I have not fulfilled supporters’ expectations, admits manager
Louis van Gaal admitted that he had failed to deliver what Manchester United’s supporters expected of him and he may now have to convince the Old Trafford hierarchy that will not be the case for them too, following arguably the most chastening defeat yet of his time in England.
The fans’ jury has long been out on Van Gaal’s impact at United since the Dutchman took over at the start of last season and after Charlie Austin’s late headed winning goal on his debut for Southampton the verdict moved noticeably further towards the negative as the players, and Van Gaal in particular, were loudly booed off.
It was the most telling sign yet that Van Gaal’s tenure may be reaching tipping point as Ed Woodward, United’s executive vice-chairman, stood in the directors’ box after the final whistle to watch his manager’s lonely walk to the dressing room and listen to the jeers that accompanied it.
“I’m very disappointed that I cannot reach the expectations of the fans,” Van Gaal said. “They have – or they had – great expectations of me, and I cannot fulfil them, so I am very frustrated because of that.”
The nuances of the language sug- gest Van Gaal probably meant ‘have not’ as opposed to ‘ cannot’, but whether he gets time to rectify the situation is becoming increasingly doubtful.
United, and Woodward in particular, have placed great faith in Van Gaal’s ability to turn the team around after the demise which followed the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, another to watch Saturday’s painful defeat, in 2013.
They have spent heavily to around the tune of £250 million on players since Van Gaal’s appointment but have a poor return to show for it as the team slips further and further away from the standards set as Ferguson delivered the last of the club’s 20 league titles.
Van Gaal, the former Holland national coach, who has won league titles with clubs in the Dutch, Spanish and German leagues, points out that players have also been sold, which is not often taken into account by his critics. But he must have had a hand in that too and it is hard to imagine United, whatever was going on behind the scenes, would be worse off with Ángel di María, Robin van Persie, Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernández and even Tom Cleverley and Darren Fletcher in their squad.
Van Gaal’s record so this season is worse than that of David Moyes, who was sacked after less than 12 months in charge in April 2014 once Champions League qualification proved beyond him and United’s power-brokers doubted his ability to improve the team.
Now five points outside the top four, Van Gaal looks to be equally struggling to achieve what would appear to be United’s minimum target, unless he can hang on and
sneak into the Champions League via the back door thanks to success in the Europa League.
Southampton spent just £4 million on Austin to sign the striker from Queens Park Rangers, with his goal further exposing United’s recruitment flaws and provoking the supporter backlash which Van Gaal did not even attempt to oppose. “I agree with them, so it doesn’t have any impact,” he said.
“They have also knowledge of football, of entertaining football, and you have to play football to entertain the fans.
“Today, I don’t think we have entertained the fans, so they can be very angry. But when we have won, then they were not so angry anymore, and that’s football. But now we have lost in the last minute …”
It was actually the 87th-minute and United did have time to equal- ise but Adnan Januzaj shot wide in injury-time with his team’s only real chance. It would have been some return for Januzaj following the end of his unsuccessful loan spell at Borussia Dortmund, a move which again only seemed to add to the muddled thinking at Old Trafford.
Instead, Januzaj’s biggest impact was in giving away the free-kick that led to Austin making space in the penalty area, which he does so well, to head home and sentence United to a sixth defeat of the season. This was also the seventh time they had failed to score at Old Trafford this season and United’s current record is just three wins in 13 games in all competitions, leaving Van Gaal nowhere to go when asked if his side should be doing better.
“Yes, of course, because we want to be in the top three, and we’re not in the top three, and now, after to- day, our competitors have won, so it’s a setback,” he said.
How terminal remains to be seen and there seemed to be a certain inevitability that with United so short of goal power, Austin would score with virtually his first touch to give Ronald Koeman’s side a third successive league win and second back-to-back at Old Trafford for the first time in almost four decades.
The 26-year-old has boasted a remarkable scoring record with QPR, Burnley and Swindon, since he left non-league football with Poole.
“I don’t know whether I was credited enough for what I did at QPR,” he said. “Now I have come to a club like Southampton they are only going one way and I want to be part of that journey. I’m all about concentrating on Southampton and playing in the Premier League because this is where I want to be.”
to a flier: Charlie Austin scores eight minutes into his Southampton debut