Serious questions were raised after the final whistle was blown at Old Trafford as Manchester United slumped to a third defeat in a row, their first at home in the league this season, on Saturday. The Red Devils went into this game in a bid to end their disastrous run of five games without a win that includes the Champions League exit at the hands of Wolfsburg in Germany. Their home form, if anything, has been the only bright spot in what has, by all means, been a thoroughly turgid season so far barring maybe a couple of games. While a shock defeat to a stuttering Norwich City at home at this stage of the season was close to unthinkable, the way the side lost, showed the tide was slowly turning against the Dutchman both at the stadium and among the Manchester United hierarchy.
United started the game brightly, quicker on the ball than in recent weeks, yet miserably failed to trouble the Norwich goalkeeper until the away side broke the deadlock eight minutes before half time. A turnover in possession resulted in Nathan Redmond finding acres of space between De Gea and the last Manchester United defender. The youngster did well to find Cameron Jerome who in turn found the back of the net to put Norwich City ahead. Before Manchester United could react, the Canaries doubled their lead, and the first team to do so, as a visiting team at Old Trafford, piling more misery on Van Gaal’s already maligned reign. Anthony Martial’s first Premier League goal since September in the 66th minute was one of those ‘too little too late’ goals that Manchester United fans have got used to seeing of late, which did little to prevent the booing by the Old Trafford crowd following the full time whistle.
It’s damning to think United have dropped vital points against newly promoted teams in Bournemouth and Norwich City but what is more alarming is the steady decline as opposed to what Louis Van Gaal promised the fans would see at this moment in time, half way into his three-year reign. The Red Devils have won just 4 of their last 15 games in all competitions and are out of the top four in what is a crucial period for the club and the league. For all the investment – both money and time on the training ground, Manchester United are out of the Champions League, out of the easier of the two cup competitions and find themselves nine points off the summit in December, looking down the barrel. Where is the progress?
On Saturday, the story was all too familiar. Manchester United hogged the ball for the best part of the game, about 71% to be precise and that’s about 63 minutes on the clock. Yet, their first shot on target came in the 66th minute when Anthony Martial scored, following neat footwork, manoeuvring the ball in the box amid the chaos. United rank first in the league when it comes to average possession per game – joint top with Arsenal but they are so far behind the rest of the top teams in terms of chance creation. Only West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United have created fewer chances than United and they invariably fail to win when the forwards don’t take the few chances they create.
Manchester United are still in transition, after all. Their recruitment this season (and the last) has been generally good enough but relying on a 19-year old to deliver week in week out to win games is simply not. And 18 months in, there’s no real measurable improvement on the pitch and in the league table, the like of which you could see at Tottenham with Pochettino in charge. Manchester United are in truth going backwards with each passing week. When nothing goes their way, they still try to hoof it up to Fellaini, and hope his world class chest control can bring others into the game. When nothing goes their way, Van Gaal still remains sat down, writing on his notepad as to what is going wrong rather than getting off the chair and letting his players know what they must do to change the outcome.
But this defeat was different to the last. This one, could be one too many. It was clear during Van Gaal’s post match presser. He was dejected, shaking in fact, bereft of confidence like his players, the aura gone that convinced fans he was the right man to weather the storm Manchester United was left in. Has pressure got the better of him? Has Mourinho’s sacking rattled him more than he would like to admit? Very likely. When asked about his future at United hanging in the balance he said,
“Yes I worry about my job because I know that belief in a manager is very important and when you lose the games, the belief in the manager will decrease. That is happening now. I cannot close my eyes to that.”
Belief in the manager is important in this day and age when player power can throw even the very best of managers out of the club, when the mutual trust is absent. Jose Mourinho can vouch for that. Let’s face it, neither Jose Mourinho nor any manager in the world right now can turn United into title favourites come March, given the job. Louis Van Gaal, with the squad at his disposal, should be able to guide United to another top four finish. But only if the manager has not lost the dressing room, which looks questionable at this point in time.