FA Cup run important for Van Gaal and a Manchester United in transition
With no European football to enjoy, a good cup run would help engender some excitement for supporters
Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal watches his team in action at the Britannia Stadium. United are just three points better off than they were after 20 league games last season. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters
When Manchester United began 2014, they had, for the first time under their manager of six months, David Moyes, just won four consecutive Premier League games.
They were through to the semi-final of the League Cup and, having won their Champions League group, had drawn Olympiacos in the knock-out stage. With a home tie against Swansea in the FA Cup in early January, 2014 saw United active in four competitions. Lest we forget, Manchester United began the year as reigning champions of England.
United began 2015 with a low-rent 1-1 draw at Stoke. They are no longer champions of England and they are not in Europe. They no longer have Moyes and they exited the League Cup before August was finished, losing 4-0 at third division MK Dons.
United still have not found the time to put the words “Football Club” back onto their badge.
Yet “Manchester United” have Louis van Gaal as brand manager and in August bought Angel Di Maria from Real Madrid for €76 million (£59.7 million), a British record transfer acquisition. Confirmation arrived as United were being thrashed in Milton Keynes.
Van Gaal brings natural gravitas and pedigree coaching experience, but even though United are on an unbeaten run stretching back to early November, it is possible to remain unconvinced that the club has got over the departure of Alex Ferguson.
Van Gaal’s lustre is immense and yet Gary Neville has been pushed to describe some of United’s football as Dog & Duck pub standard.
All of this jumble of developments, stats and impressions can leave you feeling as uncertain as Chris Smalling carrying the ball out of defence. All has changed and yet it has not.
Then, 34 points had Moyes’s players seventh; now 37 has Van Gaal’s third. That’s a Champions League place difference.
The points tally would have been 36 had Stoke been awarded the penalty, or two, they deserved on Thursday. Even Van Gaal accepted there had been Mancunian “luck” involved.
Van Gaal had concerns. Whereas United had become known for fast, creative and aggressive football under Ferguson, liberally spiced with individual class, they were, as they have been often this season, ponderous moving forward and brittle at the back. The best player has been goalkeeper David De Gea.
On St Stephen’s Day – having made a path through the disconcerting horde of hawkers selling 50/50 scarves and various other tat to tourists on the forecourt right outside the club superstore – to see a 3-1 home win over Newcastle, a prominent thought during the game was: what would Real Madrid or Bayern Munich do to this United side?
The answer is unpalatable for Stretford End stalwarts and reveals the scale of both United’s drop and the climb back.
Some thought Moyes had at last secured a foothold with those four consecutive wins at the end of 2013, but it was the first week of 2014 that set the tone for United’s improbable year.
On January 1st, Tottenham won at Old Trafford; on the 5th Swansea won there in the FA Cup and on the 7th, United lost 2-1 at Sunderland in the semi-final first leg of the League Cup. Moyes’s options were dwindling even as Juan Mata arrived. On February 1st there was a 2-1 defeat at Stoke, which is where we came in.
Van Gaal was man enough to admit to good fortune two days ago in the Potteries, and he has been unlucky with injuries. But he has also acknowledged the patience of fans and he received a kind draw in the FA Cup this weekend: Yeovil.
Should that happen, though, then 2015 could be every bit as strange as 2014. The expectation, of course, is that will not happen. This is in part down to what Alan Pardew identified as a quality Van Gaal brings to United: “Security”.
There needs to be more than that though. Without European football to involve fans, there must be an FA Cup run, simply to engender excitement to add to the feeling of warmth and status finishing in the top four would bring.
The Premier League is so patchy beyond Chelsea and Manchester City that a failure to achieve a top-four finish would be just that – failure.
Another expectation is that this failure will be avoided. Players will come back from injury, there could be more arriving this month and traditionally United get stronger in the second half of the season.
However 2014 was the year United broke with a few traditions and that was one of them.
January brought the start of sharp decline, which ended with the reigning English champions eight points adrift of fifth-place Everton.
Louis van Gaal and Manchester United cannot afford to let January 2015 sound the same alarm.