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.
Stats don’t always paint the full picture, of course, and Van Gaal could be forgiven if his team was at least playing decent football. The truth is the Reds are not. Instead, the fare is dull, slow, and uninspiring. If something must change, there is no better time than away at Stoke on Boxing Day.
The Reds lies fifth, nine points off leaders Leicester City. For that reason alone, Saturday’s game is a ‘must win’ for Van Gaal’s side, never mind the belief that anything other than victory might leave Van Gaal heading for retirement.
United has won less than half the games this season, and while it is foolish to consider the Reds as potential champions, there is still an element of ‘why not’ when it comes to evaluating United’s title chances in a season of some surprises.
Meanwhile, Stoke City has recruited exceptionally under former United favourite Mark Hughes. The Welshman has brought in the talented Ibrahim Afellay, Xherdan Shaqiri and Bojan Krkic this season. Yet, the Potters have won just six games in the league and are the joint lowest goal scorers with 14 goals. The side is poor at the Britannia too, with four losses at home already this season and only two clean sheets in the last nine home games.
Despite this Stoke remains a dangerous side on the break, with Shaqiri and Bojan good enough, and quick enough, to feature in many top sides. The Potters have already beaten Chelsea at the Britannia this season, and few will have forgotten Manchester City’s annihilation at the start of December. The Potters cut through City’s defence that day, with a 2-0 scoreline flattering the Blues.
“I have said already that players like Bojan and Xherdan Shaqiri are very good attacking players and have played for fantastic clubs like Barcelona and also Bayern Munich,” said Van Gaal.
“We have to improve our defensive organisation. It is true it is always better that we keep a clean sheet, but we have to attack also and finish our chances – that is important. There are a lot of aspects we have to improve.
The combination of Stoke’s potential and United’s form doesn’t bode well for the visitors, especially since Stoke is a team that can raise its game against ‘bigger’ sides. Still, United’s record at the Britannia is good – Van Gaal’s side has lost just one of the last 15 league meetings between the two sides, although Stoke is unbeaten in the two league games against United at the Britannia since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
If United doesn’t win on Saturday it will be the team’s longest winless run in all competitions since January 1990. Just one more factor piling the pressure on Van Gaal ahead of the lunchtime kick-off.
“I’ve been asked whether this is a good time to play them,” said Mark Hughes. “But I am always wary of them because these type of clubs bounce back emphatically”.
United has been anything but ‘emphatic’ under Van Gaal, barring three blistering performances at the back end of last season. Yet, the Dutchman is convinced he can turn it around. Van Gaal walked out of his usual press conferences after just five minutes on Tuesday and is adamant, angry even, that the at Old Trafford situation is not as bad as it is being made out in the press.
“We are not in a good position, but four weeks ago we are first in the Premier League, and in four weeks’ time we can be back again,” he said.
“When you have lost three times in a row, then you need a victory. We have focused ourselves to do that but it is not easy. Stoke City have won against Manchester City, for example, and it’s a special ground. It is not easy with a lot of circumstances that are not suitable always to playing good football.
“We have to focus on that match and we have to win that match. We have analysed Stoke and seen the ball is flying in the wind. You have to cope with every circumstance and that is why we are preparing ourselves for that game so we can show the players what it is like. We have to win against Stoke City, that is the main focus.”
It remains to be seen whether the players will respond to their manager. Van Gaal desperately needs to win over doubtful supporters, and potentially also the Board with Jose Mourinho lurking. If some rumours are to be believed then United’s trip to Stoke is one of just two games the Dutch has to save his job.
One player saying the right things this week is the captain Wayne Rooney. The United and England striker has struggled this season, having scored only two Premier League goals, but there is little to fault in his commitment as captain.
“As a group of players we know we can do better,” said the 30-year-old. “I know my own performances can be better and I am working hard to improve that.
“We can turn this situation around. The best way to come out of this period and improve is for us all to stick together. We’re fighting for the manager and trying to get results to turn this around. You have a lot of people talking about things they believe are happening when in reality the people writing that stuff don’t know anything that’s happening.”
The results, however, have been far from what supporters have come to expect from the club. For Rooney there is an extra incentive to perform at Stoke – he is just one goal away from claiming second spot in the list of United’s all-time top goal scorers.
History isn’t with the player – he has never scored at the Britannia. His team could do with a change in that pattern.
Team news and line-ups
Stoke subs from: Haugaard, Bardsley, Teixeira, Wilson, Afellay, Moha, Shenton, Sidwell, Van Ginkel, Odemwingie, Walters.
United subs from: Romero, McNair, Varela, Carrick, Fellaini, Herrera, Mata, Pereira, Lingard.
Can United bring some festive cheer on Boxing Day?
Bastian Schweinsteiger will serve the last of his three game suspension, while Van Gaal says the weekend’s game has come too soon for Matteo Darmian. United will make a late call on Jesse Lingard’s injury, but the Reds remain without long-term injury victims Antonio Valencia, Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo.
“It is more or less the same, so there is no difference, only that Phil Jones played 90 minutes against Norwich and had no reaction. That’s a good signal,” added Van Gaal.
“I think Darmian shall come back next week and then maybe against Chelsea, we have to see that but, of course, we have injuries that take a long time.”
Goalkeeper David De Gea could have done more for Norwich’s second goal last week, offering far too much of the goal to Tettey. It was his second mistake in as many games, but given Spaniard is United’s only world-class player he remains an automatic pick.
Ashley Young should expect to keep his place in the back four. Phil Jones was suffered a poor game against Norwich, but is expected to continue in defence alongside Chris Smalling, partly due to injuries, but also to combat the strength and pace of ex-Red Mame Biram Diouf. Daley Blind will continue at left-back in the absence of Shaw and Rojo.
In midfield Ander Herrera returned to the match day squad last week and was applauded onto the pitch when he replaced Marouane Fellaini. The Spaniard’s quick passing, movement and partnership with Juan Mata has been missed this season, although Van Gaal is seemingly reluctant to select both. Herrera requires a disciplined midfielder partner, meaning Morgan Schneiderlin could be selected in a holding role.
Up front Rooney’s status means he will play in the number 10 role, with the in-form, lightning quick Anthony Martial returning to a role as the lone striker. Last week Van Gaal experimented with Rooney, Mata and Martial as a front three, but to little effect.
“There’s no disguising the fact we’re in a very bad period. Things must improve immediately,” concluded Van Gaal.
It us an understatement. In the past six weeks the manager has seemingly ‘lost both the dressing room and the fans. Three points on Boxing Day will go some way to rebuilding trust. Indeed, anything else could results in a P45 for the ‘Iron Tulip’.
Referee: Kevin Friend
Assistants: M Perry, D Bryan
Fourth Official: N Swarbrick
Stoke 1-1 United