Louis van Gaal needs a win with Manchester United going backwards and time running out
The Dutchman has a 100 per cent record against Liverpool after three games, but could be in trouble if his team don’t continue that run on Sunday
For some weeks now, there has been speculation about what might prove the tipping point for Louis Van Gaal’s reign at Manchester United. It wasn’t being dumped out of the Champions League at the group stage, nor was it subsequent Premier League defeats by Bournemouth, Norwich or Stoke. And it wasn’t another sterile performance at Old Trafford in a 1-0 FA Cup win over Sheffield United, from two divisions lower, or giving up a two-goal lead at Newcastle in midweek.
This weekend many will be wondering whether defeat away to arch-rivals Liverpool might be the final straw - and that must be a delicious prospect for the Anfield faithful. Listen out for a resounding chorus of “you’re getting sacked in the morning” if United find themselves behind in tomorrow night’s clash.
Van Gaal is on shaky ground after managing just two wins from United’s last 11 games in all competitions. At the start of that run United were second in the Premier League table, only a point behind leaders Leicester, and the manager could point out with a considerable measure of justification that his side were moving forward from their fourth-place finish in his first season in charge.
Now, though, it seems United have gone backwards, not only in recent weeks but overall under Van Gaal. They have dropped to sixth in the table, nine points off top spot, and have fewer points compared with 12 months ago - and, perhaps more pertinently, are also performing worse than they were at this stage in David Moyes’ only season at Old Trafford.
Substance has been lacking in United’s recent performances, and so has style - it is the latter point in particular that has caused patience to run thin among United supporters. Van Gaal’s are third-bottom in the Premier League’s ‘entertainment’ table, measured on average goals totals per game, and are worst of all in home matches.
United’s fixtures have produced 2.24 goals per game overall (but a measly 1.6 at Old Trafford), which compares badly against the figures from Sir Alex Ferguson’s final campaign three seasons ago. The legendary manager’s final title-winning side had the most entertaining matches that season, averaging 3.39 goals per game overall (with a near identical 3.37 at Old Trafford).
That is a reality Van Gaal seems unable to grasp, and increasingly he looks the wrong type of manager for United. Better results (whatever the style) would help and there could be no better place to start than Anfield tomorrow.
Van Gaal won 2-1 there last season, and indeed he has a 100 per cent record against Liverpool in three league matches (having also had 3-0 and 3-1 home wins). The table says United are still the better side (three places and three points above Liverpool), although it is a different story if we look only at the period since Jurgen Klopp became Liverpool boss.
In 13 games since then, Liverpool rank eighth in the Premier League with 19 points and United are two places lower with 18. That does not indicate significant improvement from Liverpool, whose points average is virtually unchanged since Brendan Rodgers left, but certainly reflects the dip in United’s form over recent weeks.
Liverpool are still striving for consistency under Klopp - they can have a high-scoring home draw with Arsenal but also with West Brom, and can win away at Manchester City but also lose at Newcastle - and it is difficult to be sure how they will perform.
Van Gaal has a similar issue, in that as soon as he solves one problem (by scoring more goals at Newcastle in midweek) another reappears (defensive insecurity). The balancing act of solving weaknesses without compromising strengths is one of the key skills needed by any manager with title ambitions and success (or otherwise) in that task will define the reigns of Van Gaal and Klopp.
At the moment both managers are struggling to strike that balance and that makes it difficult to pick the winner of Liverpool v United. A tentative view is that United are probably the best value on the handicap and over 2.5 goals looks overpriced as a result of all the talk about boring, boring United.
The two teams with the best balance are Arsenal and Leicester, who are the only ones to rank in the top four both on home and away form, and that helps to explain why they are joint-leaders of the Premier League.
Both rate strong away chances this weekend on their visits to Stoke and Aston Villa respectively. West Ham, who rank third on away form behind Arsenal and Leicester, also look good at Newcastle.
West Ham on handicap
Good chance to follow up midweek win at Bournemouth
Leicester away win
Five wins out of seven away to bottom-half teams
Arsenal away win
Far from easy task at Stoke but the odds are good enough
Ipswich home win
Have won their last three at home to teams outside the top 10
Huddersfield home win
Going well under new manager David Wagner
Watford, QPR, Sampdoria.