This season represents many things, some of which might be unrepeatable on these pages. For all the negative and frustrating moments over the past few months, it is also a season that represents another Manchester United attempt at lifting a European title. This Wednesday offers United a unique opportunity to add a trophy that, for better or worse, has eluded a burgeoning cabinet thus far. Europa League victory might well represent the ‘bare minimum’ this season, but would help José Mourinho achieve his season’s goal of returning to the Champions League.
It’s been a lean year in Manchester. Whether Red or Sky Blue, struggles abound in England’s North-West. Rivals for more than a century, the Premier League’s two most financially powerful clubs share the common trait of suffering through on-the-field issues that are not easily fixed. For all the money on show neither side seems capable of buying its way up the table, nor capturing fourth place and with it the Champions League.
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?
What does Manchester United stand for? The United way. The Arsenal way. The Liverpool way. It is one of the most recognisable clichés in the colourful vocabulary of the football fan. Bandied around in equal measure both in times of prosperity and hardship; supporters will either revel joyously in witnessing the game being played “our way”, or pine for its return amid periods of despair.
Its usage often extends no further than being an attempt to distinguish ones club from another, to establish a stylistic superiority over a perceived inferior rival. Yet, despite becoming a somewhat platitudinous statement, it remains vitally important to fans. And rightly so.
The sheer longevity and success of Sir Alex Ferguson’s 26 year reign at Old Trafford has allowed United to establish this identity in a way seldom witnessed elsewhere. It is not uncommon for the words “empire” or “dynasty” to be used liberally when describing Ferguson’s tenure, and it is because of that unrivalled sense of self that he developed within the club that its sudden disintegration has been all the more pronounced.
It is telling that the biggest critics of Louis van Gaal’s increasingly vague philosophy are those who formed the backbone of the Ferguson era. Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Roy Keane, Rio Ferdinand – these were the players who brought their manager’s vision to life on the pitch, and as much as their negativity has become repetitive, it clearly pains the quartet to watch the club’s ethos fade away.
However, the identity crisis that has now enveloped the club had taken root before Van Gaal, or even David Moyes, arrived. In his twilight years, Ferguson infamously allowed United’s midfield to fall into alarming disrepair, overseeing the departure of Paul Pogba, whilst the likes of Anderson continued to command a considerable wage.
It is also easy to forget that in the final few seasons under the legendary Scot that, despite reaching a Champions League final in 2011, the quality of football on display bore little resemblance to his two truly great sides that won the competition in 1999 and 2008. The euphoria of a 20th league title in 2013 papered over cracks that had been visible for some time. Crucially, though, the drop in the overall calibre of play never precipitated an abandonment of United’s attacking principles.
But Ferguson did choose Moyes as his successor. It was a decision that will be analysed, dissected and analysed again for years to come – forever remembered as the moment that catalysed a chain of events leading United into this period of depressing uncertainty. Perhaps Ferguson saw something of himself in Moyes, a Glaswegian who had paid his dues at Everton over an extended period. It was a romantic notion, but ultimately a misguided one.
Moyes proved woefully inadequate in carrying on the traditions laid down by his illustrious predecessor. Sacked within a year, the idea that he should have been afforded time to grow into the role holds little credibility. Had the former Everton boss maintained even a mildly acceptable standard during his disastrous nine months at the helm then perhaps he would have been deserving of some patience – a seventh place finish fell way below that particular threshold.
It is arguable that achieving the minimum standard is perhaps the only area that currently distinguishes Van Gaal from Moyes. The Dutchman has, to use the phrase of the moment, “steadied the ship”. The issue with that particular analogy is that the majority of United fans have never known their side to be a steady ship, nor do they want it to be. The terraces are used to accompanying their team on swashbuckling adventures, not meandering listlessly from match to match.
Yes, it is undeniable that United needed a period of stabilisation post-Moyes, but a manager of Van Gaal’s pedigree should be providing so much more than is currently on offer. For a man so obsessed with the idea of philosophy, he has shown little regard for the identity of the club that entrusted him with the task of self-rediscovery.
Some have argued that Van Gaal is simply making do with the inadequate tools at his disposal, deploying a conservative system to compensate for the deficiencies in the squad. But is that really an acceptable defence considering the money that has been spent on new players since the Dutchman’s arrival? Despite that eye-watering financial outlay, Van Gaal’s United continues to play a woefully uninspiring brand of football.
Blooding youngsters, such as Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira, is spoilt by the bizarre treatment of others – Adnan Januzaj and James Wilson. United have lacked a player of Januzaj’s directness, and although he would likely be no more than a backup, the lack of goals being scored makes Wilson’s loan move to Brighton & Hove Albion seem more than a little odd.
By all accounts, Van Gaal’s methods encourage a rigid, mechanical style of play – completely at odds with everything that is held traditional at Old Trafford. It is futile to continue longing for the halcyon days under Fergie, as his like will never be seen again, but it is not unreasonable to expect continuity of attacking traditions that he established.
Instead, Van Gaal has become so fixated with dominating possession that scoring a goal has almost become an afterthought. The result has been an exasperating volume of goalless draws, a somewhat alien concept to United fans. The style of play appears the very antithesis of supporters’ perception of the “United way”, and there is a distinct impression that the fluctuating results would be less exasperating if there was simply some modicum of entertainment.
Furthermore, many players simply do not seem suited to Van Gaal’s formulaic approach. Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Anthony Martial and Memphis Depay will likely never adapt fully to the robotic style of play. It is obviously not in that quartet’s nature and together they possess enough talent that it seems folly to ask them to play in such a fashion.
Whether these players are truly capable of re-establishing United as an attacking force remains to be seen, yet they deserve to at least to have their shackles removed and be permitted to follow more natural attacking instincts once more.
Van Gaal brought United back from the brink of meltdown last season, and for that he should be commended, but for a club of this stature that alone is not enough. There has been a smouldering dissatisfaction among the support this season, tempered only by the club’s promising league position.
However, the disastrous Champions League exit in Wolfsburg has fanned flames of frustration – at just how unrecognisable United has become. Defeat at Bournemouth on Saturday has exacerbated this sentiment. Ironically, the fire that Van Gaal must now surely notice rising steadily beneath him may only be extinguished by throwing his safety first approach out of the window.
In a relatively short space of time United have become a club that has lost sight of itself. The longer the identity crisis continues the harder from which it will be to recover. The “United way” risks becoming nothing more than a memory.
There are plenty of reasons to be frustrated with Manchester United’s 3-2 defeat away at Wolfsburg. There was, for instance, the slapdash defending, yet more players succumbing to injury, and some very odd substitutions. Perhaps the most galling of all is the illusion of hope, now shattered. After all, fate was a cruel temptress as she thrice teased United with the prospect of progress to the knock-out phase of the Champions League – only for belief to be dashed.
Anthony Martial’s clinical strike gave United the lead, albeit a brief one. Over in Eindhoven, CSKA Moscow went a goal up at PSV before the Dutch side levelled almost immediately. Finally, there was the farcical own goal by Wolfsburg’s Josuha Guilavogui that brought the match level at 2-2 and gave Louis van Gaal’s team a loose foothold in the knockout stages. Needless to say United slipped up and surrendered the advantage to the home side who deserved to win on the night.
To top things off PSV won 2-1, meaning that even if United had contrived to draw Europa League football was inevitable. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic; Thursday night football is on the cards and, in truth, Van Gaal’s side deserved everything it got.
In the wreckage of Tuesday’s 3-2 defeat it will be hard for Van Gaal’s men to take away any positives, although the result could prove cathartic. Defeat puts to rest the pretence that has overshadowed United’s season, exposing Van Gaal to some very basic analysis. That, in effect, this is a team ticking over, coasting through matches in a fashion that achieves little at an élite level.
Since United’s heavy defeat at The Emirates in October the team has gone on an uninspiring, but unbeaten run, winning just three of eleven games in all competitions before the dispiriting defeat in Germany. It was a run that papered over far too many cracks.
In fact, the reverse at Wolfsburg exposed a team stumbling to find an identity, even with injuries taken into account. Most importantly it is a team incapable of discovering a winning formula. Now 18-months into his tenure at Old Trafford, Van Gaal is yet to demonstrate his grand vision.
Tuesday’s loss, in what Van Gaal admitted was his biggest match at United to date, must serve as a wake-up call. The Dutchman failed the test when evidence that his philosophy has value is in scant supply.
The sequence of events that led to United’s exit from the Champions League, and inspired the fans to jeer after the Reds’ scoreless draw against West Ham United at the weekend, has stemmed from a deeply conservative mindset. It is one that has slowly and inevitably heaped pressure on the team. Indeed, the safety-first approach throughout United’s Champions League campaign paradoxically forced Van Gaal’s side into a change of strategy at Wolfsburg in a winner-takes-all match. The more open approach has become alien and the result, as at the Emirates, was all too predictable.
United’s injury situation is a mitigating factor, of course, but it is unfair for Van Gaal to expect raw youngsters, such as Guillermo Varela, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Jesse Lingard and Nick Powell, to deliver in such a high pressure game. Van Gaal’s lads deserved better and this season’s exit in Europe’s premier club competition could have been avoided.
If United’s 5-3 reverse at Leicester City last season forced Van Gaal to adopt a defensive approach, then defeat against Wolfsburg surely amplifies the need for United adopt a more fluent, pacier, sustained attacking outlook.
After all, the tools are there. An attacking quartet of Lingard, Martial, Juan Mata and Memphis Depay provides a dynamic and fluid front four that, if given time to gel, could provide a genuine attacking threat. United’s opening goal against Wolfsburg offered a small glimpse of what could be achieved with incisive passing, leading to a clinical finish.
However, the Reds’ midfield duo of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Marouane Fellaini were found wanting. If Van Gaal is after more enterprise from the middle of the park then Ander Herrera is a a must-pick alongside one of Schweinsteiger, Michael Carrick or Morgan Schneiderlin. While Herrera is sidelined with injury, Van Gaal’s relative lack-of-faith in the Spaniard has disturbed many supporters.
Moreover, the club’s hierarchy, together with Van Gaal, now need to map out a coherent strategy on and off the pitch. Whatever the briefing emanating out of Ed Woodward’s office in recent days, a long-term plan to reestablish the club at an élite level, whilst maintaining an acceptable level of success on the pitch, is necessary. United is an institution that can lie ‘in transition’ for only so long.
Yet, plenty has already been invested in Van Gaal’s plan to overhaul United’s squad. More is seemingly promised. No figure will enough, even with all the talk of stellar names joining, unless a post-Ferguson identity is established. The suspicion is that A-list acquisitions will be made with an eye on making United even more marketable, rather than with the balance Van Gaal needs.
The gossip suggests that United is now a club that seeks out established stars in the model of Real Madrid; a break from a time when the club sought the best young talents, fashioning them into superstars. Van Gaal has offered plenty of youngsters a taste of first-team football, but the scattergun approach to the transfer market in the wake of Ferguson’s exit suggests a make-it-up-as-you-go philosophy that offers little in the way of long-term identity.
With each week and every disappointing result there’s a growing feeling that a difficult situation is likely to come to an ugly head at Old Trafford. United’s result at Wolfsburg may not be a watershed, but it might not be far off. In the aftermath of Wolfsburg Van Gaal’s immediate goal is to chalk up victories in the Premier League, preferably convincing ones, to stem the growing tide of negativity.
Then, the club as a whole must figure out how it is going to achieve its larger objectives. Supporters will be patient as long as progress is visible, with a trajectory of development heading in the right direction. For that, however, there also needs to be a modicum of hope. Supporters cannot repeatedly witness it snatched away in, frankly, tragi-comic circumstances.
Tuesday’s result will prompt a significant amount of soul-searching, but if United’s manager reaches the conclusion that a change in tack is required, and a more incisive approach taken, then maybe some good can come from the club’s Champions League exit.
For Van Gaal’s sake the narrative must change; he has to prove all over again that his philosophy can take United forward. Right now his team looks like it is running to stand still.
The campaign’s start could not have been more inauspicious. Defeat at PSV Eindhoven on Champions League matchday one proved painful in more ways than one. It was Louis van Gaal’s first return to his homeland since taking over at Manchester United; and the night on which Luke Shaw’s right leg was snapped crudely in two by Hector Moreno’s reckless challenge. Read More
Should Manchester United fail to score against a CSKA Moscow in the Champions League on Tuesday night it will be the first time in 23 years that the club has gone four games without a goal. Louis van Gaal surely has no wish to join David Moyes in securing ‘the wrong kind’ of club record post- Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
The Dutchman, who has been the subject of increased scrutiny over his team’s style since United limped to a third goalless draw in succession on Saturday, says that “the players, the manager and the staff” are working hard to install the attacking football demanded by ever more frustrated supporters.
Yet, there are no guarantees against a CSKA side that is now on a 21-game unbeaten streak in domestic competition, albeit a period in which the Russia side lost at VfL Wolfsburg on Champions League match-day one and in the away-leg of the qualifying round at Sporting Lisbon.
Still, Leonid Slutsky’s team remains in good form coming into match-day four. CSKA drew at Terek Grozny and then beat FC Ufa since United’s 1-1 draw in Moscow two weeks ago. In between Van Gaal’s side has, with must consternation, failed to score against Middlesbrough, Manchester City and Crystal Palace.
Indeed, United registered just one shot on target at Palace – Wayne Rooney’s limp free kick – and made just three opportunities from open play. It is a pattern that Van Gaal claims his team is ready to break.
“Until now there is always progress. I can remind you of the fact that you were saying, “Defending, defending, that is the problem,” said Van Gaal on Monday
“Now we are the best defenders of the Premier League, you are saying that we cannot attack. No, it is not true. It is only a moment in the process. We have stood first in the Premier League. Now we have a bad period because it is a bad period when you do not score goals. You have to score goals because that makes the difference.
“I hope that we shall score against CSKA Moscow. But I know that it is very difficult because they are very organised. They shall play more defensively than Crystal Palace for example. So it shall be very difficult but still we try to score goals.”
Despite United’s struggles in front of goal, Van Gaal is not yet ready to drop his captain, with Rooney having scored just six this season – four of Rooney’s goals came against Club Brugge and Ipswich Town. Rooney’s movement, first touch and attacking penetration were once against questionable during United’s draw in South London, although Van Gaal says that the 30-year-old “gives us more than only scoring goals.”
“He is our captain but also an example for the whole team,” said Van Gaal. “He has more credits than any other player. I have explained that to the group already, one and a half years ago. I still have confidence in Wayne Rooney.”
It means that French striker Anthony Martial is once again likely to be deployed from the left, while his manager also talked up the prospect of using the teenager on the right in future games. Martial scored in Moscow – a fine diving header to equalise – but it remains his only goal during a seven-game period in which Van Gaal has shunted the former Monaco player out to the wing.
Meanwhile, Slutsky’s team is looking to pick up its first result on the road in this season’s Champions League in what is proving to be a four-way competition for qualification from Group B. The Russian side has developed an effective counter-attacking game and is likely to sit deep at Old Trafford, using the pace of Ivorian striker Seydou Doumbia, together with Ahmed Musa and former Red Zoran Tosic, on the break.
“Manchester United are Manchester United,” said Slutsky. “They remain a club of top quality. This team is obviously very good with possession so we will play a counter-attacking game. When a team has players like Juan Mata, Anthony Martial, Wayne Rooney and so on, they can score at any time and against any opponent so their recent blanks don’t provide much comfort.”
After the past fortnight’s games United’s supporters may not hold the same level of confidence. Still, it is in fans’ support that Van Gaal believes his side will find the confidence to attack on Tuesday. At the weekend more than 3,000 travelling supporters chanted the name of Van Gaal’s recent critic, Paul Scholes, while urging the team to “attack, attack, attack.”
The Dutchman’s team will need to find the front-foot on Tuesday, lest the mini-rebellion instigated at Selhurst Park, should spread to Old Trafford.
“We have had a dip in our results and we have to come out of that dip,” van Gaal admitted. “That’s why we need the support of the fans. I hope, in spite of a lot of discussions, they shall support my players. The fans have always done that and I hope they will be the 12th player tomorrow again.”
Team news and line-ups
Van Gaal is unlikely to offer Rooney a rest, despite the forward being one of the few players who has not been rotated this season. Would the Dutchman consider changing this policy to take his captain out of the limelight for a week? Perhaps, although not this week.
“I have done that for all my players,” Van Gaal replied. “For example, Paddy McNair had a week in Ireland last week. When we think it is for the best, I will do that. It is not a big issue for me because even when I was a very young trainer-coach I did it with Jari Litmanen. It is more a big issue for the players; they are not so easy to convince.”
Elsewhere, Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young may be competing for one place in Van Gaal’s side. In defence Phil Jones is available after sitting out games against Middlesbrough and Palace, while Matteo Darmian will start at right-back only if Antonio Valencia remains injured.
Meanwhile, Memphis Depay has not been selected for Tuesday’s squad. The £31 million forward was also dropped by a highly critical Dutch national coach Danny Blind this week, with the 54-year-old questioning Memphis’ value as a ‘team player’.
“Every player needs a boost when he is out of the team and Memphis is not an exception,” added Van Gaal. “The consequence of not being in the national selection is because he is not playing that well. It is always the same – a player always has to perform well, otherwise there will be other players compared and the coach will make a choice.”
CSKA defender Aleksei Berezutski and midfielder Roman Eremenko are both doubtful for the Russian side.
United subs from: Romero, Blind, Pereira, Tuanzebe, Carrick, Fellaini, Herrera, Valencia, Lingard
CSKA subs from: Chepchugov, Nababkin, Chernov, Cauņa, Milanov, Golovin, Makarov
Match officials (POL)
Referee: Szymon Marciniak
Assistant referees: Paweł Sokolnicki, Tomasz Listkiewicz
Additional assistant referees: Paweł Raczkowski, Tomasz Musiał
Fourth official: Radosław Siejka (POL)
United 1-0 CSKA
Ambition. Wayne Rooney once accused the club of lacking a certain quantum of it. There’s certainly no lack of appetite to regain credibility in European circles, but the ‘process’ – as Louis van Gaal might put it – is ongoing. The Dutchman was winner of the Champions League with Ajax and a finalist at Bayern Munich; and he has aspirations to regain the trophy with Manchester United before he retires in 2017. Van Gaal has two seasons to achieve that goal.
Talk of victory in Europe’s premier competition is, of course, premature, especially after United’s loss at PSV Eindhoven. The defeat places the club’s status firmly in context, almost five years after the last of three finals in four seasons between 2008 and 2011. Instead, United is now a club now rebuilding its reputation on the continent after missing out on European football altogether last season.
If anything, the loss in Eindhoven served to highlight United’s regression – and talk of the club’s lowly European status will resurface if this campaign proves to be shorter than anticipated. And it may well be should Van Gaal’s men suffer another reverse on Wednesday night against a tough Wolfsburg side. PSV proved there are no guarantees even if United faces none of Europe’s élite clubs in Group B.
Still, Van Gaal’s ambition remains and the Dutchman appears content with the “progression in the maturity and balance of the team” – especially since Antony Martial came into the side to add a genuine high-class number nine where Rooney once roamed. It leaves United’s manager dreaming of success this season, perhaps ahead of the Dutchman’s own schedule.
“Reaching the final is an aim and winning the final is a little bit of luck,” said Van Gaal on Monday.
“I think Manchester United knows and remembers that fantastically, when they won the Champions League, because I saw at that time the people of Bayern Munich already going downstairs and then they scored in the last minute and, in injury time, Manchester United scored. You can say that was quality but when you have seen the match then you know it was not like that. So you need also luck.
“To get in the final, that is already a fantastic result. In the media, it is nothing because second is not the best. That’s the only thing that counts. But, for me, as a manager, I have to say when you reach the final then you have done fantastically. If you win the final then, of course, all the honours go to your team and yourself but I know better.”
For now United seek both quality and luck with Wolfsburg in town on Matchday 2. The German side enjoyed an unbeaten start to the season until faced with Robert Lewendowski’s Bayern Munich last week. The Polish striker scored five and nine minutes as Die Wölfe suffered the wrong end of a 5-1 defeat. It’s a result that might offer a false impression of Wolfsburg’s quality.
One of Van Gaal’s key players at Old Trafford is likely to be Bastian Schweinsteiger, the first German to play for the club. Schweinsteiger has become increasingly dominant in recent weeks as the 31-year-old’s fitness levels have increased, while the player’s natural leadership skills have come to the fore. Rooney may be the club’s official captain, but Schweinsteiger has become it’s leader. Against fellow German internationals Julian Draxler and Max Kruse, Schweinsteiger’s experience may tell.
“He was my former captain with Philipp Lahm at Bayern Munich so I think that he is also very worthwhile off the pitch,” added Van Gaal.
“You can see it already now because he is already accepted as a leading player, and that is why also we have bought him from Bayern Munich. I believe in the mixture between youth and older players. He is an example for the younger players to follow so I am very happy with him.”
Meanwhile, Dieter Hecking’s side enjoyed a 1-0 win over CSKA Moscow on Matchday 1, although the side could only manage a draw with Hannover at the weekend – a hangover, perhaps, from heavy defeat to Munich. Hecking lost Kevin de Bruyne in the summer – a player who had contributed 43 goals and assists combined last season. Yet, the replacements are high quality too: £25 million attacking midfielder Draxler and Germany international Kruse. Both should start against United on Wednesday.
The club has achieved little in European terms, although the side made the Europa League quarter-finals last season. Still, Hecking’s side has an early advantage in four-horse race – with United already playing catch-up.
“I don’t have dreams. I prefer reality and there is a lot of hard work in front of us, but we are in a good position after our home win against Moscow,” said Hecking.
“We are aiming to get a result. If we can get a result it will give us confidence. We are facing a good team and most will expect a home win and before the draw I would have said United would have finished top of the group. Their defeat at PSV makes it more interesting. That creates a bit of pressure for United. It is up to us to increase the pressure on them.”
History is on the Reds’ side at least. United has never lost the first two games of a Champions League campaign, while no German team has kept a clean sheet in the past 16 Champions League games against United.
The test is real though – just the kind of fixture where Schweinsteiger adds most value. The German captain adds experience and high quality in a team that has little in European terms, as a unit, of the former and has inconsistently applied the latter.
“I scored my first goal for Bayern away at Wolfsburg, so I have good memories,” said Schweinsteiger. “But I always remember it wasn’t easy to play against them. They were always tough matches. Wolfsburg have a good team, especially over the last three or four years. They have improved a lot.”
Team news and line-ups
Van Gaal is without midfielders Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera with minor injuries. Antonio Valencia faces a late test, but could start at right-back. Marcos Rojo has missed the past two matches with a hamstring problem picked up at Southampton and did not feature in training on Tuesday. Phil Jones or Paddy McNair could play if Valencia does not make the team, with Daley Blind moving to left-back.
Van Gaal is again likely to deploy Rooney at number 10 behind French teenager Martial, with support from Juan Mata and Memphis Depay from wide areas. Van Gaal may draft one of Donald Love, Guillermo Varel, James Weir and Josh Harrop into the matchday squad.
Wolfsburg midfielder Luiz Gustavo has a knee injury, while defender Robin Knoche, winger Vieirinha and goalkeeper Koen Casteels are also out of the game.
United subs from: Romero, McNair, Varela, Love, Weir, Harrop, Pereira, Fellaini, Valencia, Young, Wilson
Wolfsburg subs from: Grün, Schäfer, Ascues, Felipe, Jung, Arnold, Seguin, F Rodríguez, Bendtner
Match officials (HUN)
Referee: Viktor Kassai
Assistant referees: György Ring, Vencel Tóth
Additional assistant referees: Tamás Bognar, Ádám Farkas
Fourth official: Peter Berettyán
United 2-1 Wolfsburg
£1 bet club
Draxler and Martial to score @ 11/1
Match graphic by @cole007
Back in the European big time after almost 18 months in the wilderness. It is Manchester United’s reward for a slow and fabulously expensive rebuilding process in the wake of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. United’s 7-1 aggregate victory over Club Brugge in last month’s qualifying round offers Louis van Gaal a first taste of Champions League football proper as United manager in the competition where the Dutchman made his name more than 20 years ago.
The Reds’ visit to PSV Eindhoven on Tuesday night will test United’s progress since Van Gaal’s appointment 15 months ago, albeit in a group that offers the visitors a relatively favourable draw on the club’s return to the European élite. Trips to Wolfsburg and CSKA Moscow await, but on Tuesday the Reds’ enjoy a first fixture against PSV in 15 years, together with Van Gaal’s return to Holland for the first time as United manager.
It promises to be an intriguing fixture, not only for Van Gaal’s return to his homeland, but for Memphis Depay’s rapid appearance at Philips Stadion, just months after a £25 million transfer to England. The youngster has promised to celebrate should he score against his old club on Tuesday.
It is 523 days since David Moyes’ side lost to Bayern Munich in the 2013-14 quarter-final – with few nights to match to drama of the continent’s premier competition in the meantime. Moyes was sacked less than three weeks after United’s exit, with Van Gaal having all but totally dismantled the Scotsman’s squad in the intervening months.
Indeed, Van Gaal has spent more than £250 million on new players over three transfer windows, although the Dutchman has trimmed significant fat from United’s squad too. Still, the investment leaves few excuses should United fail to make an impression on the club’s return to Europe, although Van Gaal is reluctant to talk up his side’s chances in this season’s competition.
“We have to show on the pitch if we are able to win matches at the highest level – that is the challenge for us now,” admitted Van Gaal on Monday. “Last year we were fourth in the Premier League and because of that we qualified for the Champions League, but now we have to show we can play at this level. I don’t know if we can, I have to wait and see.”
United’s record on the road is muted this season: victory at Aston Villa, defeat at Swansea City, and an easy win over Brugge in northern Belgium. It offers little comfort against a PSV side with two wins from two in the Philips Stadion this season.
“For me it’s a difficult ground to go,” van Gaal added. “I didn’t win so much here, not with Barcelona, or with Ajax. However I think I did win with AZ Alkmaar. A draw away is always a good result in my opinion – but I want to win. The first match is always very important and the same is also true for PSV. I’ll be playing with my best team.”
It is a team once again without the squad’s sole senior striker, Wayne Rooney, with youngsters Antony Martial and James Wilson the only alternatives to giant midfielder Marouane Fellaini in attack. The Belgian struggled to make an impression as United beat Liverpool 3-1 at Old Trafford over the weekend; Fellaini’s lack of pace and crude first touch exposing the flaws in United’s summer transfer strategy.
Indeed, victory over old rivals Liverpool came from the home side’s only three strikes on target: a set piece, a penalty and Martial’s piece of individual brilliance. Saturday’s victory mirrored much of this season’s pattern – dominance on the ball, but a lack of cutting thrust up front. Albeit this is a pattern that has also established United’s improved defensive nous, with Chris Smalling, Daley Blind, Luke Shaw and Matteo Darmian excellent as a unit. David de Gea’s reintroduction to the side against Liverpool has only strengthened United’s defensive clout.
Still, is in attack where new impetus is required. If Martial made an immediate impression following a £36 million transfer from Monaco on deadline day, then another of United’s summer acquisitions, Memphis, has been slow to adapt to life at Old Trafford. Memphis scored 22 league goals for PSV last season, but is yet to register in domestic competition for his new club and was substituted at half-time against Liverpool. It is the inevitable process of adaptation for a young player thrust into a new country, says PSV manager Phillip Cocu.
“I am not surprised he has ups and downs, but he is also a player who puts a lot of risk in his actions,” said Cocu, who played under Van Gaal for both the Netherlands national team and Barcelona.
“It’s normal you need some time to grow, you need a lot of games. He’s a quick learner also and I’m sure when he gets some time he’ll get it very fast. He will bring goals. He also has good vision for other players. He will always be a player who will have two players on him, but the rest of the team will have benefits from that. I’m convinced he’ll get better and better.”
Cocu was appointed PSV manager on a four-year contract in April 2013 – just five days after Sir Alex announced his retirement at Old Trafford. While the Reds have floundered, Cocu rebuilt PSV during a period when old rivals Ajax dominated. Finishing fourth in May 2014, after losing Kevin Strootman to Roma, Cocu’s team then secured the Eredivisie title last May to end a run of four Ajax titles in succession.
The 44-year-old holds much respect for his former manager Van Gaal, although the pair have not remained close during Cocu’s formative years as a coach.
“We were together with the national team and then Barcelona,” said Cocu. “He made me a better player because of his tactical skills and the way he worked with the team, but afterwards when I stopped playing, as a coach we met sometimes but we didn’t speak a lot about how we work.”
PSV remains unbeaten in the league this season, securing a 6-0 away victory at Cambuur over the weekend, following an impressive 3-1 win against title rivals Feyenoord before the international break. It is the kind of goalscoring impact that Van Gaal’s side has too often lacked. The Dutchman can hardly afford another anaemic display on his return to Holland.
Team news and line-ups
Van Gaal must choose whether to stick with the ineffective Fellaini as Rooney’s replacement in attack, or trust in the goalscoring youthful vigour of Martial or James Wilson. The Frenchman’s run and composed finish against Liverpool offered just a hint of the talent that pushed United to pay a potential world record sum for a teenager. Meanwhile, Wilson is also in the match-day squad, despite reports that the youngster is to join Derby County on loan this season.
Elsewhere Memphis is under pressure from Young, with the Englishman enjoying an effective 45 minutes on Saturday. Andreas Pereira has been drafted into the travelling party.
In midfield Van Gaal will choose two of Michael Carrick, Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Scheweinsteiger, with Ander Herrera likely to retain his place as United’s principle creator.
The home side could welcome back defender Jetro Willems, who is yet to play this season after suffering a knee injury over the summer, but Florian Jozefzoon is out with a similar problem.
PSV subs from: Pasveer, Willems, Ismat-Marin, Poulsen, Willems, Pereiro, Schaars, Maher, Vloet, Boljevic, Locadia
United subs from: Romero, McNair, Rojo, Carrick, Pereira, Valencia, Young, Wilson
Referee: Nicola Rizzoli (ITA)
Assistant referees: Elenito Di Liberatore, Mauro Tonolini
Additional assistant referees: Antonio Damato, Davide Massa
PSV 0-1 United
£1 bet club
Martial to score in United victory @ 100/30
Match graphic by @cole007
Manchester United’s return to European competition should be a formality. After all, it is a decade since Club Brugge last appeared in Europe’s premier competition and the Belgian side is one of the lower ranked teams in the Champions League play-off. Indeed, Louis van Gaal’s team could have faced a far more challenging route through to the Champions League proper in what should prove a favourable draw.
Football is rarely that simple. As Van Gaal put it on Monday, there is huge “pressure” on United to beat Brugge over two legs. It is, after all, not for another European failure that the club has spent some £260 million on new players over the past two years.
The prize is significant – entry to the Champions League proper for the first time in two years, where United will be placed in Pot 2 and will likely face one of the continent’s top sides. Victory in the competition next May would secure United more than £70 million in prize money and broadcasting rights.
For the moment, beyond financial reward and sponsors’ requirements, the pressure is to build credibility in a competition where United hasn’t progressed further than the quarter-final in five seasons. This is now a club relegated to the backwaters of Europe’s élite, having once made three finals in four years between 2008 and 2011. In the interim United’s relative parsimony during the late-stage Sir Alex Ferguson era eroded the squad’s quality; David Moyes decimated its standing and confidence.
Van Gaal is rebuilding. It is a process that has taken more than a year, with scant tangible reward so far for the huge investment made. Spending has also ratcheted up the level of expectation. If anything, United’s successful, if uninspiring start to the new Premier League campaign, has increased the pressure on Van Gaal’s men to deliver under Old Trafford’s lights on Tuesday night.
“There’s a lot of pressure because our aim is to reach the Champions League and that is what Arsène Wenger mentioned last year,” said van Gaal on Monday.
“These kind of matches are difficult. We’ve drawn Brugge and they can defend very well. They can attack also, so it shall be a difficult match – that is why the pressure is high. The board, the players and the fans want to participate. We have to show our quality against a good team. It is not an easy game.”
For Van Gaal the match also represents a personal return to the top table. The Dutchman hasn’t managed a club in the Champions League since he was sacked by Bayern Munich in 2011. He took the Bavarian club to the final in 2010, only to be beaten by José Mourinho’s Internazionale. It is, says Van Gaal, a competition that he has missed – but one in which he expects his new club to do well.
“Of course you miss that because as a manager you can show yourself at the highest podium against other clubs at a high level,” he said. “You can get more from yourself and the players can get more from themselves when the resistance is higher.
“Every English team can play in the Champions League or the Europa League. I think in England the rhythm is the highest in Europe and a lot of European clubs are not used to that rhythm. I hope that advantage is good enough to beat Club Brugge.”
For United’s players the Champions League still represents the stiffest test and highest profile stage outside of the international game. It is a stage that will only come United’s way if the team qualifies over the next fortnight – a challenge that the short pre-season programme was designed to meet.
“It’s true that getting to the group stage is vital for everyone; since the beginning of pre-season we’ve been getting ready for this moment,” said midfielder Juan Mata. “I’m sure the atmosphere inside Old Trafford is going to be special, as it always is in the Champions League.”
Brugge, meanwhile, start the match as overwhelming underdogs to progress. Blauw-Zwart beat Panithinaikos 4-3 on aggregate to qualify for this tie having finished second in the Jupiter League play-offs last season.
Managed by Belgium’s 1990 and 1994 World Cup goalkeeper, Michel Preud’homme, Brugge boasts just enough quality to ensure the hosts suffer for any complacency. Not least because Preud’homme typically sends his team out in an attacking 4-3-3 formation that commits players forward on the break.
Belgian Player of the Year Victor Vasquez is one of the major threats. The Spaniard is likely to start on the left of a three-man attack and began his career as a product of Barcelona’s La Masia academy during Van Gaal’s spell at the club. He is a player Van Gaal rates, although danger to United’s hopes also comes from winger Jose Izquierdo and Israeli midfielder Lior Refaelov, who scored six times in the Europa League last season.
“Vasquez is very good; he is one of the key players,” said the Dutchman. “He is not only fast but he has good vision. I liked him when I analysed him, but there are other good players.”
Preud’homme, meanwhile, enjoyed a fine club and international career – winning the Yashin Award as the 1994 World Cup’s best ‘keeper. Supporters in England might remember the 56-year-old most as the stopper beaten by David Platt’s last-gasp extra time goal in the quarter-finals.
Appointed Brugge coach in 2013, Preud’homme is one of the few former goalkeepers to coach in the Champions League. He has previously managed in Belgium, with Standard Liège and Gent, Holland with Twente and Al-Shabab in Saudi Arabia.
Team news and line-ups
United subs from: Johnstone, Evans, McNair, Rojo, Carrick, Herrera, Pereira, Fellaini, Valencia, Young, Hernández, Wilson
Brugge subs from: Bolat, Steelant, Hooyberghs, Castelletto, Cools, Dierckx, Claudemir, Oularé, Brodic
Belgian midfielder-cum-desperate plan B, Marouane Fellaini, could play some part having missed out on United’s opening Premier League matches through suspension. Phil Jones is still out with mild thrombosis – no date has yet been set for the defender’s return – while Marcos Rojo could feature in the matchday squad having trained with the first team all week. David de Gea is again not considered pending a move to Real Madrid.
Van Gaal’s selection issues revolve around the roles offered to Adnan Januzaj, who scored in an otherwise disappointing performance against Aston Villa, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Ander Herrera. The latter is unlikely to start, but Schweinsteiger is nearing full fitness and impressed with a late cameo against Villa on Friday night. If Januzaj is not retained Ashley Young could come back into the team on the left side of a 4-4-1-1 formation.
Brugge is in the midst of an injury crisis, with more than half-a-dozen players unavailable.
Referee: Deniz Aytekin (Germany)
Assistants: G Kleve, M Hacker
Fourth Official: F Willenborg
United 3-0 Brugge
£1 bet club
Memphis and Januzaj to score @ 9/2