“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.
The club is now at its lowest point since relegation in the 1970s despite a turnover of more than 30 players and an outlay of £250 million since Van Gaal’s arrival. The Dutchman’s team has gone backwards, and his arrogance and denial has alienated fans to the point that his job is now untenable.
United’s midweek Europa League defeat to Liverpool was viewed by many as United’s lowest point since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. In truth there have been worse performances, notably Norwich City at home and Midtjylland away this season. Yet, it is the manner of defeat that has condemned Van Gaal – his team showed no desire against the club’s fiercest rival.
In contrast Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool side, which so easily waltzed through United’s defence, played like a team empowered by its manager. The home side chased every ball and committed to every tackle, with the visitors seemingly disinterested. This is not a particularly good Liverpool side either, although the visitors did their best to ensure the Anfield side won.
It was a United performance described by Paul Scholes as “shambolic” – a word that hardly seems to do justice to the depths the Reds have fallen. If ever there was a performance that says much about how players feel about their manager this was it.
Van Gaal blames injuries, citing his small playing squad as his greatest challenge, despite the Dutchman choosing to offload dozens of players deemed not good enough. The former Bayern Munich manager also claims that fans and journalists are “living in the past” in expecting United to be perform better.
It is a far cry from Van Gaal’s introductory press conference in 2013 where the Dutchman claimed he and United would “create history together.” Van Gaal has indeed created history at United – by achieving the lowest points total at this stage of the season of any United manager in the Premier League era. Few would bet on the Dutchman turning that unwanted record around before the season’s end.
By contrast Slaven Bilic’s West Ham United team is flying high in the Premier League, lying just two points off the top four – and two points ahead of United. Bilic’s Hammers side has won its last four games to mount a serious top four challenge – a result few expected last August when avoiding relegation was the goal some pundits suggested after the club sacked Sam Allardyce.
Indeed, Bilic has proven to be a revelation since his arrival in East London and is quietly confident ahead of Sunday’s game, although he warns that complacency in the face of United’s inconsistency could indeed prove to be West Ham’s downfall.
“They are like a wounded lion, they have a massive game against us,” Bilic said. “It’s going to be very difficult but are we confident? Of course we are confident, but not because Manchester United didn’t play well. We are confident because we are playing well. It would be dangerous, suicidal, if we approach the game like we are going to cruise it. No way will we do that.”
Even the most optimistic United fan will take that last statement with a pinch of salt. After all, West Ham should cruise the game, and many inside Old Trafford on Sunday expect the visitors to do so as well. How times have changed.
Despite United’s failings and West Ham’s good form, history remains on the hosts’ side though, with the Reds unbeaten in the last nine home games against the Hammers. Van Gaal’s side is still in contention for the FA Cup – realistically the club’s only chance of silverware before the manager departs in the summer.
“There is of course much more pressure on us now, but it is also possible that we win against West Ham,” Van Gaal said. “We are still in three competitions, so we need to fight. We still have the chance to win something and you have to believe in that.”
Van Gaal’s resistance to criticism remains and, in a positive sense, it represents progress on the mood of defeatism under David Moyes. Yet, neither are the club’s supporters willing to accept an insult to their collective intelligence – it is harder than ever for fans to accept the manager’s delusion as his disastrous reign comes to a close.
Van Gaal knows how important Sunday’s game is ahead of what could be the worst week of his reign. After the FA Cup tie, United welcomes Liverpool for the Europa League return leg before travelling across town to face neighbours Manchester City. Should the Reds suffer three consecutive losses the Dutchman could find himself out of the door sooner than expected.
Team news and line-ups
United subs from: Romero, Varela, Love, Valencia, Williams, McNair, Fellaini, Carrick, Rashford
West Ham subs from: Randolph, Howes, Song, Pike, Carroll, Hendrie, Moses, O’Brien, Valencia
With the home side seemingly out of the of the race for the top four and the odds heavily stacked against Van Gaal’s side in the Europa League, the FA Cup has become the Reds’ top priority this season. It remains the Dutchman’s only lifeline with his end of season performance review coming up fast.
At the back Van Gaal has little option but to stick with the defence that performed so poorly at Anfield on Thursday night, although Matteo Darmian may come back in for Guillermo Varela as Van Gaal looks to neutralise the threat posed by Dimitri Payet.
In the centre the once promising partnership of Chris Smalling and Daley Blind looks to be regressing, with Blind’s performance level dropping in recent weeks after playing more games than any other United player this season. Smalling remains United’s player of the year to date, albeit from a small short list. However, the defender has looked a shadow of himself since he sustained injury at Wolfsburg. Injuries mean the inconsistent Marcos Rojo will continue at left-back despite offering little since his return from injury.
Bastian Schweinsteiger’s return means the end of Marouane Fellaini in United colours. The Belgian was the Reds worst performer on Thursday night and he will be lucky to escape retrospective action from UEFA after an elbow on Emre Can. Sadly, some might note, any ban will apply only to European competitions and not domestically.
Morgan Schneiderlin is set to continue in midfield after forming a decent partnership with Schweinsteiger early in the season, while Michael Carrick drops back to the bench after an error strewn second-half performance against Liverpool.
Jesse Lingard could return on the right after suspension, with the Englishman’s off-the-ball movement missed on Thursday. Marcus Rashford was unfairly asked to do Lingard’s job at Anfield, despite a fine start to his United career in a striker’s role. Juan Mata is suspended, meaning that Ander Herrera will start at 10, where he has performed well this season. Memphis continues on the left despite suffering another blip in form in recent games.
Anthony Martial performed poorly at Anfield, with injury seemingly disrupting the Frenchman’s form of late. Martial is the only outfield player who could challenge Smalling in United player of the year awards, and his unpredictability remains a threat. He is likely to displace Rashford from the team, with the younger man needed a rest after a heavy recent schedule.
United 1-2 West Ham
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Fourth official: TBC