Louis Van Gaal knew United would be in for a tough afternoon against Champions elect Leicester City. The visitors, he said, had things much easier than his own behemoth club. After all, it’s a terrible impediment having huge vats of gold, allowing his club to compete for the most coveted young footballers in the world. Leicester, with their limited funds and player-appeal are at a distinct advantage. For them Ligue 2 is their oyster, with a free pick of waifs and strays from the continent’s backwaters. It’s a wonder how anyone can compete at all. And then there is the fact that these players can arrive in the East Midlands and play without pressure, for last season’s relegation battle was a positively light-hearted experience for Mahrez, Vardy and co, as is this season’s title race. Frankly it’s just not fair.
And if the dice weren’t loaded enough there’s the fact that with no European football to distract Claudio Ranieri’s Rastafarian collective and sap their energy Leicester can concentrate fully on keeping their small squad fit and firing.
No such luck for Van Gaal, with his vast budget and the horrible inconvenience of having to compete for top class players with other football clubs. Bless. And when he does actually snag his targets they are expected to play adequately almost immediately. This is an impossible task for any Dutch coach. Not only that, but the players he has bought have (of this he is sure) almost no experience of winning titles. Not De Gea, Romero, Smalling, Jones, Blind. Rojo, Mata, Schweinsteiger, Carrick and Rooney (only maybe one each), Memphis et al. Compare them to Leicester’s veritable litany of champions and this is simply not a fair fight. What is a manager to do?
Of course, it’s all total b*llocks. Our Dutch leader has access to funds and players most managers could only dream of and can carry a squad size larger than most (his preference for a ‘small squad’ is relative). Despite this, his first season was injury-tastic, with his side only competing in domestic competition, and performances were barely adequate in the absence of anything approaching high expectations. His players have far more experience of winning than he seems aware, which is worrying in itself, and standards have not risen despite a second summer of expensive signings out of the grasp of the likes of Leicester and with LVG now having had nearly two years to impart his ‘philosophy’ into his players subconscious, a full year more than Ranieri. Van Gaal is far from the only coach the Italian is putting to shame this season, but he’s the one making himself look a giant t*t in the face of said shame. Excuses no longer wash, especially when they are factually incorrect and based on total nonsense.
Having set the game up as a case of the privileged (Leicester, who he claimed he had predicted would be champions before anyone else, ever, anywhere in the world) against the dreadfully disadvantaged (United) it came as something of a surprise that Van Gaal’s United started the game with a swirl of attacking intent, tempo and cutting edge. This was rather pleasant given the first half poverty Reds have had to endure at Old Trafford this season. Martial in particular was everywhere, while Antonio Valencia raided dangerously from right back. It was no surprise therefore when the latter crossed for the former to finish with unerring calmness. For once United had a platform from which to get up a head of steam at home and could have doubled their lead in the following few minutes.
But, as has been the case all season, we aren’t allowed nice things in large quantities or for long stretches of time. From a Leicester free kick Marcos Rojo lost Wes Morgan and the centre back headed in. Rojo was following up his recent poor form with one of the most abject individual performances seen at Old Trafford in some time, and given the dross served up over the last three years that’s saying something. His manager’s double-standards mean that he continues to be picked no matter how poor his first touch, defending, passing, crossing and marking are, whilst others have a single poor outing (or even half) and are banished for months at a time. One wonders what Cameron Borthwick-Jackson must think, ‘disappeared’ following his recovery from injury by a manager supposedly committed to trusting in youth. He, Varela, Pereira and Januzaj must ponder what they have to do when they see the likes of Rojo stinking it up, or Jesse Lingard doing lots of running about but little else. Martin Tyler described the latter as ‘persistent’. Daniel Storey of Football 365 insightfully noted that, “Jesse Lingard is called ‘persistent’ in 80% of the games I watch. Which is a euphemism for not being good enough.” At the other end of the spectrum is Marcus Rashford, anonymous against Leicester, a wonderful but raw talent clearly suffering from being flogged week after week because his manager neglected to buy a striker to replace the two he sold.
Speaking of the ‘disappeared’, Ashley Young continues to be kept out as Lingard toils, punished, it appears, for a poor half at Spurs when brought on as a centre forward, a position he had only tried out once in the Under-21s.
On Sunday, in keeping with recent weeks, United conceded and then regressed, just as they had at Spurs, West Brom and at Wembley against Everton. The tempo dropped and the passing deteriorated and the game descended into the dreadful muddle Leicester will have hoped it would be. Half time, as usual, made matters worse, Van Gaal performing his usual trick of sucking what life there was in his team clean out of it. The visitors looked more dangerous on the break without really testing De Gea. As the game drifted towards its conclusion United suddenly realised that they needed to win for Champions League football to be a realistic prospect next season. On came Memphis, who was hauled down inside the box for a certain penalty. Off went the offender Danny Drinkwater for a second yellow and a free kick was given outside the box, obviously. In fairness to Leicester, United were very lucky to escape themselves when Rojo felled Mahrez in the first half. With only a few minutes to break down the ten men, United were game but lacked the quality to break through and it ended all square, much to our collective frustration.
Post-match Van Gaal described United’s performance as ‘one of our best of the season’, which maybe it was. Fifteen minutes of old-skool United dominance is more than we’ve witnessed most weeks. The remainder was hotch-potch, with no lack of effort but a deficit of quality from both sides. Van Gaal once again bemoaned his lack of ‘quick, creative’ players, ignoring Martial and Memphis, who he continues to largely shun. Leicester, of course, are no pushovers, but without their best forward they gave the impression of a side who were there for the taking.
The manager was right about one thing this week, however. Describing the incident in which Fellaini swung an arm at Robert Huth in response to the German pulling his hair, Van Gaal said:
“When you see what Huth is doing to Fellaini, that’s a penalty. Shall I grab you by your hair?……It’s a reaction. Every human being who is grabbed by the hair, only with sex masochism, then it is allowed, but not in other situations.”
It was typical LVG. Suddenly the media narrative became about his wacky but accurate description of an isolated incident in a 90 minute match, rather than the fact that his side had just come up short again. City’s defeat at Southampton kept his side in with an outside chance at finishing top four, but you’d need to be an eternal optimist to think that it might come to pass. A sales email sent to season ticket holders to entice them to renew contained quotes from Van Gaal which implied that he might still be at the club next season. It may just be the first marketing circular that the club has ever sent which actually reduces the number of tickets sold.
Monday night saw the club hold what must have been its least watched Awards night ever, given the wretched season we’ve had to endure and the fact that it clashed with the critical Chelsea v Spurs league match at Stamford Bridge. Marcus Rashford won what must have been the most one-sided Under-18 Player of the Season award ever, whilst the Under-21 equivalent provided us with surprise proof of life of Cameron Borthwick-Jackson. David De Gea was unsurprisingly the Fans’ Player of the Year for the third year running, a damning indictment of on-field events at the club in that period, whilst the player-voted award went to Chris Smalling, proving that they are no better at voting than they are at football. Goal of the season went to Anthony Martial’s brilliant solo effort against Liverpool, one of the few spine-tingling moments all year. Van Gaal used his speech to excuse his pathetic underperformance, citing a transitional year, an injury crisis and a media agenda for undermining results. He declared that he remained a world class manager and that expectations were too high. He stated that less than an hour after Leicester City were confirmed as Premier League champions, confirming that the manager has now inherited the Carlos Tevez Award for a staggering lack of self-awareness and his commitment to blame passing.