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