“We’re f*cking sh*t,” was the cry from Manchester United’s travelling fans, who paid £71 to watch, possibly, the worst night in the club’s post-Sir Alex Ferguson history. Louis van Gaal’s side was torn apart by Midtjylland last week – a team that had not played since the 10 December. The Reds truly hit rock bottom in Jutland. Midtjylland played with pace, aggression and visible desire as the home side ran through the heart of the weakest United team since the 1970s. Indeed, it is hard to comprehend just how bad this United side is at the moment, although “f*cking sh*t” doesn’t seem to do the team justice – it is worse than that.
The club is rotten from the very top down. The owners have been likened to leeches, with no regard for the football side of the club; the Executive Vice Chairman, Ed Woodward, is so concerned with his own image that he is reportedly refusing to sack Van Gaal due to potential blowback on his own career. Meanwhile, Ferguson continues to assert far too much influence, using his former fledglings as a mouthpiece, with a consistent anti-José Mourinho narrative leaked to the media.
The playing squad itself is not good enough, with many onlookers suggesting not one of the current team would get into the all-conquering United side of 2006-09. To cap off the misery, the academy is in chaos after years of under investment and neglect.
Repeatedly, since a dismissal Christmas period, United supporters have assumed the club has reached a nadir and that Van Gaal’s dismissal was inevitable after yet another defeat. Inconceivably, Van Gaal clings on. Should United slip to a predictable loss at Shrewsbury Town on Monday night it may not even be enough to finally see off the Dutchman as Woodward chases an ‘honourable summer exit’.
The Reds travel to Shrewsbury looking to restore some pride after two defeats in succession, first to relegation-threatened Sunderland, and then to a Danish club formed in 1999. Van Gaal’s team has won just nine times in the past 27 matches and, barring a minor miracle, will not qualify for the Champions League, either domestically or through the Europa League.
If defeat at Midtjylland was unacceptable, than a loss in Shrewsbury would be catastrophic for Van Gaal and his men. Yet, Shrewsbury is not a tie United would have chosen in the club’s current predicament, especially given the side’s struggles against lower league opposition last season.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Van Gaal continues to complain about injuries and, in truth, the Dutchman has been unlucky. Luke Shaw’s double leg break has proven to be devastating to both player and team, seemingly halting United’s decent early season form.[/blockquote]
Since then Van Gaal has faced multiple injuries to members of the back four and beyond. Thursday night’s bench consisted of six players who had a combined total of 43 first team appearances between them. Yet, while Van Gaal has been unlucky, it was also the Dutchman’s choice to play out the season with a small squad, leaving few options when injuries hit.
Meanwhile, Shrewsbury can enjoy the occasion without pressure, in the knowledge that on paper at least there is little expectation of a home win. The Shrews will know, however, that there is likely never a better chance of beating United.
Shrews boss Micky Mellon, viewed by many pundits as one of the most under-rated managers in the lower leagues, believes his team’s chances rest on the way it mentally approaches the game.
“We will make sure that we thoroughly enjoy the game and take it all in and give the best account of ourselves that we possibly can to represent this great football town,” Mellon said. “We’ve got to do certain things in a certain way to increase our chances of getting a result, so that’s what we’re working on and the mentality we’re approaching the game with.”
Despite the long odds on a Shrewsbury win few onlookers would be surprised if the home side earns a replay from Monday night’s game. With Van Gaal seemingly out of the door in summer, regardless of how the rest of the season pans out, the Dutchman will be desperate to avoid yet another embarrassing day as United manager.
Yet, Van Gaal has consistently refused to accept responsibility for his team’s slide this season.
“The fans can criticise,” he said after defeat in Midtjylland defeat. “They can do it because when you see the second half, maybe they are right. We have to improve and then the fans shall support us again.”
No doubt victories against substandard Shrewsbury and Midtjylland in the coming week will fuel the Dutchman’s increasingly delusional analysis. The new reality is that the club is on countdown to Van Gaal’s summer departure.
United’s players have a more realistic take, with stand-in skipper Michael Carrick refusing to accept bad luck as a valid excuse for his team’s performance.
“Injuries are a part of the game, it’s something that’s not ideal as we obviously want everyone fit, but we can’t make any excuses and can’t put the Midtjylland result down to that,” the England man said.
“We are frustrated with the result but after the dust has settled over the next few days we’ll get ourselves ready for the games that are coming up.”
The bullish outlook would be admirable, but for how often the message has been repeated this season. Van Gaal cannot afford another mea culpa on Monday even if a once predictable cup tie has turned into an intriguing occasion.
Team news and line-ups
Shrewsbury subs from: Vassell, Wellens, Vernon, Halstead, Clark, Smith, Grandin, Cole
United subs from: Henderson, McNair, Poole, Riley, Carrick, Pereira, Weir, Keane
With Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur out, and Arsenal facing a replay, the FA Cup represents the only winnable competition for United this season. Whether many onlookers believe Van Gaal is capable of pulling it off is another matter. However, victory on Monday night will go some way in instilling a modicum of belief at Old Trafford.
Injuries remain a constant thorn in United’s campaign and David De Gea will miss out after damaging his knee in Thursday night’s warm up. Sergio Romero will deputise again. The Argentine’s selection was met with mild panic when the teams were announced on Thursday, although Romero’s performance meant that the night was less embarrassing for United than it could have been.
In defence injuries limit Van Gaal’s selection. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson should return to left-back after recovering from illness, paving the way for Daley Blind to partner Chris Smalling in the centre. Donald Love is cup-tied, meaning Paddy McNair could feature at right-back with Matteo Darmian, Phil Jones and Antonio Valencia injured.
In midfield Ander Herrera’s poor performance in Denmark means he is likely dropped for Marouane Fellaini, who has been rested for being in the ‘red zone’ over the past week. Morgan Schneiderlin will return, with Michael Carrick probably rested ahead of Thursday night’s critical Europa League fixture.
Juan Mata continues at 10 despite a poor performance in Denmark, while Jesse Lingard and Memphis Depay will likely feature in wide positions. Memphis got on the score sheet for his fifth goal of the season, while Lingard was unlucky not to score himself.
Anthony Martial continues in his favoured striking position stdespite an indifferent performance last week. The young Frenchman may be feeling the effects of a prolonged period in the side without a rest.
Shrewsbury 1-1 United
Assistants: S Child, S Burt
Fourth official: N Swarbrick