It is often beneficial to look at the Premier League as a whole to see where Manchester United stands and to identify any general trends. Last season was an unmitigated disaster, even with the FA Cup victory, and lessons should be learned to avoid the further ‘Liverpoolization’ of the club. In earlier Data Rant columns, statistical theory was not strictly observed – emphasizing intuition and broad trends above technicalities. However, with more advanced techniques we can get a more precise picture.
As the old saying goes, it’s not despair, but the hope that kills you. On Tuesday night, Manchester United travelled to East London to face West Ham United with Champions League qualification on the line. The Reds needed a win to leap-frog Manchester City into fourth place with one game remaining after the Blues had come unstuck at home to Arsenal. Yet, as has so often been the case during Louis Van Gaal’s disastrous reign as United manager, his team fell apart on the big occasion. On an emotional night in East London the Hammers out-played and out-fought United in every department. It was West Ham’s last appearance at the Boleyn Ground, but in truth the home side did little more than expose United for the poorly managed, disorganised mess that the side now is.
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.
In a season of unpredictability, perhaps this could have been foreseen, however unlikely. Unbelievably, Manchester United now has Champions League qualification firmly in control, despite the team’s best efforts for much of the season to the contrary. Louis van Gaal’s side, so often criticised for stagnant football and poor performances, is just two wins away from a seat at Europe’s top table after Manchester City’s draw against Arsenal last Sunday. Pep Guardiola may arrive at City without Champions League football, and United may allow manager Van Gaal to lead the side for one more year.
It couldn’t happen, could it? Since Manchester United’s dismal December the foremost assumption has been that the Reds’ fate lies outside the top four, and with it a second year in three away from the Champions League. Yet, with just three Premier League games remaining, Louis van Gaal’s side is hot on the coat-tails of Manchester City, with an FA Cup final to come. Salvation for Van Gaal, perhaps, and possible redemption for a group of players that has largely underwhelmed.
Ahead of Leicester City’s visit to Old Trafford on Sunday parallels are unintentionally drawn between the clubs’ respective managers. Claudio Ranieri, the once famed ‘tinkerman’, was viewed by many pundits as a good coach, but perhaps not good enough to lead the very best. And yet, Ranieri is on the verge of winning his first ever top flight title. Ranieri’s charm, charisma and honesty has won over fans and pundits, with a commitment to team chemistry and a promise of creative freedom key factors in Leicester’s unlikely title charge.
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?
Seldom has a Manchester United victory left supporters as dismayed than they are now. United’s 1-0 win over Aston Villa was another low in Louis van Gaal’s managerial reign, despite the three points keeping the Reds’ top four hopes alive. United lumbered to an unconvincing victory against one of the worst sides the Premier League has ever seen. The crowd at Old Trafford was as flat as the style of play, with fans increasingly frustrated with Van Gaal’s philosophy. Football is a game of entertainment, and the Premier League is the home of end-to-end attacking football. In truth, United’s fans are simply bored.
Another week, another chance for Louis van Gaal to undo any good previously done. After all, Manchester United’s fine performance and excellent result in the FA Cup this week will count for little if Van Gaal’s side fails to beat Aston Villa on Saturday. The Dutchman’s side couldn’t fail, could it?
Once upon a time Manchester United’s fixtures against Tottenham Hotspur were settled before a ball was kicked. United’s record at White Hart Lane is excellent – and the side has not lost there since 2001. However, long gone are the days when Sir Alex Ferguson could construct Tottenham’s downfall with three simple words: “Lads… It’s Tottenham.” It doesn’t do the North London side justice; the balance of power is shifting in the Premier League.