Louis Van Gaal’s position as manager of Manchester United may be on ice that is thinning as quickly as Juan Mata’s hair, but the FA Cup could just be what he needs to buy him time. United’s Premier League form over the past few months has been poor and boos have become an all too familiar sound at the end of home matches. Disgruntlement amongst fans has fuelled media speculation over his future and the Dutchman has publicly reacted angrily to some reports claiming he had offered his resignation after the home defeat to Southampton.
As I wrote here on EPL Index ahead of the FA Cup 3rd round weekend, Manchester United were one of a few Premier League clubs in need of a cup run and there were some sniffing a potential shock and perhaps even a whiff of blood in the lead up to their 4th round tie against Derby County.
Prior to the win over Stoke a run of just two wins from their last ten Premier League games is what has really seen the pressure on Van Gaal intensify. That run of ten points from the thirty available has also seen them score only nine goals, but concede twelve in the League. Their late 1-0 win over Sheffield United in the 3rd round of the FA Cup hardly brought relief for Van Gaal, but kept them in the competition and means that opportunity to win a trophy for the first time in three years is still there. So, with that patchy form from United and a Derby side doing well in the Championship, a potential cup upset was a realistic possibility.
One glimmer of hope for Van Gaal in recent games has been the improved form of skipper Wayne Rooney and he took that recent upturn into this game. United started well and seemed to take confidence from Derby dropping off them. Their early dominance was rewarded with an excellent finish from Rooney, curling the ball into the top corner from the far corner of the box. Derby will be understandably upset at the linesman failing to spot that Rooney was clearly offside when he received the ball, but that should not take away from the quality of the finish, even if it should have been disallowed and in truth, was the lead United’s play had deserved.
Defensive vulnerability has been a common theme in United’s poor run of form and was evident here when Derby threw off the shackles, came out of their shell and started to be more aggressive, pushing men forward. The run from midfield of George Thorne caused problems and he took his goal late in the first half very well. In the second half, United re-took control of the game and Anthony Martial was a particular thorn in the side of Derby’s defence with his pace and trickery. Indeed, it was a performance from Martial that was reminiscent of his early season form and should give his manager some heart for the rest of the season if he can continue to play in this vein.
A fine goal from Daley Blind gave United the lead and they rarely looked in trouble from that point on. Martial’s impressive run into the box late on, set up Juan Mata to seal the victory and the Red Devils place in the next round. Mata is another who showed his mercurial talent in this game and although his involvement has been reduced of late, he must surely be back in the team and orchestrating the attacking play if they are to improve results and have a chance of a top four finish this season.
Tuesday night’s 3-0 win against Stoke will go even further to giving the Dutchman more time and set up a charge to get into that top four with United now five points behind Premier League contenders Arsenal. The game showed that there were signs of a Rooney/Martial partnership coming to the fore with both creating for each other to score a goal.
With United out of the Champions League and no realistic chance of winning the Premier League, a trophy could be the difference in whether or not Van Gaal keeps his job come the summer; so, if Van Gaal does want a future at Old Trafford and believes he can take them forward, the FA Cup could well be the avenue that buys him time.