It felt right, didn’t it? The Stretford End “sucked the ball in,” as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer put it after Manchester United scored two late goals to beat Middlesbrough at Old Trafford. The intensity with which José Mourinho’s side attacked as the clock wound down drew memories of yesteryear. The rush of adrenaline as Anthony Martial equalised; the euphoria of that late Paul Pogba winner. Three points. Momentum firmly with the Reds.
As results go, Manchester United’s victory over Dutch side Feyenoord was certainly overdue. José Mourinho’s side found its shooting boots along with some electrifying performances in a 4-0 victory that leaves the Reds close to qualification for the Europa League knockout stages. United scored more than once for the first time in three home games to break an unfortunate record. Could it spark a much-needed revival?
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.
“The challenge was bigger for me at Manchester United. I am sorry for Tottenham, but Manchester United are a bigger club.”
Louis van Gaal doesn’t regret choosing United over Spurs despite his side’s humiliating 3-0 defeat at White Hart Lane on Sunday. Van Gaal may not regret choosing United, but United fans are certainly ruing his decision. There us little doubt Spurs supporters must have chuckled at the suggestion Van Gaal is “sorry” that the London club missed out on the ‘genius’ veteran manager.
“When you analyse what we’ve done this season and last season, you cannot say it isn’t working.” Words of a delusional Louis van Gaal ahead of Manchester United’s FA Cup quarter-final with West Ham United at Old Trafford. United supporters have kept a remarkable degree of patience over the last 20 months, calmly accepting poor performances and indifferent results as part of the rebuilding process. After Thursday’s defeat at Anfield that patience has snapped.
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
Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United side begins Sunday’s fixture in east London 13 points behind Premier League table-toppers Chelsea. The distance to José Mourinho’s side remains the final indicator of progress under the Dutchman, although European qualification is the only real ask of Van Gaal this season. In truth the Reds’ remain some way off the country’s best even if Van Gaal believes his team is moving forward, despite being locked in a five-way battle for third and fourth places in the Premier League.
Still, victory over Leicester City last weekend and then Cambridge United in the FA Cup has proffered a little momentum after the Dutchman’s side faltered over Christmas and New Year. Three points last Saturday was much needed with Southampton, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and even Liverpool in pursuit of Champions League qualification. There are just 14 Premier League games to go. It is a measure of United’s slide since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement that a place among the continent’s élite can no longer be taken for granted.
Van Gaal has spent the best part of the last two decades at the sharp-end of European football, largely a stranger to the uncertainties that now face his new club. Little wonder that he is a man in no mood for failure this season; the weekend’s fixture against West Ham United coming with a demand for victory.
“When I see where we are now – we are already third, and we have to improve still a lot, in my opinion – at the end maybe we can see we are the best team,” said Van Gaal on Friday. “But it’s also dependable on the process of Chelsea and Man City because you have to compare always.
“I said that at the beginning of the week that this is an important week and we have to win all three matches. After we beat Leicester we were third in the league. After that, we beat Cambridge and we are in the next round of the FA Cup. Now, we have to win in London, but it’s not so easy because we have to play away against West Ham.
“Until now we could have played better in possession. We have to improve that, but I think that we are fourth in the goalscoring league and third or fourth in the defensive way of playing. We are very good but we can improve.”
That improvement may well be supported by the return of Adnan Januzaj and Luke Shaw, who missed the midweek victory over Cambridge. Indeed, only Michael Carrick is now out following a spate of injuries before the New Year that left United’s coach with, at times, a threadbare squad. Van Gaal now boasts more options than at any time during his eight months in charge at Old Trafford.
The former Barcelona manager is likely to stick with the 4-4-2 diamond formation that brought victories over Leicester and Cambridge, although the Dutchman could yet surprise with the exact balance of his team. The Reds mismatched shaped against the Us included Wayne Rooney starting from the right and Marouane Fellaini on the left in a formation that brought little fluency despite United’s dominance of possession.
Angel di Maria should start, despite moving out of his family home and into a hotel this week following a traumatic burglary attempt, while Daley Blind will again deputise for Carrick. Paddy McNair may well keep his place in defence after impressing at right-back during the FA Cup victory.
One player unlikely to feature from the start, however, is Ander Herrera. The Basque has become a fans’ favourite since joining in a £29 million deal from Athletic Bilbao in the summer. Herrera’s busy style and penetrative use of the ball seemingly offers the balance between attack and defence that his manager has sought all season. Still, with others ahead in the pecking order, Van Gaal says Herrera must add to his game if he is to feature more.
“I have to compare him with people like Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata for example, so that is difficult. They all have a high level, so he has to improve,” said Van Gaal.
“He is a great guy and a great professional also, so that’s not the problem. His problem is that he has to compete with high-level players. Rooney is also the captain, so he has a privilege. The other reasons are the players who are in his positions. In this system for example – what we are playing now – that is Mata and that is Angel Di Maria. It is difficult to compete but he did already know that the moment he signed for Manchester United.”
Meanwhile, West Ham manager Sam Allardyce faces the kind of injuries problems that beset the Reds earlier this season. Andy Carroll limped out of last weekend’s defeat at Liverpool, while centre-backs James Collins and Winston Reid will both miss United’s visit. Allardyce is without a clutch of defenders – James Tomkins and Carl Jenkinson may have to start despite doubts surrounding each player’s fitness.
“The injuries are worrying at the moment,” admitted the former Newcastle United manager. “I have brought my list with me here: Reid, Collins, Demel, Henry, Carroll, Poyet are all doubtful and lie in our medical room at the moment. We are not sure how many if any of those will make Sunday’s game. Very few risks will be taken. Unless they are 100% fit they won’t be playing. We will go to battle with that we have got.”
However, Diafra Sakho will play despite the Hammers being fined by FIFA for playing the Senegal striker during the Africa Cup of Nations. Sakho had pulled out of the tournament with a back injury.
Van Gaal’s side faces a West Ham outfit higher in the table than at any other point during Allardyce’s tenure at Upton Park. In fact the Hammers have lost just one of the last 10 top-flight matches in east London, although Allardyce’s team has not beaten United in the Premier League in the last 12 attempts.
Either way Sunday’s fixture is set to be a real test of United’s progress. The type of fixture that United should win if the Dutchman truly harbours a dream of building the “best side” in the Premier League.
West Ham (4-4-2): Adrian; O’Brien, Jenkinson, Tomkins, Cresswell; Amalfitano, Song, Nolan, Downing; Valencia, Sakho
United (4-1-3-2): De Gea; McNair, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Blind; Rooney, Mata, Di Maria Van Persie, Falcao
West Ham: Jaaskelainen, Spiegel, Burke, Oxford, Kouyaté, Jarvis, Cole
United: Valdes, Smalling, Evans, Blackett, Valencia, Herrera, Januzaj, Young, Fellaini, Wilson
West Ham 42 – Draw 26 – United 61
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Assistants: S Beck, J Collin
Fourth Official: A Marriner
West Ham 1-1 United
£1 bet club
1-1 draw @ 11/2
Running total: £(-)14
Manchester United will come good this season, there is too much talent at Louis van Gaal’s disposal to fail, although from the standpoint of another near car crash performance on Saturday it is impossible to predict when, let alone where. Old Trafford certainly holds no guarantees these days. For the moment this remains United, but not quite as we once knew it. On the cusp of turning it around, or of another dismal season? The next five weeks will say much.
Who would have thought that £150 million spent over the summer would have so little immediate impact, with United having lost twice in the Premier League already this season, including a humiliating 5-3 loss at Leicester City. Not to mention that Carling Cup defeat at Milton Keynes Dons.
Leaving aside Wayne Rooney’s dismissal in the 59th minute, United’s performance at home to West Ham United this weekend rarely achieved a level above the mundane – at least in aggregate even if there were moments of brilliance. Indeed, prior to the Scouser’s moment of insanity in kicking out at Stuart Downing it was the visitors who had begun to dominate proceedings as the second half opened. Momentum swung to the Hammers long before Rooney hit the showers. Something is just not quite right with Van Gaal’s outfit.
There were certainly mitigating circumstances on Saturday. Injuries to Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling left United with Marcos Rojo as the only available first team central defender. Hardly ideal in any circumstances. Though even this excuse was unavailable as United conceded five to Leicester last weekend.
Positives? The Reds passing in the first half against the Hammers was crisp and the side’s attacking movement reflected the quality available to United’s Dutch manager. Rooney’s goal was exceptionally well executed, while Radamel Falcao enjoyed a fine game even without a strike of his own.
Van Gaal should also feel more secure in his young defenders after the performance. Rojo was, at times, commanding in central defence, although the Argentinian World Cup star has some work to do on positioning.
But it was the Dutchman’s two young attacking full-backs that impressed most. Rafael da Silva was all energy and enterprise in the first half and, without exception, solid defensively in the second. He hasn’t always been that reliable. Meanwhile, Luke Shaw enjoyed a positive début for the club – attacking in tandem with Angel Di Maria down the left, while playing an almost immaculate defensive game during the second.
“It was a tough début, I would say,” said Shaw. “Obviously, we went down to 10 men and it’s never easy but we all fought hard and showed how much we wanted these three points. It means a lot to us. Overall, I’m really pleased with how my début went but the main thing, for me, was to get the win.”
There was kudos too for Patrick McNair, the patently raw 19-year-old, who completed a game-saving defensive header late in the game that would have been impressive from the most celebrated of centre halves.
Yet, at no point did the result feel secure either – not even as United led 2-0 lead with 11 men on the pitch. West Ham’s policy of attacking United’s fragile defence with long balls had a significant effect on a youthful rearguard. After all Rojo, at 24, was the elder statesman of United’s defensive unit. That David de Gea looks anything but his completely secure self is also concerning, although surely a symptom and not a cause of United’s defensive malaise this season.
Still, the Reds held out for the win, reorganising into a solid defensive shape after Rooney’s dismissal and resorting, sometimes crudely, to launching the ball forward in defensive situations. Sensibly too some might add given the result last weekend, even if the tactic was anything but ‘the United way’.
Van Gaal called the win “very important,” while Robin Van Persie lauded victory as “more than three points.” That it was. Holding out to claim a 2-1 win while fielding 10 players for more than half an hour – even at home – is a level of robustness that has not always been present since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
“After the red card, we had to fight for the victory and I have said to the lads you have been rewarded today because you fought until the end – and more than that,” Van Gaal told MUTV.
Rooney, United’s captain and leader, let the group down. It has been five years since the former Evertonian saw red in the Premier League. Yet, somehow, this didn’t surprise either. Rooney’s is rarely a calm head. Captain material? Pull the other one.
“I could imagine why he did it,” said Van Gaal somewhat magnanimously. “But I think you have to do it more friendly and that is the only thing that I can say. You can ask if that is a red card. I think you see what you want to see and I believe [the referee] could have given a red card. In professional football, you make these faults.”
For the rest of the group this victory is a platform, with Everton, Manchester City and Chelsea to come over the next five weeks. Rooney will miss the first of those games allowing Juan Mata to once again take up a role a ‘number 10’. Whether the Spaniard’s re-introduction will help or hinder United’s attacking play is a debate to come; some team-mates will enjoy United’s greater balance with Rooney out of the side.
Results are key though and with difficult games on the horizon United’s victory over West Ham may well be a turning point. It certainly feels like a pivotal period in the season if the Reds are to build some momentum before the turn of the year.
“It was absolutely vital to get the three points for everyone’s belief and the fans’ belief,” Van Persie added.
“I thought we played really well in the first half but in the second it was a completely different game because of the red card. At times it was a bit nerve-wracking but we did ever so well and everyone fought really hard.”
Good things do sometimes come to those who wait and, in this, United’s supporters have played a long game of patience. Not with Van Gaal per se, but in the near 18 months since Sir Alex announced his retirement there have been few moments of levity. West Ham wasn’t really one; Chelsea and City in the weeks to come. Now there would be a real platform.
It has become a pattern – and not a good one – that Manchester United’s hopes founder on the fate of injury. David Moyes suffered for frequent bouts of player absence last season; new manager Louis van Gaal’s plans have similarly been disrupted by a clutch a players permanently staffing the physio room. So many, in fact, that United’s aggregate injury count is the highest in the Premier League this season at 55 cumulative matches missed. Just as Van Gaal needed a win more than at any time in his short United tenure ill luck has struck hard once again.
Yet, it is not solely the total number of injuries that counts this weekend against West Ham United at Old Trafford – there are nine – but where they feature in central defence. United’s 5-3 humiliation by Leicester City last Sunday included one of the most calamitous defensive performances in recent memory. The Dutchman must have hoped for anything but further disruption to his ever-changing back-line.
Indeed, United’s veteran manager has called up two youngsters in Paddy McNair and Tom Thorpe for the weekend’s match, with only new recruit Marcos Rojo available in central defence. Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones are injured – same story, different day there – while Tyler Blackett is suspended followed the youngster’s dismissal at the King Power Stadium.
“The amount of injuries is worrying me and they are not coming back,” said Van Gaal on Friday.
“Smalling is already, for the third time, injured. Evans also. Jones had one injury in the national team, which was unfortunate. I am a coach who has a lot of experience and I believe I was never in this situation before so it is surprising me. I am evaluating myself and my staff and also the players and what is wrong. I have already adapted to a certain level that I think we can play during a game but I cannot train at a lower level.”
Whether an untested youngster or, perhaps, Darren Fletcher lines up alongside Rojo £30 million summer recruit Luke Shaw is likely to make his full United début. The teenager featured during the summer tour of the United States, where he was criticised for a lack of fitness, before suffering a hamstring injury that has kept the 19-year-old on the sidelines.
“The injury got me down a little bit as I’ve never been injured for so long before,” Shaw told MUTV.
“I was a bit annoyed, but I’ve been back in training now for a couple of weeks. It was literally in the last training session ahead of the game. I had to stop because I was in too much pain. I’m back up now, raring to go and hoping to stay injury-free and fit for the rest of the season.”
Injuries aside United must rebuild confidence after the heavy defeat at Leicester. In a season where the Reds have secured just five points from as many games Van Gaal is struggling to build momentum. Already eight points behind Chelsea and five adrift of Arsenal, United cannot slip further behind if Champions League football is to return to Old Trafford in 2015. More than 30 games remain this season, but a lack of momentum – as Moyes well knows – can linger.
Still, United’s players and management held an in-depth post-mortem after Leicester scored four times in a calamitous second half United performance on Sunday lunchtime. Van Gaal’s men looked secure after gaining a two goal lead until the final 30 minutes of a game that has provoked talk of crisis at Old Trafford.
“It shouldn’t be possible, but it still happened,” said striker Robin van Persie, who is one of a clutch of players yet to find any form this season.
“We have to deal with it. We had a proper look at it next day. Sometimes it was a bit confronting and it was a long meeting. One hour. We went from there, started again this week [and have put] a couple of really good sessions in. Everyone feels ready to face West Ham.
“When you look at the defensive mistakes, it starts somewhere else. That’s where we looked at as well. It’s not just the one mistake which happens. There’s a mistake before the mistake and before the mistake, maybe positional wise. Everyone knows where we have to improve.”
Meanwhile, West Ham arrive having secured a positive result against Liverpool last weekend. It has been a mixed campaign with defeats to Tottenham Hotspur, Crystal Palace and Sheffield United – but the Hammers’ seven Premier League points leaves the East Londoners in the top half of the table.
West Ham boss Sam Allardyce this week criticised United for spending some £150 million on new players this summer having not similarly endowed Moyes with new recruits in 2013. Still, Allardyce brought it seven new players in the summer as the Hammers seek to consolidate a place in the Premier League ahead of the move to the Olympic Stadium next year.
On the pitch West Ham will be without midfielder Cheikhou Kouyate this weekend, while Kevin Nolan and Matt Jarvis are not yet ready to return to first team action. But it is not injuries that concern Allardyce, with the former Blackburn Rovers manager predicting that the home side will return to form this weekend.
“I’m thinking a backlash because of the determination of the Man United players and the fact they are playing at Old Trafford.” said Allardyce.
“I know there’s quite a lot of new players playing there but certainly the demand of Manchester United is huge and they’ll be really fired up to make sure that they try and perform like they did against QPR and beat us. They will be pretty down about that performance they gave at Leicester and they will be hurting and they know the only way they can put that right is to get out onto the field and punish us for it – so we will have to be careful about that.”
Indeed, there have been few good days for the Hammers at Old Trafford in recent years where the Londoners have suffered 16 defeats in 18 Premier League matches. The last victory in Manchester came as Carlos Tevez scored a late winner to keep West Ham up in 2007.
Still, with United’s form anything but consistent this season and injuries biting hard there is little reason for Old Trafford’s regulars to hold thoughts of easy victory. Van Gaal can but hope his luck turns for the better. The injury count certainly isn’t.
United (4-1-2-1-2): de Gea; Rafael, Fletcher, Rojo, Shaw; Blind; Herrera, Di Maria; Rooney; Van Persie, Falcao
West Ham (4-5-1): Adrian; Jenkinson, Tomkins, Reid, Cresswell; Amalfitano, Noble, Song, Downing; Sakho, Valencia
United: Lindegaard, McNair, Vermijl, Thorpe, Mata, Pereira, Carrick, Valencia, Anderson, Januzaj
West Ham: Jaaskelainen, Spiegel, Collins, Demel, Potts, Lletget, Poyet, Cole, Vaz Te, Zarate
United 128 – Draw 60 – West Ham 26
Referee: Lee Mason
Assistants: A Garratt, I Hussin
Fourth Official: M Dean
United 3-2 West Ham
£1 bet club
Falcao to score twice @ 7/2
Running total: £(-)6
It was a phenomenal effort, arching high over Adrián del Castillo’s head, bouncing once before catching the top of the net at the Bobby Moore end. Neither true volley, nor half, Wayne Rooney’s goal at Upton Park on Saturday is the kind that could spark a season into life.
Yet, David Moyes’ celebration at Rooney’s opener against West Ham United came, seemingly, with as much a sense of vindication as joy on the Scot’s brow. This is what pressure does. Even at the moment of triumph, Moyes emits the stench of a man trapped inside his own fear.
Not so on the bench where Danny Welbeck repeatedly punched the air with the euphoria supporters will instantly recognise.
Still, Manchester United’s victory over the Hammers on Saturday has brought significant relief for Moyes. Following Wednesday’s defeat of Olympiakos at Old Trafford, misguided talk of the Scot’s dismissal – at least prior to the season’s conclusion – surely ends. Indeed, barring comprehensive defeat to Manchester City on Tuesday, followed by humiliation at Bayern Munich’s hands – both are possible of course – Moyes is highly likely to be given a second season in charge.
Yet, there have been so many false dawns these past eight months. After all, while United’s record against mediocre opposition isn’t at all bad – certainly on the road – Arsenal remains the only side in the Premier League’s top nine to have lost to Moyes’ outfit. And that was a very, very bad day at the office for the Gunners.
If truth be told, United’s form under Moyes – class even – will be more accurately reflected in those upcoming games against City and Bayern than in any of the matches over the past week.
Still, the brace of victories has at least restored some confidence in a team badly shaken after the resounding loss to Liverpool at Old Trafford last weekend.
“I think the win on Wednesday against Olympiakos has given us all a big lift and you could see today the confidence running through the team,” said stand-in captain Rooney in the aftermath of Saturday’s victory.
“Today was a good result after last week. Overall we played some good stuff. I thought we defended really well. I thought Michael Carrick at the back, in a difficult game, was outstanding for us so there are a lot of positives.
“There was some great counter-attacking football. That’s in the DNA of Manchester United and today we did that. We caused them a lot of problems.”
Yet, familiar weaknesses will be sternly tested in the weeks to come. Marouanne Fellaini and Darren Fletcher studiously supported United’s makeshift back four at Upton Park, but whatever the central midfield pairing on Tuesday, there is more than one a step up in class against Yaya Touré and the outstanding Brazilian Fernandinho.
Indeed, Robin van Persie’s knee injury should enable the United manager to deploy three central midfielders against City, assuming Fellaini, Michael Carrick and Juan Mata all start on Tuesday. Such has been the manager’s devotion to a front two of Rooney and van Persie this season that United would surely have been hopelessly outnumbered against City had the Dutchman not broken down yet again.
Cynics might note that Moyes will need to deploy even greater numbers in central midfield to have any chance of matching Bayern’s outstanding contingent. Thiago Alcântara, Toni Kroos, Bastian Scheinsteiger, Javi Martínez and Mario Götze will each play some part over the two legs and, whatever the confidence gained over the past two matches, it is stating the obvious that Bayern will dominate in central areas.
For Moyes, however, matches against City and Bayern hold little to fear save for a humiliating drubbing. With expectations now at a low not matched in two decades the Scot needs only save face to emerge with some credit from the trio of fixtures. United, at a minimum, has at least gained some momentum in the past week.
“Hopefully we can go into Tuesday’s game showing a bit more confidence,” said the 50-year-old on Saturday night.
“You can never refer this game to the next one but all we want to do is get a bit of momentum and that’s something we haven’t had an awful lot of.”
Neither has there been any real intensity this season; an edge seemingly missing from August through to the spring. It is a pattern that particularly shows in the bigger matches.
With Bayern having wrapped up the Bundesliga at the weekend, and City chasing another Premier League crown, Moyes may find his players’ competitive spirit a little short of the opponents once again. And while pride may be at stake, it has been all season to little effect.
“It’s a massive game, but it’s a big game for City too, for the fans and for the players,” said Rooney of Tuesday’s fixture.
“It’s a big challenge for us and we have to go into that with confidence after the last two games. I’m looking forward to it, I’m excited, and hopefully we can get a good result.”
United, of course, will need a little more than hope, but to some extent Moyes can prioritise Europe following Tuesday’s clash. True, there are tough fixtures away at Newcastle United and Everton to come, but there remains little to play for domestically. Not since Sir Alex Ferguson’s early days has that been true in March.
After all, few supporters care whether the club seals sixth place and a slot in the Europa League third qualifying round. It might even be more lucrative to complete the summer tour in the US and not return early for a two-legged tie in late July against, among other options, the third-placed team in the Cypriot First Division.
In the meantime United begins the 167th derby as clear outsiders against a City side that put five past hapless Fulham at the weekend. That would be the same Cottagers who earned a draw with United at Old Trafford in January to universal consternation in Moyes’ camp.
But then this fixture has seen more than one surprise over the years. A unlikely United win might even bring Moyes a little joy.