Pres­sure mounts on Van Gaal

Lesotho Times - - Sport - Phil Mcnulty

MANCH­ESTER — Manch­ester United’s high wire act this sea­son — stum­bling while flirt­ing with dan­ger be­fore some­how sur­viv­ing - fi­nally ended with a painful fall as Ar­se­nal con­demned them to two sea­sons with­out suc­cess for the first time in 26 years. United’s ob­vi­ous frail­ties have been cov­ered by the re­sults that took them to the FA Cup quar­ter­fi­nal against Ar­se­nal and also into the top four in the Pre­mier League.

Victory would have al­lowed manager Louis Van Gaal to put an op­ti­mistic gloss on the closing phase of a mixed sea­son. In­stead, Mon­day’s 2-1 de­feat raised se­ri­ous ques­tions of just how far United have come since the sacking of David Moyes and the ap­point­ment of the highly-re­garded Dutch­man.

Van Gaal made the FA Cup a prime tro­phy tar­get in his first sea­son with no Euro­pean foot­ball as a dis­trac­tion and the Cap­i­tal One Cup pushed out of reach by a hu­mil­i­at­ing 4-0 thrash­ing at MK Dons.

Now he must make sure the not in­signif­i­cant prize of a place in the top four and a re­turn to the Cham­pi­ons League, United’s nat­u­ral habi­tat un­der Sir Alex Fer­gu­son, is se­cured. When United beat Liver­pool 3-0 at Old Traf­ford on 14 De­cem­ber, they es­tab­lished a 10-point lead over Bren­dan Rodgers’ side, who were lan­guish­ing in 10th place and off the pace.

Since then, Liver­pool have been re­ju­ve­nated spec­tac­u­larly and now — along with Ar­se­nal and Tot­ten­ham — pose a se­ri­ous threat to Van Gaal’s re­main­ing am­bi­tion for this sea­son as they stand only two points adrift. How United cope with their next five Pre­mier League games will surely shape the out­come.

They face sixth-placed Spurs at Old Traf­ford this com­ing Sun­day with Mauri­cio Po­chet­tino’s side three points be­hind United. Then there is a piv­otal game at An­field on 22 March. On cur­rent form, Liver­pool will be favourites.

This is fol­lowed by two home games, firstly against strug­gling As­ton Villa be­fore the derby with Manch­ester City on 12 April. A visit to Chelsea com­pletes this po­ten­tially defin­ing pe­riod. When it is over, it is likely Van Gaal will be closer to know­ing whether his tar­get has been achieved. If it has, it will shape the mood of Manch­ester United’s sum­mer.

In Van Gaal’s de­fence, it would have been un­re­al­is­tic to ex­pect him to fin­ish above Chelsea and Manch­ester City, given their level of in­vest­ment and his own need to rebuild - but miss­ing out on the Cham­pi­ons League now would be a dev­as­tat­ing blow. For­mer cap­tain Roy Keane said it would be a “dis­as­ter” if United did not make the top four. The Cham­pi­ons League is not just lu­cra­tive, it is the big­gest lever to at­tract stars of the stature they will need. Van Gaal’s fu­ture prospects would be bleaker should he fail.

Trans­fer fail­ures The sight of Danny Wel­beck, the striker Van Gaal let go, strik­ing the de­ci­sive blow to send Ar­se­nal into the FA Cup semi-fi­nals while Radamel Fal­cao was not even sum­moned from the bench as United’s saviour, was heavy in sym­bol­ism.

Van Gaal’s cold ex­pla­na­tion of Wel­beck’s sale to Ar­se­nal for £16m on trans­fer dead­line day in Septem­ber was that “he was more a sub­sti­tute than a line-up player”. On a night that fur­ther stalled United’s progress un­der the Dutch­man, it was the cel­e­brated Fal­cao who was the sub­sti­tute while Wel­beck was not merely a line-up player but also Ar­se­nal’s match-win­ner.

If ever there was an evening to un­der­score the fact that Old Traf­ford is still wait­ing for Van Gaal’s new names to sparkle, this was it.

And there was no big­ger ex­am­ple than £59.7m Bri­tish record sign­ing An­gel Di Maria. The Ar­gen­tine, for once sta­tioned in his cor­rect po­si­tion on the flank, did show flashes of his gifts, par­tic­u­larly with a per­fect cross for Wayne Rooney’s equaliser.

His night ended in ig­nominy, how­ever, when he fool­ishly dragged at ref­eree Michael Oliver’s shirt af­ter be­ing booked for div­ing, re­sult­ing in an in­evitable sec­ond yel­low. It was an in­ex­cus­able piece of block­head­ed­ness — but per­haps also hinted at Di Maria’s men­tal tur­moil at his cur­rent fail­ure to trans­fer the bril­liance he showed for Real Madrid and Ar­gentina to Old Traf­ford.

Luke Shaw, signed from Southamp­ton for £27m, suf­fered an­other in­jury, while the sus­pi­cion lurks that An­der Her­rera has not con­vinced Van Gaal. He was taken off at half­time. Moyes al­most signed the Spa­niard and he pitched up again af­ter Van Gaal ar­rived. How in­flu­en­tial was the cur­rent manager in that deal?

Mid­fielder Da­ley Blind was pedes­trian and has rarely looked like a game-changer, while de­fender Mar­cos Rojo was rash and un­con­vinc­ing in at­tempt­ing to cope with sharp in­ter­changes from Ar­se­nal’s at­tack­ers.

And so, back to Fal­cao. The Colom­bia striker was a spec­ta­tor, even when United needed a goal to save their hopes of a tro­phy. He was the stel­lar star sup­pos­edly des­tined to add that gloss and ruth­less fin­ish­ing it was felt Wel­beck would never bring. It is hard to see how United can jus­tify com­plet­ing what would be a hugely ex­pen­sive deal for Fal­cao. Th­ese last few weeks must some­how be used to pro­vide ev­i­dence he has not sim­ply be­come an or­na­ment, a van­ity pur­chase by Van Gaal and United. United paid £6m to sign him on a sea­son-long loan from Monaco in Septem­ber and would need to fork out £43.5m to make his deal per­ma­nent.

What is Van Gaal’s phi­los­o­phy? Van Gaal rightly de­serves in­stant re­spect for a dec­o­rated ca­reer — but the sight of Marouane Fel­laini and Chris Smalling up front in the closing stages and tar­get for a suc­ces­sion of long balls was hardly the stuff of a tac­ti­cal in­no­va­tor.

In­deed, it smacked of tac­ti­cal bank­ruptcy rather than the “phi­los­o­phy” Van Gaal has es­poused since his ar­rival. You can guar­an­tee Moyes would have been pil­lo­ried for a sim­i­larly stone-age ap­proach in a los­ing cause.

The as­sump­tion is that a coach of Van Gaal’s cal­i­bre has a clear plan. The prob­lem is that on many oc­ca­sions this sea­son it has been tough to de­tect what the plan ac­tu­ally is. Fel­laini has im­proved af­ter a dread­ful first sea­son fol­low­ing his £27.5m move from Ever­ton but his role ap­pears to be as United’s blunt in­stru­ment in times of trou­ble.

The Bel­gian rep­re­sents a lum­ber­ing le­gacy of the failed Moyes era, an un­com­fort­able fit with United’s finest tra­di­tions. He was booked for per­sis­tent foul­ing on Mon­day and, while not their worst per­former, he is hardly a sign­post for a bright new gen­er­a­tion.

Van Gaal still shifts be­tween three and four at the back in a de­fence rid­dled with the sort of un­cer­tainty that has Smalling con­ced­ing pos­ses­sion on an alarm­ing ba­sis and An­to­nio Va­len­cia set­ting up Wel­beck’s win­ner. If it was not for the world-class goal­keeper David De Gea, United’s ri­vals for a place in the top four would be scent­ing more blood than they al­ready do be­cause de­fen­sively, the 20-time English cham­pi­ons are of­ten sham­bolic.

De Gea’s bril­liance has cov­ered up gap­ing cracks. Phil Jones and Smalling have not kicked on, in­deed have gone back­wards, while Jonny Evans is suspended and Rojo has been mixed. At least Rooney has been re­stored as a striker and re­sponded with an­other goal but af­ter a promis­ing first half, Van Gaal’s side were sloppy, slow and sec­ond best af­ter the break. Ar­se­nal were de­served win­ners.

With Robin van Per­sie a fad­ing force and Fal­cao and Di Maria un­der­achiev­ing, an old truth re­mains. United are still so re­liant on Rooney. For drive. For goals. For de­ter­mi­na­tion. For all the names added to the squad, Eng­land and United’s cap­tain still re­mains the most im­por­tant. Van Gaal, whose team have won one more game than they had at this stage last sea­son un­der Moyes, will ap­par­ently be given an­other £100m for fur­ther ad­just­ments in the sum­mer. Per­haps this will help make a phi­los­o­phy which cur­rently looks mud­dled and lost in a fog come into clearer view.

United’s ill-dis­ci­pline was also rev­e­la­tory. Di Maria’s red card was mad­ness, his tug on the shirt of ref­eree Oliver — who gave a mag­nif­i­cent dis­play of of­fi­cial­dom un­der the ex­treme pres­sure of a home crowd and play­ers in an in­creas­ingly blind panic — com­ing af­ter a dive.

Ad­nan Januzaj also at­tempted to de­ceive Oliver with a dive so late it al­most came in the open­ing mo­ments of Sun­day’s game with Spurs. Des­per­a­tion did not cover it. They also picked up seven bookings, a guar­an­tee of FA cen­sure. So, you get the idea — this was a dread­ful night for Van Gaal and Manch­ester United. Suc­cess will come with fourth place. This alone is a mea­sure of how far they must travel to even dream of re­vis­it­ing any of the glo­ries of the Sir Alex Fer­gu­son years.

An­other year for Arsene Wenger Ar­se­nal manager Arsene Wenger was un­der pres­sure and scru­tiny af­ter a dis­play that mixed gross in­com­pe­tence with naivety when they lost 3-1 at home Monaco in the first leg of their last-16 Cham­pi­ons League tie.

And yet here at Old Traf­ford, scene of so many re­cent dis­ap­point­ments and a place where they had not won since 2006, the FA Cup hold­ers con­firmed a re­turn to Wem­b­ley with an ac­com­plished per­for­mance that mixed Wenger’s tra­di­tional pass­ing de­mands with a touch of steel.

As they had done when win­ning at league cham­pi­ons Manch­ester City ear­lier this sea­son, Ar­se­nal showed a men­tal block that had plagued them for sea­sons had been cleared.

Then, to add fur­ther plea­sure, they drew ei­ther Read­ing or Brad­ford City in the semi­fi­nal. No easy tie — re­mem­ber how Brad­ford un­seated them on penal­ties in the 2012 League Cup quar­ter-fi­nal — but self-ev­i­dently the op­po­nents the re­main­ing sides would have wanted.

Ar­se­nal are now over­whelm­ing favourites to reach a sec­ond suc­ces­sive FA Cup fi­nal and the op­por­tu­nity to re­tain the tro­phy won from two goals down against Hull City in May. Their sea­son is likely to be alive un­til the last day with the pos­si­bil­ity of an­other tro­phy.

And that, given Ar­se­nal’s faith in Wenger, is likely to be a shield against the crit­ics who ques­tion (with jus­ti­fi­ca­tion it should be said) the lack of ti­tle chal­lenges and strug­gles to reach the later stages of the Cham­pi­ons League. — BBC

Ar­se­nal’s Danny Wel­beck shoots and scores his side’s sec­ond goal of the game dur­ing the English FA Cup quar­ter­fi­nal against Manch­ester United.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Lesotho

© PressReader. All rights reserved.