Cup winners another final appearance in May; a chance for a first FA Cup trophy since 2004. It begs the obvious question: if United secures the cup, and potentially fourth place in the Premier League, does Louis van Gaal have a future at Old Trafford after all?
Manchester City has set a good pace ahead of United in the race for fourth position, although the Blues dropped points against Newcastle United this week, while Arsenal continues to flounder amidst a wave of self doubt. It is an annual tradition that threatens to derailed yet another season.
Quietly though United has found a rhythm, much like the one Van Gaal’s team discovered late last season. Since a disastrous March, potentially Van Gaal’s worst month in charge – which is no mean feat – the Reds have begun to recover. United began the turnaround with a narrow derby win over City post elimination from the Europa League to Liverpool.
It wasn’t the most convincing performance, but an away win from a team that boasts just the 10th best record on the road in the Premier League. Following March, April has been hugely successful, heavy defeat at White Hart Lane aside.Indeed, since the start of February, Van Gaal’s team has become a genuine force at home, even if the performances have not always been convincing. In that time, the Red Devils have won all six home games in the Premier League, scoring 11 goals and conceding just twice – both against Arsenal.
While not overly ‘dominating play’ recent performances might suggest that the team doesn’t need to. Sir Alex Ferguson’s final title winning team had a pedestrian midfield, a patchy defence and was overly reliant on David De Gea, Michael Carrick and Robin van Persie. Yet, the team found a way to win games, mostly due to a focus on attacking relentlessly through the team’s brilliant forwards. The approach was the opposite of Van Gaal’s, whose team has tended to shut up shop, scraping through games after snagging a goal.
United’s remaining home fixtures are against champions-elect Leicester City, while Bournemouth is at Old Trafford on the final day of the league season. However, Van Gaal’s side also faces a trip to relegation fighting Norwich City, and an emotional fixture against West Ham United at the Boleyn Ground – the last ever game in the stadium.
Neither of those away fixtures is a given. The Hammers will be determined to say goodbye to the ground in style, and Slaven Billic’s team has lost just twice at home this season. Norwich presents a greater opportunity for gain against a team that has struggled with a porous defence at home this season. The Canaries are fighting for their Premier League future though, and that is motivation enough for any player.
So what if United wins four in a row and then the cup? Arsenal could very well continue to slide, as demonstrated against Sunderland on Sunday, while City’s focus on the Champions League is likely to be a distraction. Despite the brilliance both Arsenal and City have shown this season, neither has been able sustained it, or United’s own flaws would have left the Reds far behind after a mediocre campaign under Van Gaal.
It is also worth noting that Arsenal and City play at the Etihad on the 8 May. One, possibly both, will drop points. In a season where seemingly anything is truly is possible, United could yet pull off a miracle and qualify for the Champions League.
In an increasingly realistic scenario, what might happen to Van Gaal if unlikely success follows? The Dutchman is seemingly all but gone given the ongoing talk of José Mourinho having signed on as manager for next season. Yet, Ed Woodward’s stance could well have softened, even if temporarily, in light of United’s win over Everton. After all, the Boardroom reluctance to hire Mourinho is well-known. Should United go on to clinch a record 12th FA Cup and catch one or both City and Arsenal to gain a Champions League place, Van Gaal could yet earn another season at Old Trafford.
Woodward’s wiggle room is still a factor: nothing has been announced on the New York Stock Exchange in terms of Mourinho’s future, and there is unlikely to be any dry ink on a formal contract for the Portuguese just yet. The most likely scenario is that Mourinho has been lined up, but no final decision has been made that would risk destabilising the team with five games to go.
Why? Because Woodward and his paymasters the Glazer family are just as desperate for the revenue that comes with Champions League football as they are to save on sacking Van Gaal prematurely. While there is plenty of uncertainty around Old Trafford in the post-Ferguson era, there is no doubt that finances take priority.
"What might happen if unlikely success follows? Van Gaal is all but gone, yet Ed Woodward’s stance could well have softened, even if temporarily, in light of United’s win over Everton."
The recent upturn in results, plus the ongoing youthful narrative building around Van Gaal’s reign, has also offered some reason not to terminate the manager’s contract early – and avoid a payout to a second failed manager in succession. Should results continue to be positive Van Gaal may be allowed to continue the work he claims to have started.
Some of that youthful ‘strategy’ has been aided by the good fortune of injuries, but the Dutchman has managed to assemble a strong core of younger players, including David De Gea, Guillermo Varela, Chris Smalling, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Luke Shaw, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Jesse Lingard, Memphis, Marcus Rashford, and Anthony Martial.
Indeed, United’s more senior players have not offered the support that they should have this season. It points to the potential for a brighter future. Of course, the right players need to be acquired too, with a thin and unbalanced squad placing too much reliance youngsters such as Rashford and Martial.
In this any argument that Van Gaal should see out a third year is a tough one to rationalise, even if United finishes fourth and beats Palace at Wembley next month. After all, Van Gaal’s record in the transfer market is patchy at best, the team’s performances patently sub-par, and entertainment still in short supply.
For the moment thoughts return to United’s five cup finals. What could another month of good football do? Mourinho is waiting, but there are also games still to play and a trophy to be won. This season has proven unpredictable, and the weekend’s Cup semi final has shown, if nothing else, just how much can change in a short period of time.