“Awful and horrible,” are two words that might suitably describe Manchester United at the moment, with turmoil on- and off the field continuing to dominate the headlines. I was apt that Louis van Gaal should this week use the line to describe speculation surrounding his job prospects. Few Reds will feel sympathy with the Dutchman. Read More
The last time Sheffield United visited Old Trafford, back in 2007, Manchester United was on course for a 16th league title under Sir Alex Ferguson. The Scot earned plaudits for the way he had once again rebuilt a young, hungry side, following the summer sale of Ruud Van Nistelrooy. The Reds were playing attacking, free-flowing football, with Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo leading the attack, and comfortably won 2-0 at Old Trafford. How times change. Read More
Up for the cup? Manchester United’s FA Cup record in recent years suggests anything but. Now more than a decade since the club’s last victory in the world’s oldest tournament, manager Louis van Gaal says other priorities take precedent once again. Plus ça change each season for the past decade and more. Typically league and European titles take precedent; this time, with United in a five-way race for Champions League qualification, the Dutchman is insistent that the real prize is achieving fourth place in the Premier League.
The logic is sound, of course, as United simply cannot fail in pursuit of European football after missing out during David Moyes’ ill-fated reign. Not that, with just 10 games left in the league competition, the Reds’ schedule is packed and the players warrant a rest. In that the choice of cup glory and European qualification is far from mutually exclusive, although Van Gaal’s selection for Monday night’s fixture will say much for how the Dutchman is able to balance his priorities.
Still, this fixture stands for much even if it far from the first choice priority for United or Arsenal this season. This is, after all, the seventh time these clubs have met in the FA Cup since Arsene Wenger took charge of the Gunners in 1996 – and the 14th cup fixture between these sides overall.
There have been some modern classics too: United’s extra-time victory in the 1999 semi-final replay with that Ryan Giggs goal; Arsenal’s ill-deserved penalty shoot-out final win six years later; and United’s infamous 2-0 win at Old Trafford in 2011 in which Sir Alex Ferguson fielded seven defenders. The 2015 vintage may not match others for importance, but history says that drama is just as likely.
Still, with United facing a difficult March and April fixture list Van Gaal must find the balance between retaining fresh minds and bodies, and developing a sense of momentum that is so important as the season enters its final straight.
“Every match is just as important as the next, and every result can influence the next,” said Van Gaal on Friday.
“We are in a rat race in the Premier League and the Arsenal game is separate from that, but if we do well we would take the good feeling and confidence into our next games. Everywhere I have been I have always managed to win something in my first season, but the most important thing is the goal we have set, and that is the top four. If we do not achieve that we have failed.
“United and Arsenal are placed third and fourth in the league, so it’s almost like a final, I think. I think if we beat them it is a big blow for them, but if they beat us it is a big blow for us. It is very important game, not only for the FA Cup but also for the rat race.”
Van Gaal is fortunate to enjoy a largely fit squad, although striker Robin van Persie is again absent with an ankle injury. In the Dutchman’s stead misfiring Radamel Falcao should start.
Meanwhile, Jonny Evans begins the first of a six match suspension for allegedly spitting at Newcastle United’s Papiss Cissé last week. Luke Shaw could also miss out with injury, prompting United’s manager to deploy the 3-5-2 system that has only intermittently worked this season. In the young defender’s absence in-form winger Ashley Young could revert to left-wing-back.
Whatever the selection it remains unlikely United will be able capitalise on the strategy that has brought 11 victories from the past 15 matches against Arsenal: to outmuscle the north Londoners in midfield and seek opportunities to break at speed. After all, United’s lack of a combative midfielder and pace up front has characterised much of the season.
Meanwhile, the visitors are without new signing Gabriel Paulista who has a hamstring problem, although Wojciech Szczesny and Nacho Monreal return for the Gunners.
Wenger’s side has enjoyed victories over Everton and Queens Park Rangers since Monaco humiliated the north London side in the Champions League a fortnight ago. It represents a rapid return to form for a side that has secured eight victories from the past 10 league matches – and overtaken United in the race for European football in the process.
Despite the “rat race” for European places Wenger has much sympathy for his opposite number, with Van Gaal suffering an increasingly hostile media atmosphere during United’s inconsistent campaign.
“It’s like that,” said Wenger this week. “The rule is everyday you have to criticise somebody or you don’t sleep well overnight. Because we are in a public job, we have to accept that. It’s important you know well the players you have, and I believe that United are in construction, because they got many new players this year.”
Arsenal’s victory in the FA Cup last season represented the Frenchman’s first trophy in the decade since that 2005 final against United. Brief respite from circling critics. With Van Persie out of Monday’s tie Wayne Rooney is the sole survivor from a match that was decided on penalties after a scoreless 120 minutes.
“We have an FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal on Monday and that is massive for us,” Rooney told ManUtd.com. “We haven’t been to a final for a few years, we want to try to win that game. It is a massive trophy. It is a trophy that, growing up as a youngster, I used to love watching and I was fortunate enough to see Everton lift the FA Cup in 1995 when I was nine years old. It is something which I would love to do.”
In historical terms the past decade is lean, with the clubs participating in 36 finals between them and winning 11 FA Cups each over the past 150 years. Not that United’s recent record against the north Londonders is poor: the Reds have not conceded in the past four cup games against Arsenal, while United has lost just once in the past 15 matches against Wenger’s side.
Van Gaal, meanwhile, hopes that his side stretches that record to 16. He just wants Champions League qualification a little bit more.
United (3-4-3): De Gea; Jones, Smalling, Rojo; Valencia, Blind, Herrera, Young; Rooney, Falcao, Di Maria
Arsenal (4-3-3): Szczesny; Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Coquelin, Ramsey, Cazorla; Özil, Giroud, Sánchez
United: Valdes, Lindegaard, Rafael, McNair, James, Fellaini, Blackett, Januzaj, Wilson
Arsenal: Ospina, Monreal, Rosicky, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Chambers, Martinez, Welbeck
United 93 – Draw 48 – Arsenal 78
Referee: Michael Oliver
Assistant Referees: Jake Collin & Gary Beswick
Fourth Official: Craig Pawson
United 2-1 Arsenal
£1 bet club
Wayne Rooney to score the winning goal @ 5/1
Running total: £0.50 up!
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It is far from the narrative that Louis van Gaal seeks: criticism from supporters, pundits and ex-Manchester United players about his team’s style as well as its substance. After all, the Dutchman has guided United to just one defeat in the past 18 matches – a record that, had it not included eight draws, might have United challenging for the Premier League title. As is it, United remains locked in a five-way battle for European football next season – and Van Gaal is increasingly on the defensive.
Respite, albeit brief, comes in the FA Cup, with United facing a lower division club for the third successive round. Van Gaal’s side struggled to beat Yeovil Town and Cambridge United in earlier rounds, with Preston North End no more likely to provide a walkover this time around. Supporters expect victory on Monday night, of course, but whether the Dutchman is able to bring a degree of cohesion to an attacking unit that has been largely sterile during that 18-match run remains a key question.
The accusation that Van Gaal has developed a ‘long ball game’ came at West Ham United, where Sam Allardyce drew a bizarre and unnecessary reaction from the Dutchman in the wake of United’s last-gasp draw in east London last weekend. That performance also brought a stinging rebuke from former United midfielder Paul Scholes.
“United’s history was built on attacking football, which does not always mean that the team kept clean sheets or did not concede chances,” said the player who appeared on 718 occasions for United. “Why do you think United have had some of the best goalkeepers in the world over the years? They needed them because the team committed so many players forward. At the moment I’m struggling to watch Van Gaal’s team with any great enjoyment.”
It was perhaps worse at home to Burnley in midweek, where United won but the visitors deserved so much more for a vibrant attacking performance that was in stark contrast to United’s recent approach. Then, amid the sterility, there is anything but tactical cohesion. Eight months into the job, Van Gaal is seemingly far from finding the balance that his philosophy demands.
“I have played five or six systems and I am looking still for the balance,” admitted the former Barcelona manager this week, who has switched to a 4-4-2 diamond in recent weeks.
“This system is more attractive than normally and I can play with more attacking players. In spite of the fact that we are looking for the balance, our results are not bad and our defensive organisation is not bad. So, I cannot say that I am very disappointed about that.”
Preston offers Van Gaal’s men the chance to progress in the only tournament United stands a realistic chance of claiming. Perhaps equally important, in the current atmosphere, is for the Dutchman’s side to put on a real show. Not that Van Gaal is tempted to talk up the chances of an open, attacking game.
“It’s always the same because you know the world is for the underdog and we have to play away under the same circumstances as at Cambridge or Yeovil,” said Van Gaal.
“You know that they play more or less with two rows of four and a striker who is dropping in, as did Cambridge and Yeovil and also for example Queens Park Rangers and Burnley. It is always difficult to play against a defending team.
On the pitch Van Gaal is unlikely to risk Phil Jones, who departed after only a few minutes against Burnley. Daley Blind could be involved, but Michael Carrick has suffered a setback in his rehabilitation is will not be available. If Blind does not feature hen Wayne Rooney could continue in a more defensive role. The Scouser finished United’s victory over Burnley sitting in front of the back four.
Van Gaal reserved praise for second-half substitute Ander Herrera, who again brought balance and energy to United’s midfield, although there is no guarantee that the Basque will feature. United’s manager has normally prefer Rooney, Juan Mata and, recently, Adnan Januzaj in deeper roles this season.
Meanwhile, Preston manager Simon Grayson, is without cup-tied Daniel Johnson while goalkeeper Sam Johnstone cannot play against his parent club. Thorsten Stuckmann takes over in goal, with Calum Woods and Callum Robinson also in the match-day squad. However, former Leeds United striker Jermaine Beckford, who scored in the FA Cup at Old Trafford in 2010, is out injured.
Preston has enjoyed a positive season under Grayson, with the Lilywhites chasing promotion to the Championship. With 16 games remaining Grayson’s side is within four points of automatic promotion after missing out in last season’s play-offs.
“We’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain, and that is what we’ll do,” said Grayson of United’s visit on Monday night.
“We’ll go and enjoy playing against some of the best players in the world – fantastic atmosphere, massive profile for the football club and a tie we’re looking forward to and should enjoy. We’ll do ourselves justice, but what we’ve done is focus on the last two league games and getting results and performances.”
That freedom seemingly liberated both Cambridge and Yeovil in previous rounds. Or, in contrast, inhibited United’s performance. It took the late entry of Angel Di Maria at Yeovil to secure victory, while Cambridge enjoyed a huge payday in embarrassing United at the Abbey Stadium to earn a replay. For Van Gaal it remains a difficult task no matter how many places between the sides on Monday.
“You know the world is against you, the environment is against you because everyone is with the underdog,” said Van Gaal. “It is difficult to accept but it’s like that. But the chance that you can survive is higher because you are playing against lower qualities. But you have to beat the team with better motivation and in the atmosphere where everyone is against you.”
Fail at Preston and Van Gaal may find more of his own on the turn – not just the former players. It is the thin line the Dutchman treads this season.
Preston (3-5-2): Stuckmann; Clarke, Huntington, Wright; Wiseman, Welsh, Kilkenny, Laird, Gallagher; Davies, Garner.
United (4-1-3-2): Valdes; McNair, Smalling, Rojo, Shaw; Blind; Herrera, Rooney, Di Maria; Wilson, Falcao
Preston: Humphrey, Buchanan, Reid, King, Ebanks-Blake, Woods, Robinson
United: De Gea, Evans, James, Blackett, Valencia, Januzaj, Young, Fellaini, Pereira, Van Persie
Preston 22 – Draw 22 – United 31
Referee: Philip Dowd
Assistant Referees: Michael Mullarkey & David Bryan
Fourth Official: David Webb
Preston 1-3 United
£1 bet club
1-3 @ 12/1
Running total: £(-)8.50
Cambridge United supporters have taken up more than 6,600 tickets for Tuesday night’s FA Cup fourth round replay at Old Trafford on Tuesday. Indeed, Us supporters might have made a more significant proportion of Old Trafford’s crowd on the night had it not been for the Glazer family’s universally hated ‘automatic cup ticket scheme’. The magic of the cup indeed. But it is reward well-earned for fans of the East Anglian side after Cambridge’s redoubtable performance at Abbey Stadium 10 days ago.
Louis van Gaal’s side should dispatch Cambridge with ease despite the scoreless draw in the first match between these sides. Should the Dutchman require any tips then he need look no further than Cambridge’s 3-2 defeat at Luton Town last weekend. Heady times for Cambridge, perhaps, but it was a result that brought the mid-table League Two side back down to earth.
This has been a glamour tie for a side that has spent much of the last decade in non-league football – and a healthy earner too. Cambridge will take home more than £500,000 over the two games.
Meanwhile, United recovered strongly at the weekend in defeating Leicester City at Old Trafford. The fixture may have ended on a limp note, but the Reds were utterly dominant for the first 45 minutes before taking Van Gaal’s instruction to close out the game. And in the process some Reds, who had disappointed at times this season, instead impressed; Adnan Januzaj, Radamel Falcao, Luke Shaw and Daley Blind among the number.
It leaves Van Gaal with a familiar dilemma – to push on with his strongest side, and secure a place in the FA Cup fifth round, or to rest key players ahead of the weekend’s difficult fixture with West Ham United at the Boleyn Ground. After all, United’s Premier League record on-the-road this season is just the seventh best in the league. The Dutchman could do without the headache of any further injuries this season.
Van Gaal’s selection hinges on his decision to use, or otherwise, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie in particular – both of whom might normally be expected to sit out a tie United should win comfortably. Meanwhile, in midfield, Januzaj, Ander Herrera and Juan Mata, who was dropped on Saturday, will all hope to feature.
At least Van Gaal has a largely fit squad to choose from. Ashley Young and Michael Carrick are absentees through injury, but Chris Smalling made the bench against the Foxes and could start. Jonny Evans is unlikely to be risked, with the Northern Irishman only just returning from injury. Darren Fletch is in the match day squad after a proposed move to West Ham collapsed this week.
Either way there should be no lack of focus in Van Gaal’s camp. Although the Dutchman talked a strong game before United’s limp draw in the east of England, his players’ complacency shone through most. After more than a decade without the FA Cup few supporters were impressed. Not least because the cup remains United’s only realistic chance of silverware this season.
“We want to make it to the next round and we are absolutely focused on that because the team is very excited about this competition,” said Juan Mata in his weekly blog post.
“Against Leicester, we were able to take our good chances in the first half and that allowed us to have a quiet game and to enjoy it more than other weeks. We don’t want to relax though. Every game is complicated.
“In sports, having respect for your opponent is a must. Even more so in football, where distances have shortened. That is something we are aware of ahead of our game against Cambridge. Not long ago, they proved to be a tough rival.”
Meanwhile, Richard Money’s side arrives in reasonably good shape despite the weekend defeat. Midfielder Liam Hughes, who injured an ankle in the first tie, is out together with fellow Harrison Dunk, but Ryan Donaldson should overcome a minor knee problem. Donaldson impressed with direct running and high-quality delivery from the right-wing in Cambridge – a player who might ordinarily have made it to a higher level.
Still, Money took positives in the loss at Luton where Cambridge almost snatched an unlikely draw after shipping three goals in the first half.
“We’ve got a big game to play tomorrow and it was very important that, while feeling the disappointment of defeat, you’ve got to take the positives from what you’ve done,” said Money on Monday.
“To get the tie in the first place was like winning the pools, and to draw the first game to get the second game was like winning the lottery. That’s the significance of what we’ve done for our football club. We’ll go to Old Trafford and do exactly what we tried to do in the first game, which was to play as well as we possibly can.”
Van Gaal demands nothing short of comfortable victory against Cambridge, of course, although supporters might also look for a strong performance. After all the narrative of the season has now shifted away from ill-fortune and injury to a focus on just how far United has progressed under the new manager. The Dutchman remains on the defensive.
“In spite of all the criticism we have had, we are still in the FA Cup and a lot of teams are not,” said Van Gaal on Monday.
“But you have to win because they are coming also with two rows of four and a goalkeeper and dropping in a striker, and you have to make the first goal because that is the most important goal, so it’s not such an easy game.
“Manchester United have not won it for 11 years, so not always the best team win it – it’s also the underdog. That’s our warning for Tuesday.”
Yet, with more than £150 million spent over the summer fans hoped for more than the cautious approach delivered to date. Then again Van Gaal sent out a team to ‘not lose’ in east Anglia. The philosophy will surely be a little more positive on Tuesday night.
United (4-3-1-2): De Gea; Valencia, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Herrera, Blind, Januzaj; Di Maria; Wilson, Falcao
Cambridge (4-4-2): Dunn; Tait, Taylor, Coulson, Nelson; Donaldson, Champion, McGeehan, Kaikai; Elliott, Bird
United: De Gea, Rafael, McNair, Smalling, Blackett, Pereira, Mata, Fletcher, Van Persie, Rooney
Cambridge: Norris, Miller, Hunt, Simpson, Bird, Chiedozie, Chadwick, Akintunde, Ball
United 1 – Draw 2 – Cambridge 0
Referee: Jonathan Moss
Assistant Referees: Gary Beswick & Lee Betts
Fourth Official: Robert Madley
United 5-0 Cambridge
£1 bet club
James Wilson hat-trick @ 15/1
Running total: £(-)14
It is the word that has become most synonymous with Louis van Gaal’s first six months at Manchester United: the “philosophy.” It is at one the Dutchman’s favoured “play style” and a system of coaching belief; his principles and a fundamental axiom. The philosophy has carried Van Gaal through two decades at the sharp end of European football during spells with Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and the Dutch national side. It is, also, barely in evidence at Old Trafford this season.
Indeed, such has become the Dutchman’s umbrella of pragmatism that is not easy to determine United’s strategy let alone an over-arching philosophy. Strip away Van Gaal’s bright young things at Ajax and even the embryonic forebear of Pep Guardiola’s world-beaters at Barça; forget, for a moment, that Champions League final with Bayern. Concentrate, instead, on the here at now in Manchester. The assessment is something less impressive – far, it seems, from a philosophy.
For much of the campaign Van Gaal has lived in the moment, fire-fighting one injury crisis to the next while, patently, not fully trusting his squad. This despite a summer outlay of around £150 million. Even in recent weeks, with a new injury-free paradigm a play, Van Gaal does not have a solid grasp on his preferred team. Perhaps not even a favoured strategy. Instead, the Dutchman has become a manager tinkering in an increasingly desperate battle to find the right balance. It is a brutal assessment six months into the role.
Yet, the number of systemic, tactical and personnel changes say much. And the Dutchman now routinely deploys his men – even the stars – out of position. Van Gaal has used 30 players during the Premier League campaign alone, while the Dutchman has veered between a range of systems, from three to five at the back, and a diamond to straight lines in midfield. None of it points to a man with a clear idea of where he is heading, injuries or otherwise.
Friday night’s fixture with Cambridge United at the Abbey Stadium is a case in point. The world’s oldest tournament is United’s sole remaining chance of silverware this season and, presumably, a key focus for Van Gaal’s squad. Yet, there was another formation shift – to a 4-4-2 diamond – with up to five players nominally used out of their typical position. None of Daley Blind, Antonio Valencia, Adnan Januzaj nor Angel Di Maria were deployed in the roles that made their names. Little wonder United served up another disjointed performance in East Anglia.
The curiosity was not in United’s lack of fluency though. Nor even in the team’s lethargy. After all the noted inability of Van Gaal’s team to move from back to front quickly is becoming passé. The real talking point was the Dutchman’s revision to a flat-back four system that he had been at pains to denigrate in the build up.
Curious not least because Van Gaal so forcibly pushed back against supporters who had called for a return to “4-4-2” at Loftus Road last weekend. It is a system in which the Dutchman has little faith that his squad can successfully execute.
“I said to my players I have twitched my ass on the bench because we were out of balance,” Van Gaal said last Thursday.
“We won against West Ham playing 4-4-2 for instance but all the time it was twitching your ass and I don’t like it. After I switched the system we won nine in a row then we lose one game and the discussion about the system start up again. It’s ridiculous.”
This is, of course, a crass reduction of a period in which United impressed rarely, winning games on the back of a tight rearguard, but a team increasingly passive in attack. That the Reds drew three away games over Christmas has become a symbol for the apparent lack of tactical ambition away from Old Trafford.
Van Gaal rejects discussion of his repetitive formation changes, externalising the debate while stretching the self-imposed time-limit for singularity with his squad. It was, remember, supposed to take three months. It will, it seems, be months yet.
“I do not have to take into account 600 million opinions,” said the Dutchman of the perceived criticism from United’s global fanbase.
“I cannot listen to what the media are writing or what other people are saying because they are never at the training ground or attending the team meetings. It is my job to analyse the games, communicate with the players and then make a decision with my staff. I do not feel the players are completely comfortable with the new system yet. I would like them to be more comfortable but we are working on this in the middle of the season so we are doing a lot of things during the matches.”
It is an observation that brings an obvious question though: what exactly was United’s coach trying to achieve during the cup tie at Cambridge? This was not Van Gaal is crisis mode at the Abbey Stadium, but a manager who made a conscious choice to field two midfielders in his back four, while pushing Fellaini nominally out to the right and deploying Januzaj in central midfield. None of it worked. Even Di Maria’s role at the head of the diamond is one not often occupied by the Argentinian during his time in Europe.
The formation switch did little for his players’ comfort, while the number of ‘square pegs in round holes’ played to the hosts’ strategy of defending deep and seeking to break into wide areas. And yet it is almost inconceivable that United will field a flat-back four against Leicester City at Old Trafford this weekend.
“I was very disappointed at half-time because we made the same error against Yeovil Town and Queens Park Rangers,” said Van Gaal in the aftermath.
“We played in the same style of play [as Cambridge] and you don’t have to do that. In the second half we played much better, we built up the game from behind and played no more long balls.
“I know in these matches every aspect of a game is against you. The crowd is against you – that is nice I think – but also the pitch and also the defensive organisation of the opponent. Cambridge are the weaker team – everybody knows that – and you have to solve that problem. You cannot always solve that problem.”
Away from the here-and-now of United’s cup fortunes, questions remain about the Dutchman’s use of his squad in addition to the lack of tactical consistency. Certainly Ander Herrera – benched again at Cambridge – Januzaj, Rafael da Silva, and Luke Shaw will ask the same question. Herrera has started just seven games this season – not all the absences explained away by injury. The Basque’s positive cameo as a second-half substitute, when the 25-year-old noticeably quickened United’s attacking momentum, is likely to be rewarded with a place on the bench against Leicester.
Meanwhile, Rafael and Shaw were dropped in favour of midfielders Blind and Valencia at Cambridge. Neither can be confident that they will return to the starting line-up at the weekend.
Then there is Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and Di Maria, from whom Van Gaal is extracting less than the sum of their considerable parts. Rooney has started just five games in all competitions as a striker this season, while Di Maria has played in central midfield, on the wing, at ’10’ and up front during the campaign. The changes have rarely benefited the former Real Madrid player. Meanwhile, it is not obvious that Van Gaal fully trusts Mata as United’s principle playmaker, despite the Spaniard started 17 of 25 possible games this season.
None of this precludes Van Gaal’s eventual success of course. The Dutchman’s outstanding record suggests that he will get it right at United. Certainly, the 62-year-old’s gravitas earns him more time and, arguably, more lenient assessmentthan the inept David Moyes.
Yet, time is also a factor. Six months in and the sum is a strategic outlook that appears confused; a philosophy that is no clearer than on the day Van Gaal walked into Old Trafford. It is little wonder United supporters have begun to ask the questions Van Gaal so obviously dislikes.
Supporters waited years for an FA Cup draw against a lower league club and then two come along all at once. After dispatching Yeovil Town in the third round, with a little difficulty it has to be said, Louis van Gaal’s side faces League Two outfit Cambridge United under the Friday night lights in East Anglia. It is a game Van Gaal’s side simply must win.
Having faced Premier League opposition in the FA Cup nine times in succession prior to Yeovil it might be tempting to view Friday’s game as a bye into the fifth round. After all, there are 76 places between the mid-table League Two outfit and Champions League hunting United. The reality, as Van Gaal’s men discovered in Somerset earlier this month, is somewhat different. Not least because the Dutchman is likely to make more than a half-dozen changes to a side that is already struggling for fluency.
The match at the Abbey Stadium is also critical to the narrative surrounding United’s season. Absent from Europe, out of the Capital One Cup and some 12 points behind Premier League leaders Chelsea, the FA Cup remains United’s sole route to silverware this season. It is tempting to conclude that the Cup is more important to the club than at any time in the past decade.
Yet, Van Gaal’s story has gone just a touch sour in recent weeks following a disappointing festive period in which United dropped six points away from Old Trafford. Then came defeat at home to Southampton a fortnight ago. It was United’s second home reverse of the campaign and perhaps the first occasion on which Van Gaal’s critics emerged in force.
In truth there is something just a little meta in the critique. Pundits, so long quieted by Van Gaal’s outstanding record and natural gravitas, finally have some ammunition in the Dutchman’s persistent use of a 3-4-1-2 system that has so rarely performed this season. Not just in the media either. Supporters’ call for Untied to “attack, attack, attack” at Queens Park Rangers on Saturday was followed by the demand for a switch to a more traditional “4-4-2” system.
Little wonder some, who have been so reluctant to criticise United under the new manager, now openly question the Dutchman’s approach.
“They play out from the back but the tempo is too slow. Far too often they are keeping possession and passing it backwards. They’ve become quite predictable in the past few weeks,” said former United defender Gary Neville on Saturday.
“Louis van Gaal wants them to recycle the ball and switch the play. I’m not a fan of 3-5-2 because the centre-backs are the free men and they become the safe option. United looked far more dangerous on Saturday when they changed the system.”
Indeed, the three-man system has only intermittently looked fluent this season – and only really when midfielder Michael Carrick has been deployed as a central defender. The knock on is to limit United’s ability to retain possession in midfield. It is a circle that Van Gaal, for all his supposed brilliance, is yet to square.
The Dutchman retreated onto the defensive this week, claiming that he cannot “please 600 million fans.” Yet, it will be a team sheet of greater interest than normal against Cambridge, with supporters and critics waiting to see if the former Barcelona manager uses a three-man defence or retains the back four that finished last weekend’s victory over QPR.
The data supports a change too, with Van Gaal’s side having scored more goals, secured more wins and averaged more points using a back four this season.
Yet, the system, however controversial among fans, is one the players appear to back. Despite the mixed results this season Van Gaal is far from losing the dressing room as David Moyes did around this time a year ago.
“This is what the manager wants and I agree with it,” said midfielder Daley Blind. “I don’t think the whole philosophy of the club has changed. If you have played another system for a long time then you have to get used to a new one, but that is not a problem.
“There are games when we are doing it very well and games when we can do it better, but I feel we are improving. It doesn’t happen overnight but the players are comfortable in the system. The people on television can say what they want.”
Aside from the tactical make-up United will hand a début to former Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes, while youngsters Patrick McNair, James Wilson, Adnan Januzaj and Tyler Blackett could all feature. Blind, together with Marcos Rojo, could also play, with both needing minutes. Carrick is expected to drop to the bench, while Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney could be rested, but Luke Shaw and Robin van Persie are available. Jonny Evans, Ashley Young and Chris Smalling missed the game through injury.
Meanwhile, Cambridge manager Richard Money is confident ahead of Friday’s game, not least after his side thumped Newport Town 4-0 last weekend. The club lies in mid-table, but is on an upward trajectory after securing promotion to League Two from the Conference last season. Money, who is a former Liverpool player, says his team is ready to take advantage of any complacency in the visiting dressing room.
“I hope they come to the game full of optimism,” Money said. “I hope they come to the game with some belief that Friday can be the one in one hundred days that we can cause an upset. We want everyone to embrace the evening and an opportunity to showcase not just the football club, but the city.
“We won two trophies last year. We’ve got a group of players that know what it means to win. We’ve been lucky that two trips to Wembley last year has given us some kind of thought process as to what might happen and what needs to be done. I’ve got absolutely no doubts that they will play well Friday night.”
One Cambridge player looking forward to the game more than most is 34-year-old former United winger Luke Chadwick. The Cambridge-born player appeared on 25 occasions for United between 1999 and 2004, scoring two goals before going on to play for West Ham United and Milton Keynes Dons, among others.
Chadwick, who has appeared 14 times for Cambridge this season, watched the draw with his family earlier this month.
“I’d just been to mums to get my hair cut and I came home and watched it with the Mrs and the kids,” Chadwick told MUTV. “It was the only two numbers we took notice of. When it came out, we were happy at first to be at home and then when Man United came out it was bedlam in the house. The kids were going crazy. It was a great, great draw.”
That’s a sentiment to which Van Gaal will agree only if United emerge victorious. Given the Dutchman’s struggle to balance attacking and defensive imperatives this season there are no guarantees, although the critics really will enjoy significant ammunition if United’s veteran manager doesn’t get this one right.
Cambridge (4-4-2): Dunn; Tait, Taylor, Coulson, Nelson; Donaldson, Champion, Hughes, McGeehan; Elliott, Bird
United (4-3-1-2): Valdes; Rafael, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Fellaini, Blind, Di Maria; Mata; Wilson, Falcao
Cambridge: Norris, Miller, Hunt, Dunk, Simpson, Bird, Chiedozie, Chadwick
United: De Gea, Lindegaard, Valencia, McNair, Blackett, Anderson, Pereira, Herrera, Januzaj, Van Persie
Cambridge 0 – Draw 1 – United 1
Referee Christopher Foy
Assistant Referees: Stephen Child & Darren Cann
Fourth Official: James Adcock
Cambridge 1-3 United
£1 bet club
Wilson to score twice @ 7/2
Running total: £(-)12
It is more than a decade since Manchester United last lifted the FA Cup; a record unbecoming of the 11 times winners. Yet, in a season when Louis van Gaal’s side can realistically win nothing bar the world’s oldest football tournament, the FA Cup may well become a saviour. Indeed, for the first time since the 1980s the 144-year-old competition may even become United’s principal focus this season, with Champions League qualification seemingly likely.
Still, there is danger in Sunday’s fixture with Yeovil Town even if the tie does not pair United with a fellow top-flight team for the first time in nine rounds. September’s Capital One Cup loss at MK Dons leaves few in Van Gaal’s camp counting on victory albeit against at team that is some 65 places below United in the pyramid. The League One strugglers have lost 15 times in all competitions this season, including three matches in succession over the festive period.
The Dutchman has won three domestic cup tournaments in the past two decades beginning with the 1993 KNVB cup when manager of Ajax. Further silverware came with the 1998 Copa Del Rey and then the DFB-Pokal in 2010. Yet, the veteran coach is no stranger to embarrassing defeat at the hands of lower league opposition too with both Ajax and Barcelona succumbing under Van Gaal’s management. The experience leaves United’s manager both focused on success in this year’s tournament and wary of falling at the first hurdle.
“It’s the shortest way to success. We are very interested and I think my players are also,” said Van Gaal of this year’s FA Cup.
“We know from our early exit in the Capital One Cup that league places mean nothing in the cups. In the Netherlands we have a saying: ‘death or the gladioli’, which means all or nothing and we will go into that match fully prepared.
“It’s always a shock when you play against a lower team because you assume that you have to win but it’s not like that in football so I have lost with Ajax against a lower team and I have lost with Barcelona against a third-division team.
“It’s a gladioli game. You are dead or you receive the gladiolus flower and in cup matches it’s always like that. I had the same experience against MK Dons, who are also in League One. You never know in a cup match, you have to win because you’re out if you lose. We have to beat Yeovil but every team in England wants to beat Manchester United so it will be difficult.”
Van Gaal walks a thin line between protecting his squad, which played four games over the Christmas period, and risking another embarrassing defeat. United drew three of the four festive matches – all away from Old Trafford – and has won just twice on the road this season. It is a record that the Dutchman knows must improve at Huish Park.
Yet, Van Gaal is keen to avoid fresh injuries to a squad already too familiar with the treatment room this season. It means that while United’s manager is likely to rotate this weekend a number of the Dutchman’s recent returnees will feature.
“I have to look to the fitness of my players,” said the 62-year-old. “We have played three games in seven days, but the game against Tottenham was within 48 hours [of Boxing Day] so the cumulative lactic acid is bigger than ever.”
Winger-turned-defender Ashley Young misses the match with a hamstring problem although Adnan Januzaj and Ander Herrera could feature after coming off the bench against Stoke City on New Year’s Day. Full-backs Rafael da Silva and Luke Shaw should play in what could be a return to a flat-back four in Somerset. Marcos Rojo and Marouane Fellaini could make the match day squad, while Angel di Maria is also in line to return to the bench. The game will probably come too soon for Daley Blind.
Indeed, Rafael could now earn an extended run in the side following Antonio Valencia’s groin injury. And the 23-year-old, who has won the Premier League, League Cup, Champions League and Club World Cup with United, says that the team is focused on securing a 12th FA Cup title next May.
“It’s been a long time since we won the FA Cup and I think we should now step up,” the Brazilian told MUTV. “We always take it seriously and we want to win it, so we’re going for it. When I get old and speak to my kids, if I can say I won everything with Manchester United it will be fantastic. It’s a trophy I’m looking to win.”
Meanwhile, Yeovil lie bottom of League One having been relegated from the Championship last season; it is a freefall associated with a squad built largely on loans and free transfers over the past two summers. Yeovil lost 24 players over the summer and another 29 the year before that.
Yet, manager Gary Johnson – who was assistant at Cambridge United when the Us came within two matches of being promoted to the Premier League in 1992 – has sought to stop his players being star-struck by United on Sunday. The 59-year-old has banned his squad from swapping shirts as he seeks another high-profile scalp at a club with a history of FA Cup glory.
“This club has a special reputation in the FA Cup,” said Johnson. “In their days before we got into the League they knocked out 17 League clubs, and you have to feel it would be good to add to that story if we can against one of the biggest clubs in world football. That’s only going to happen if we are totally focused. If you are taking photos and talking to people about swapping shirts later you are not in game mode.”
On the pitch second-round match-winner Kieffer Moore is a fitness doubt, although is likely to be risked, while Jordan Clarke is out with injury and Sam Hoskins cup tied. Moore scored Yeovil’s second as the Glovers beat Accrington Stanley 2-0 in a second-round replay.
The match is only the fifth time these sides have met – and the first since an FA Cup fifth round tie in February 1949. United scored eight at Maine Road in front of more than 81,000 spectators that day, with Old Trafford still being renovated after suffering war damage. United also beat Yeovil 3-0 at Old Trafford in 1938.
Indeed, the Reds have both form and history on side for the long trip south. United has lost just one of the past 39 FA Cup matches against lower league opponents. Nobody in Van Gaal side is countenancing adding to that record on Sunday; the Reds are very much focused on gladioli come May.
Yeovil (4-4-2): Steer; Ofori-Twumasi, Arthurworrey, Nugent, Smith; Foley, Edwards, Gillett, Leitch-Smith; Hayter, Moore
United (4-4-2): de Gea; Rafael, Smalling, Blackett, Shaw; Januzaj, Herrera, Fletcher, Pereira; Wilson, Falcao
Yeovil: Weale, Krysiak, Moloney, Berrett, Ralph, Brooks, Inniss, Smith, Eaves
United: Lindegaard, McNair, Jones, Rojo, Janko, Evans, Thorpe, Anderson, Di Maria, Powell, Mata, Fellaini, Van Persie, Rooney
Yeovil 0 – Draw 2 – United 2
Referee: Craig Pawson
Assistant Referees: Stuart Burt and John Brooks
Fourth Official: Keith Stroud
Yeovil 0-3 United
£1 bet club
Wilson to score a brace @ 4/1
Running total: £(-)9
It has been a decade in the waiting, but the FA Cup might just be important to Manchester United once again – for the season at least. The club last secured the famous old trophy on 22 May 2004 when Sir Alex Ferguson’s side beat Millwall at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. In the intervening years the Reds have made just two further cup finals, losing in 2005 to Arsenal and then Chelsea in 2007. It has, in truth, been a pitiful decade in the cup.
What then of United’s approach to a third round tie with Swansea City this weekend? Manager David Moyes is keen both to freshen up his side ahead of a lengthy January fixture schedule and secure his first trophy as United’s manager. Indeed, his first trophy at any club, anywhere. The two may not align.
But while the cup might normally be low of the list of United’s priorities it has taken on new meaning in a season where Moyes’ side has already lost on six occasions in the Premier League. With Europe’s finest – Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid – favourites to take the Champions League in May, the FA Cup might just represent United’s best chance of silverware this season.
It hasn’t always been that way; Ferguson didn’t always take the cup seriously. Not even close. In truth, the world’s oldest football tournament has normally pitched up third in the list of Ferguson’s goals, while it lies somewhere behind securing new sponsors in far off lands in a very long list of club priorities.
That pattern may not initially change under Moyes, especially if a Champions League spot remains in the balance, although the Scot at least talked a good game this week. Moyes claims that not only is the FA Cup a priority, but that United is focused on winning the tournament for the first time in a decade.
“The cup is important to me, it always has been,” said the Scot on Friday.
“I’m sure it’s important to every club. The longer you stay in the competition the more important it becomes. For most of the Premier League clubs, this is just the start of it. At this moment in time, a lot of Premier League games have been played and it’s a difficult time.
“I’m sure there is because if you’re a club like Manchester United you want to be involved in all the trophy-winning opportunities, and to not win the FA Cup for 10 years is something that’s a bit of a surprise. But it’s something we’ll try to do – we’re trying to win all the competitions. As far as I am concerned, we’ll do everything we possibly can to try to get through.”
Still, United will rotate for the Sunday afternoon clash, with Moyes keen to freshen up a side that suffered demoralising defeat to Spurs on New Year’s Day, and with a Capital One Cup semi-final with Sunderland to come next Tuesday.
Changes also come with the squad still carrying a number of injuries. Wayne Rooney is sidelined having featured against Spurs, while Robin van Persie is unlikely to be fully fit before next weekend’s Premier League match with Swansea. Rooney missed United’s victory at Norwich with a groin problem, returning early – too early it seems – for the New Year’s Day loss to Tottenham. It is not the first time Moyes has taken that risk this season.
Meanwhile, winger Ashley Young is out with a shoulder problem suffered in last week’s controversial clash with Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
“We’ve got a few injuries and one is [from] the challenge the keeper made on Ashley Young,” claimed Moyes.
“It’s a shoulder injury and we’re not sure exactly how long he’s going to be out yet. We’ve got some other injuries as well that we’ll just need to look at and see how they are over the next few days. Wayne has got a groin injury and won’t be available on Sunday. Robin’s coming on but we’ll let you know when he’s ready.
“We definitely will [rotate] because of the two games. It’s the same for both clubs so there can’t be many complaints but I don’t think it’s right to be asking footballers to play on Sunday and then Tuesday. They did it over Christmas and I totally understand that and the reasons why. But it’s a bit harder to accept at such short notice here.”
The visitors arrive in Manchester with Pablo Hernandez out after the winger sustained a hamstring injury last weekend, while Leon Britton, Michu, Michel Vorm and Nathan Dyer remain on the sidelines.
Injuries are the last thing manager Michael Laudrup needs in an increasingly difficult season for the Swans, although the Dane is still likely to make changes at Old Trafford with the priority remaining Premier League survival.
Swansea lie just three points ahead of the relegation zone having previously impressed in two seasons in the Premier League since promotion in 2011. The cup is both a distraction and a potential route to further glory for the side that won last season’s Capital One Cup.
“We are playing at Old Trafford against Man United, so we want to do as well as we can, even though it will be very difficult,” said Laudrup.
“Yes, we may make changes, especially now because we have 18 players – some of which have played a lot of games. But just because we make changes, doesn’t mean we don’t care about the competition. I think I already proved that last year.”
“For me, the cups are always something special, but I have also always said that the Premier League is like the daily bread – the most important thing – and of course that is our first priority. It has always been that way, not just this year. It was last year, the year before that and it will be next year.”
It is a similar question facing Laudrup’s opposite number of course: to field a strong side and aim for Wembley in May, or rotate to focus on other concerns. After all, while Moyes will use his full squad this season it is not because the Reds are realistically chasing silverware on four fronts. For once, the domestic cups might just be a priority.
Manchester United v Swansea City, FA Cup, Old Trafford, 4.30pm, 5 January 2014
United (4-4-2): De Gea; Smalling, Evans, Ferdinand, Buttner; Valencia, Fletcher, Cleverley, Kagawa; Hernández, Welbeck. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Evra, Vidić, Carrick, Zaha, Anderson, Giggs, Januzaj
Swansea (4-3-3): Tremmel; Rangel, Chico Flores, Williams, Davies; Cañas, Shelvey, Lamah; Routledge, Bony, De Guzmán. Subs from: Amat, Taylor, Tiendalli, Britton, Pozuelo, Cornell, Alvaro, Vazquez, Zabret
United 10 Draw 5 Swansea 6
Officials (all Serbian)
Referee: Michael Dean
Assistant Referees: Darren Cann and Stuart Burt
Fourth Official: Jonathan Moss
Just 48 hours on from a laboured victory over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side hits the road once again on Monday. The Scot flew his Manchester United team home from the north east at the weekend, seeking any possible advantage ahead of United’s FA Cup quarter-final replay with Chelsea on Easter Monday. And while Monday’s match is another away from Old Trafford for United’s weary players, it is one with a significant carrot: victory brings a semi against rivals Manchester City at Wembley.
United took another huge step towards reclaiming the Premier League title at the weekend by securing three points against relegation threatened Sunderland. Ferguson can hardly have been impressed with his side’s efforts though; the third match in succession that the Reds achieved just enough, but little more.
That short run of mediocre form includes the opening cup match between these sides – a 2-2 draw in which Ferguson’s side was left hanging on for a draw just days after defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League. Indeed, United’s break against Chelsea at Old Trafford came amid a strong finish from the Londoners, while Ferguson’s players appeared spent by the tie’s end.
The contrasting fortunes of the sides in recent weeks sets up Monday’s Cup clash; a battle that will go some way to define two campaigns.
“I thought we were lucky to be honest with you,” said Sir Alex of the first quarter-final clash between the sides.
“I thought that tiredness had got into the team and, from a comfortable position for the first 20 minutes, you could see the signs when we started to give the ball away just before half-time. That is a definite sign of tiredness.
“The tiredness came, possibly, from the emotional intensity of the Real Madrid game and also the way we lost it. In the second half in particular there was no doubt that Tom Cleverley’s and our two full-backs’ legs had gone. That made it a long game against Chelsea and they had the advantage of extra players in midfield.”
Two days after each side played in the Premier League, the respective stamina of these squads will once again be tested, with Ferguson likely to make wholesale changes at Stamford Bridge. He has little choice given United’s leg-weariness in recent matches.
Ferguson could bring in eight or more new players, with Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nani, Javier Hernández and Tom Cleverley coming back into the side against Rafa Benitez’ outfit. Defenders Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand should also return after being rested against Sunderland.
Meanwhile, the Spaniard will again make changes to the side that lost at St Mary’s having rotated his squad heavily against Southampton on Saturday. Indeed, accusations that Benitez put his own vanity – a potential Cup win – over the club’s need for Champions League football next season weigh heavily on the temporary manager. After all, the former Liverpool manager has no chance of taking the role full time.
There is some good news for Benitez though, with Juan Mata returning to the Blues’ side after recovering from illness, although Gary Cahill is rated doubtful for the lunchtime clash.
Still, the home side has looked fresher in recent weeks, with Champions League football seemingly secure until Saturday’s defeat and the Europa League offering none of it’s bigger brother’s intensity. Defeat to Southampton may change the picture domestically at least, although in the short term it is United that must also overcome the disadvantage of both fatigue and injuries.
“We picked up two or three injuries, which doesn’t help,” said Ferguson after the Reds’ weekend victory.
“It was all down to the courage of the players that they got through it. Rafael got injured and Jonny Evans got a bit of a knock but carried on. That was great because we couldn’t afford to take him off. He said he’d last as long as he could but he got through it.
“I thought we’d lost David De Gea for a moment. He was out for a few minutes but recovered and played a really great part for us. Generally, we have a few bumps and bruises but we handled it well.”
With a double to chase this is no time for United’s season to wind down of course, although Ferguson’s hope of securing a record Premier League points total looks unrealistic on very recent form.
Still, with the Scot’s squad broad, if not truly deep, Ferguson will exploit the full resources on offer. After all, gaving gone 18 league matches without defeat has all but secured the Premier League title.
Should United win, the side will face City twice in a week; first, at Old Trafford in the Premier League next Monday, and then a Cup semi at Wembley on 14 April. Two games that will go a long way to deciding the Reds’ fate this season.
“We want to win the Double and we took a big step in the league,” van Persie told MUTV on Saturday.
“But we want to go for both. Now we have to look ahead to the FA Cup tie against Chelsea. It’s going to be a big test but I’m quite confident we can play well at Stamford Bridge and get a good result.
“It’s been nine years since United have won the FA Cup. It’s important to us. We have a big chance of reaching the semi-final against City. I don’t want to look too far ahead but we have a massive chance of winning the competition.”
With Cup final victory will surely come a first double since 1999 – the moment of Ferguson’s greatest hour. There are three tough matches in the competition before that, however, although with the Reds 15 points clear in the Premier League Ferguson can at least afford to refocus.
First, however, United must achieve a rare first – FA Cup victory at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea v Manchester United – FA Cup, Stamford Bridge – 1 April 2013 March 2013, 12.30pm
Chelsea (4-3-3): Cech; Ivanovic, Terry, Luiz, Cole; Mikel, Ramires; Mata, Oscar, Hazard; Torres. Subs from: Turnbull, Azpilicueta, Cahill, Benayoun, Marin, Moses, Ba
United (4-3-3): de Gea; Smalling, Vidić, Ferdinand, Evra; Cleverley, Carrick, Giggs; Nani, Hernández, Rooney. Subs from: Lindegaard, Büttner, Evans, Powell, Young, Scholes, Valencia, Anderson, Kagawa, Welbeck, van Persie
Referee: Philip Dowd
Assistant Referees: Peter Kirkup and Andy Garratt
Fourth Official: Neil Swarbrick
Head to Head
Last 10: Chelsea 2, United 6, Draw 2
Overall: Chelsea 45, United 72, Draw 49