Manchester United’s last visit to the Britannia, New Year’s Day 2015, resulted in the kind of scoreless draw that most sides would take on a cold, windy day away at Stoke City. This time is different; anything other than a win on Boxing Day could spell the end of Louis Van Gaal’s period at Old Trafford. After all, the Dutchman is overseeing his worst spell as United manager – six games without a win, the last three of which ended in defeats. In total United can boast just three wins in the past 13 games. Read More
December football is a highlight of the British football calendar, with a seemingly infinite stream of games on which to feast over the festive period. In addition to being an excuse to binge on the beautiful game, and copious amounts of food and drink, it is often a pivotal juncture in Manchester United’s season.
Sir Alex Ferguson often reiterated the need to capture form during the final month of the year. Those were simpler times, and the cloud of uncertainty that looms heavy over Old Trafford ensures that much of the excitement present in previous years is decidedly absent.
There is little to stir any festive optimism in a side whose insipid displays continue – an early Champions League exit in Wolfsburg, followed by an embarrassing defeat at Bournemouth, and then at home to Norwich City, are unwelcome variations on the mundane goalless draws that have become the norm.
There is a growing anxiety among United’s support, especially with little certainty about the future. The evidence suggests there is justification in supporters’ fears.
“Boring, boring United”
At the top of fans’ Christmas list of woes is the dismal nature of football on display from Louis Van Gaal’s side. The pragmatic Dutchman has been cast as Scrooge in recent weeks, and his overtly regimented approach to the game has almost completely nullified the entertainment traditionally associated with United.
One of the most concerning factors is that despite weeks of criticism Van Gaal appears completely unshaken in his belief in the “philosophy” – a concept that seems to have less meaning with every passing week. His ethos is centred on defensive solidity and ball retention, but the important passages detailing the action in the final has been torn from Van Gaal’s coaching manual.
In addition to a indistinguishable team identity, Van Gaal’s choice of formation and substitutions have also raised eyebrows. United’s travelling support was horrified when injury to Ander Herrera at Watford prompted Van Gaal to revert to the much maligned 3-5-2 system. It removed much of United’s attacking impetus in the process.
Even with a wealth of options at his disposal the Dutch manager’s selections have continued to provoke ire. Deploying two holding midfielders against less decorated opposition, who rarely bring much ambition at Old Trafford, is simultaneously mystifying and typical of Van Gaal’s tenure.
Not only does the tactic often result in the aforementioned Herrera being left out, but it is an exasperatingly cautious approach. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin and Michael Carrick are excellent footballers, but there is no need for two-thirds of this trio to start in home games against lesser sides.
Almost as frustrating as Plan A is Van Gaal’s persistence in using the lumbering Marouane Fellaini as a route one alternative. Despite his apparent “genius” there is little ingenuity in a contingency plan that involves diagonal balls launched in the Belgian’s general direction – incredulous, even, that an expensively assembled squad should resort to low percentage tactics.
Regardless of the squad’s many deficiencies Van Gaal has once again suffered for a side decimated by injury. Luke Shaw’s horrific leg break in Eindhoven is still fresh in the memory. While the left-back should make a full recovery Shaw’s injury has set the tone for another season of ill luck. Wayne Rooney, Ander Herrera and the indispensable Chris Smalling have all been ruled out in recent weeks, along with the perpetually afflicted Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo.
Once again some question Van Gaal’s rigorous training regimen and its propensity to increase United’s injury list. Pending a thorough scientific analysis the truth will remain unclear, but the skeleton squad that took to the field at Wolfsburg and Bournemouth raises questions about how wisely United invested last summer.
The doomed pursuit of Sergio Ramos was exciting, but amid the frenzy there remained a sense of deja-vu about the episode. Ed Woodward has spent the past two summers flaunting the club’s wealth in a manner akin to Floyd Mayweather – the result is a rash of big name players using United as leverage in contract discussions.
And it is this blind pursuit of marquee names that has left United threadbare in defence, forcing Van Gaal to use his most inexperienced players in significant games. United’s sense of faith in youth is positive, but a monumentally important Champions League tie against a top German outfit is not the optimal time to break in new blood.
In this the board and Van Gaal share blame for the squad’s shortages – and for failing to learn from the painful lessons of last season.
United’s recent spate of injuries, coupled with the impending January window, has raised speculation that the club may once again delve into the market. Acquiring top talent is no easy task, as is often made clear by managers nationwide – and Van Gaal has already moved to temper expectations.
“Goals are the most important thing, we have to always look for solutions to make goals”, the manager opined. “We have to look for the solutions in our selection, that’s important. Maybe we have solutions elsewhere but that’s more difficult, because in January clubs shall not let go of players who score”.
Hardly encouraging words for supporters who long for an extra striker to ease United’s goal famine. Indeed, the squad would benefit from at least two additions, in attack and defence. Yet, the chances of luring élite talent to M16 in January are small.
In truth an internal solution will have to be found – and United must also factor in a rest for Anthony Martial, who cannot be relied upon for an entire season. The challenge becomes greater still if Rooney returns from an injury lay-off the same player who has defiled pitches up and down the country this season.
Commendably, Van Gaal has largely arrested his side’s defensive troubles this season, albeit a record that came to a halt against Bournemouth and Norwich with injuries taking hold. Defensive solidity is dependent on retaining key personnel such as Chris Smalling. The Londoner has developed wonderfully in the past year, but his record suggests doubts about his ability to stay fit for extended periods.
Then there is the question of United’s manager who has indisputably suffered a bad month. The Reds’ mundane football is grudgingly tolerated while results remain acceptable. Ignominious exit from the Champions League, coupled with humiliation against Bournemouth and Norwich, has turned opinion against the Dutchman.
Indeed, United’s slump in form could not have come at a worse time for Van Gaal, with a plethora of world-class coaches suddenly in the shop window. United’s board has lavished praise on the manager, but with José Mourinho out of a job and Pep Guardiola planning a change of scenery, Old Trafford’s suits will surely have noticed a persistent itch in their collective trigger finger.
Should Guardiola decant from Bavaria the clamour for his services will be at its most fervent in Manchester’s blue half. Yet, when Guardiola officially announces his future, United’s board will be left in a precarious situation. Aside from the increasingly unlikely chances of capturing a trophy this season, there is little Van Gaal can do to dissuade fans that the club should ditch him for the enigmatic Spaniard should the opportunity arise.
It is, of course, conjecture at the moment, but losing Guardiola to City would be a watershed moment in Manchester football history, remembered fondly only by those of a blue persuasion. In fact, there is growing consensus that United must mount a pursuit of the former Barcelona boss, lest the club miss out on yet another an élite manager since Ferguson’s retirement.
In that there is recognition the club is in a period of worrying uncertainty – one with an end that may shape the club for the foreseeable future. For the moment Van Gaal is under considerable scrutiny. The only thing the Dutchman can do is to start winning matches.
The last time Norwich City came to Old Trafford it was very different time at Manchester United. David Moyes had been sacked after defeat to Everton four days earlier, leaving Ryan Giggs to oversee United’s 4-0 victory over the Canaries in his first game as caretaker-manager. Fast forward 19 months and few supporters in the Premier League could have forecast the season’s events to date. Just under half way through the campaign, Leicester City sits top of the table, two points clear of Arsenal and three of Manchester City. Champions Chelsea, in stark contrast, lie 16th having sacked Jose Mourinho’s this week. Read More
Louis van Gaal has undertaken ‘projects’ at some of the biggest clubs in the world. His popularity is certainly not universal at any of them, but there’s no doubt that the Dutchman left his mark at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now Manchester United. There’s no denying Van Gaal has provided the foundations on which some of those clubs stand today.
Pep Guardiola has followed in Van Gaal’s footsteps, and indeed improved on them, in Catalunya and Bavaria. Could lightning strike a third time in Manchester? It certainly should.
With Guardiola set to announce his plans for 2016 and beyond next week, rumours abound as to where the Spaniard will set sail next. England is the consensus, with the Manchester clubs seemingly favourites despite Jose Mourinho’s dismissal at Chelsea this week.
Questions remain, of course. Would Pep’s style adapt to English football; could he revolutionise the game in the Premier League as he has in Spain and Germany?
Yet, there’s the common misconception that Guardiola shares Van Gaal’s love of possession and, frankly, possession for the sake of it. Certainly, passing teams to death is the perception that supporters and analysts have gained when watching United this season. Leading the league in sideways pass percentage, backwards pass percentage and, of course, possession itself, United dominates the ball, but not the league table. In truth, the man who is leading Munich to another Bundesliga title shares little of that ideal.
“I loathe all that passing for the sake of it,” he said last year. “All that tiki-taka. It’s so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition’s goal.
“It’s not about passing for the sake of it. Don’t believe what people say. Barça didn’t do tiki-taka! It’s completely made up! Don’t believe a word of it!”
Guardiola’s Catalan side was a ruthless attacking outfit whose effortless possession of the ball cut up almost every opponent. Rather than Van Gaal’s sometimes pedestrian passing, the Spaniard’s version of the Blaugrana was arguably the best side of the modern era. Barça moved the ball quickly – United the victim in two breathtaking displays in the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals.
“In all team sports, the secret is to overload one side of the pitch so that the opponent must tilt its own defence to cope,” Pep explained. “You overload on one side and draw them in so that they leave the other side weak. And when we’ve done all that, we attack and score from the other side.
“That’s why you have to pass the ball, but only if you’re doing it with a clear intention. It’s only to overload the opponent, to draw them in and then to hit them with the sucker punch. That’s what our game needs to be. Nothing to do with tiki-taka.”
In May of 2011 Guardiola sat in the stands watching United in the Champions League Semi-Finals. Weeks later his side would destroy the Red Devils in the final.
“I like this atmosphere. I could see myself coaching here one day,” he told friend Manuel Estiarte as he watched United sweep aside Schalke. The sentiment was echoed by journalist Graham Hunter this week, one of the more credible sources of news in Spain. Hunter is adamant that Guardiola wants to try his hand managing United after a transfer to Old Trafford fell through late in his playing career.
“If the cards fall his way, his wish is to sample life at Manchester United for a variety of reasons,” said Hunter. “The move didn’t happen but when he’s come back to Manchester subsequently he’s looked at the Old Trafford atmosphere, the legends and he has felt ‘this is right for me’.”
This chips, it seems, could fall United’s way. Unfortunately for those who would like to see Guardiola arrive at United there are many more factors at play, and football is rarely that simple, especially when it comes to the Reds.
The Citizens’ move for Pep has been the “worst kept secret in football” for some time now. That said, with admirers from the rest of England’s giants also in play, perhaps Guardiola’s move to the Etihad is no longer so certain. City has always felt the presence of Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain in the management hierarchy gives the club an inside track in the pursuit of their man. The Blues’ unlimited chequebook and star-studded squad has to appeal, and the club has proven in recent times that it has a little more patience with managerial appointments. There’s certainly a strong chance that a deal may already be in place.
Mourinho’s departure from the Blues, with Guardiola’s future set to be announced, could be coincidental or perfectly timed. Chelsea’s admiration is long-standing, with Roman Abramovich rumoured to have dreamt that his side might one day resemble the footballing beauty of Barcelona in Pep’s pomp.
However, the Chelsea job does not offer the stability of others – since 2004 no manager has lasted at the club more than three years, while nine coaches in eight seasons is something of an embarrassing track record.
The north Londoners represent a dark horse in this race. Guardiola’s attractive football, sense of style, and knowledge of culture and history fits well with Arsenal’s proposition. Arsene Wenger’s time at the club is surely winding down, and the Gunners would certainly consider making his retirement date official if it meant landing the Spaniard. Arsenal doesn’t possess the financial clout of other contenders, but it’s a club with a money-making new stadium, while the new Premier League TV deal offers incredible spending power. Guardiola’s probable departure from Munich could have come at the perfect time.
Despite the debate about United’s incumbent manager and playing squad, almost anyone with an opinion on the situation agrees that the club has its share of problems. Rumours about the Dutchman’s future are rife, and there is no doubt that Van Gaal is under serious pressure to deliver results. Goals have dried up and the team is now without a win in the past five games.
Still, the club seems to be standing by the manager and is prepared to back him in the market in January. Yet, a growing section of the fanbase has already turned on Van Gaal and, if rumours are true, so have some in his playing squad.
Players are physically exhausted by the training regime, whilst some feel their talents are stifled by Van Gaal’s tactics. Ed Woodward has briefed that the club is prepared to back him with continued spending, but with every passing result the value of the investment in such bland performances comes into question.
Woodward has also briefed that he believes Guardiola’s future is already determined – one factor, perhaps, why the club is backing Van Gaal so strongly. Yet, with Carlo Ancelotti, Mourinho and potentially Guardiola on the market this summer, the club has some forward thinking to undertake if it is serious about progressing back into the élite.
Guardiola would certainly improve on the foundations the Dutchman has created. The Spaniard’s football would be a vast improvement, while Pep offers the promise of attracting high-calibre players.
Van Gaal’s progress has been slower than expected, albeit through a significant rebuild. But the club would surely be remiss not to consider the future. The right decision isn’t always clear, but to many Guardiola’s capture represents a no brainer.
Van Gaal has been a terrific manager over the past quarter-century; Guardiola is an upgrade.United cannot afford to miss out on his services for a second time.
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.
It wasn’t boring at least. Manchester United’s defeat at Wolfsburg on Tuesday featured five goals and the kind of drama that is supposed to happen on pivotal European nights. For better or worse, there has been little of this kind of entertainment at United this season. Yet, with the Reds out of Europe’s premier competition after defeat, Louis van Gaal is under pressure as never before. Two competitions down, two to go, plus an unwelcome spell in the Europa League lies ahead; the season could yet turn into a calamity. Read More
Pressure. If Louis van Gaal hasn’t been feeling the heat of late, Liverpool’s resurgence under new manager Jurgen Klopp has certainly put the Dutchman’s progress in perspective. Just eight weeks into the job and Liverpool is a club transformed under the German’s direction; a team on the up, with legitimate talk of a title challenge now in the air on Merseyside. By contrast Manchester United’s season has been a slow burn. Van Gaal’s team is just one point off Premier League leaders Manchester City, but in deploying a prosaic playing style, the Dutchman’s team has impressed few and frustrated many. Read More
It says something for Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United evolution that, while the club is one victory away from clear blue water at the summit of the Premier League, murmurs of discontent remain audible on the Stratford End. The Dutchman’s side is indisputably in with a shot at wining the league next May, but has become so soporific that it is, for want of a better description, alien to many supporters. Read More
The dominant narrative this season is one of conservatism at club whose history is dominated by the romanticism of attacking flair. It is an uncomfortable truth for Manchester United’s manager Louis van Gaal; and a contemporary system that is hard to swallow for the club’s legion supporters. And yet, whatever the Dutchman’s penchant for reigning in the club’s historical bent towards a more bombastic style, Van Gaal is unlikely to be helped by a rash of post-international break injuries – including to strikers Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial.
If the Dutchman’s side wasn’t limp enough this season the duo’s absence, along with four other first team players, stretches the Reds’ paper-thin squad – and is set to ask serious questions of United’s ability to break down a Watford side that is most effective on the counter-attack. Not least because Van Gaal is unlikely to be able to call on an experienced number nine of any type this weekend, with James Wilson lacking “match rhythm” and Marouane Fellaini also injured.
And yet Saturday lunchtime’s fixture is also one that could play into the Reds’ hands, with Quique Flores’ side most comfortable attacking on the counter and United seemingly reluctant to expand from a deeper position.
Indeed, there is little in the outlook that foretells of an expansive game from either side. It is the kind of fixture in which United will dominate possession and where the result is dependent on the Reds taking whatever chances are created. Therein lies United’s problem, of course.
Still, with injuries also comes opportunities; youngsters Marcus Rashford, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Axel Tuanzebe could all be on the bench and Van Gaal maintains that the squad’s spirit is strong whatever the mix of results.
“I have noticed,” said the manager, “that every Manchester United player wants to perform what we have agreed in the training sessions. The spirit of the squad is fantastic.”
Victory will take United top of the Premier League table, if only for a few hours with Manchester City and Arsenal also in action this weekend.
Meanwhile, Flores’ side has conceded just four goals at Vicarage Road this season, with United the only Premier League side to boast a better defensive record at home.
“They play a 4-4-2 system with two strikers and two rows of four players, and that is always difficult to play against,” Van Gaal added.
“Of course, it’s dependable on the organisation of Watford’s defence, but Quique Flores has done it and it shall be very difficult. Every opponent is motivated to beat us, but as a Manchester United player, you have to cope with that pressure and normally we do that.”
The Saturday lunchtime kick-off is the first featuring Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger since a series of attacks in Paris, including one a Stade de France during France’s international friendly against Germany just over a week ago. Van Gaal has spoken to the pair, together with Martial, about the incident. Both Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger are expected to start.
“What they told me is private but we have communicated, of course,” van Gaal said. “I think, for every human being in this world, it is a big blow. I don’t think I have to mention what our discussions were. Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin can play if we don’t take into account this event and what has happened.”
Meanwhile, Watford continue to pick enough points to suggest that the Hornets will remain in the Premier League come next May. Four wins from the past 10 games leave Watford in 11th, though it is a run built – much like United – on defensive solidity rather than attacking flair.
“We will approach the game with respect, organisation, tradition and passion,” said Flores. “We have to reference the matches we have played against big teams. Against Manchester City we were really competitive for 45 minutes, against Arsenal we were for one hour, so our target for this match is to be competitive for one-and-a-half hours.”
Watford’s home record and United’s paucity of attacking options suggests a tight game ahead.
Team news and line-ups
With Rooney and Martial out because of illness and injury Memphis Depay could lead United’s attack, with Wilson lacking match fitness, and Fellaini also injured. Michael Carrick, Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw are also out, but Matteo Darmian is available after suspension.
“I think that everybody knows Michael Carrick and Anthony Martial are injured, but also injured is Marouane Fellaini. That’s a surprise because I thought he was recovered after the international break, but still he is injured. And that’s a big blow because Rooney is ill, so we have a big problem, I think,” admitted Van Gaal.
“I have always organised a shadow player for every position, but when all the injuries happen in the same position, you have a problem as a trainer-coach and you have to play a little bit differently.
“You can solve that problem because we have multi-functional players and they can play in many positions. I have rotated this season more than ever, because of the amount of matches we have had. Every player is used to playing – even the younger ones have played a lot of minutes.”
Fortunately, although Martial sits out this weekend’s fixture, the Frenchman’s injury sustained against England at Wembley is not as serious as it first appeared.
“It’s not so heavy as everybody has written in the media, but he cannot play against Watford,” van Gaal told MUTV. “Maybe PSV for Martial but it’s not certain, and I think Rooney shall also play then because illness is not something of many days.”
Watford will make a late call on Nigerian striker Odion Ighalo, who retured late from international duty with Nigeria. Sebastian Prodl, Tommie Hoban and Joel Ekstrand are all injured.
Watford subs from: Arlauskis, Holebas, Belkalem, Abdi, Behrami, Berghuis, Paredes, Guedioura, Ibarbo, Diamanti, Dyer, Oularé, Gilmartin
United subs from: Romero, Darmian, Varela, Borthwick-Jackson, Blind, Tuanzebe, Pereira, Wilson, Rashford
Referee: Robert Madley
Assistants: M McDonough, M Perry
Fourth Official: A Taylor
Watford 0-1 United
Crisis averted. Manchester United’s narrow Champions League victory over CSKA Moscow at Old Trafford on Tuesday brought to an end a series of three goalless draws featuring Louis van Gaal’s team. The win, courtesy of Wayne Rooney’s late header, puts United in prime position to qualify from Group B. Yet, with the Reds having scored just once in the past four games, the wolves remain inches from the Dutchman’s door. It was Little wonder, with Old Trafford’s patience running thin, that cries of “attack, attack, attack,” once again rang out on Tuesday.
Van Gaal’s acknowledgement of the problem is scant, although the 64-year-old does seemingly understand of the frustration supporters feel. Still, with United’s manager having done little to correct the underlying cause, Old Trafford remains on the edge 18 months into the Dutchman’s time at the club. After all, despite this week’s victory over a distinctly average opponent, United boasts one of the meekest attacks in the country and a level of ambition to match. For many it is just not the ‘United way’.
Van Gaal’s team boasts the second lowest total number of chances created in the Premier League – ahead, only, of Saturday’s opponents West Bromwich Albion. United’s solid defence remains the difference between the club challenging Manchester City and Arsenal at the top of the league, and another mediocre season.
With United’s manager unwilling to change his approach, Van Gaal is reliant on positive results to turn the crowd around. Indeed, mid-table West Brom should provide ample fodder on Saturday, although the manager has given supporters free rein to aim criticism at the Dutchman should the Reds’ fail on Saturday.
“Criticism from the fans is never unfair because it is a feeling of the fans and you cannot criticise the feeling of the fans,” said Van Gaal at his weekly Friday press confernce. “I think we have to play for the fans, but I have already said that the fans also have to understand the game and the resistance of our opponent.
“The supporters have to support the players otherwise they make it very difficult for the players to play at Old Trafford. I can only advise the fans to criticise the manager and not the players. It’s very difficult to play for Manchester United with a lot of pressure and you can taste that in Old Trafford. Then it’s better to whistle the manager, I can cope with it because I have had a lot of experience.”
Yet, the veteran coach appears unwilling to change path, with Rooney still the source of significant debate. The Scouser has scored just twice in the Premier League this season, while performances have rarely merited inclusion in the side, save for the captain’s “special privileges.” The former Evertonian’s performance was brighter against CSKA; he scored with an unmarked header, and created two further chances for his team-mates, although the 30-year-old’s passing remained inconsistent.
Rooney is likely to continue in a deeper role at number 10 following Tuesday’s performance, enabling the livewire Anthony Martial to start up-front. The sacrifice: Ander Herrera will drop to the bench, leaving United one-paced through midfield and often far too narrow. It is this kind of compromise – crowbarring Rooney into the team – that increases many supporters’ level of frustration.
Meanwhile, Tony Pulis’ West Brom side arrives in the north east sporting four ex-United players. Jonny Evans and Darren Fletcher will certainly start at Old Trafford, while Anders Lindegaard is likely to find a place on the bench. Another former Red, Ben Foster, is on the road to full fitness after suffering a serious knee injury earlier this year.
Fletcher, in particular, has impressed at the Hawthorns, starting every West Brom game this season – and belying critics who thought the Scot’s time at the top-level of English football had come to an end. Fletcher and Evans retain the United manager’s affection, with each moving on to gain regular minutes that were not forthcoming under Van Gaal. Each is likely to receive a very warm welcome back at Old Trafford.
“I think it’s very good because I always try to be honest for my players,” said the Dutchman. “I had said to them ‘Your playing minutes are not too much and at your age you have to play football.’ The decision to go from United to another club is a big one, but they have made it out of ambition and I like that very much. You can also decide to stay and not play and train, a lot of players are doing that, but I have a great respect for these players.”
The Baggies are mid-table in the Premier League having endured a mixed October. Defeats to Crystal Palace and Leicester City were tempered by narrow victories over Norwich City and Sunderland. Still, it is path that should just about keep West Brom in the division come next May.
“Our away record has been first class, but at home we’ve switched-off and been punished,” said Pulis. “We spend a lot of time analysing what we do as a group and the players have responded well this week.
“It’s going to be difficult. If you consider the money Louis has spent, the players they’ve got and the depth that they’ve got, it shouldn’t really be a contest. But if you get 11 players running around on any given day, who’ll work hard for the team and give it their best, then who knows.”
Pulls’ team conceded three at home to Leicester last weekend, but enjoys a fine defensive record on the road. With just two conceded in five matches, Pulis’ side is unlikely to cave at Old Trafford. It does not bode well for the kind of exciting football that the Old Trafford crowd expects.
Team news and line-ups
Van Gaal has no fresh injury concerns ahead of Saturday’s match, with Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw the only absentees. Morgan Schneiderlin missed Tuesday’s victory, with what the United manager described as an “illness,” but the Frenchman could make the bench. Right-back Matteo Darmian is suspended after reaching five yellow cards for the season.
There are unlikely to be significant changes from Tuesday’s side, with Ashley Young starting at right-back and Jesse Lingard retaining his place in midfield following a bright performance against CSKA.
“He’s doing well,” said van Gaal of the youngster. “That’s why I want to keep him and why I have said his chances shall come. He has a lot of pace and I like pace on the wings. Now he has first assist also. I think he shall have a boost from this game because he played very well, in my opinion, and I hope he shall continue.”
Meanwhile, Pulis says that his side has “one or two knocks” ahead of the game, although the former Stoke City is reluctant to reveal his hand. James Morrison is available after returning from injury as in defeat to Leicester last weekend.
United subs from: Romero, Blind, Pereira, Tuanzebe, Schneiderlin, Fellaini, Herrera, Depay, Wilson
CSKA subs from: Lindegaard, Rose, Morrison, Olsson, Gnabry, McManaman, Chester, Gardner, Anichebe, Lambert
Referee: Mike Dean Assistants: H Lennard, M McDonough Fourth Official: N Swarbrick
United 1-0 West Brom