Belfast Telegraph

Sunderland highlight Manchester United's demise as Louis van Gaal rues lack of passion

Sunderland 2-1 Man Utd

By Martin Hardy

It has been over for a while, the drip, drip effect of a football club in demise, the slow lowering of expectations, the blind ignoring of reality. More confirmation came on Saturday afternoon, when the weight of words, this time from Louis van Gaal himself, was added to the welter of statistics the prosecution has piled up against him.

You know it's over when the manager starts questioning the desire of his own players. Van Gaal did that when he said the 13 times champions of the Premier League could not match the passion and desire of a side who started and ended the day second bottom of that league.

In the more comforting surrounds of the club's own television station, his guard slipped further. He was worried, he said, when he watched the warm-up. His players did not look up for it.

The statistics were once more trudged through. The lowest points total after 26 games for Manchester United in the Premier League. The lowest number of goals scored by the club at this stage of a season. The failure to win 17 of the last 26 games. Fewer points than the vilified and jettisoned David Moyes, twice as much money spent. They were trotted out like a weary prosecution which pours on the evidence for a jury to reach its inevitable conclusion.

The case against Van Gaal did not need the statistics, but they certainly add to it. Those presenting it were weary. The team looks weary. Even the gusto that used to follow the club's away support has been diluted by a manager who is leading a club on a slow downward path.

"Manchester United have made no progress whatsoever under Louis van Gaal," said Alan Shearer in the Match of the Day studio, late on Saturday evening.

Shearer was right, but it is no longer about a search for progress, it is now about the speed of decline. Sunderland versus Manchester United in the Premier League had not produced a home win since 1997. They had terraces back then and it was at Roker Park. That was the only previous home victory for Sunderland over United in the Premier League. It is a fixture they do not win, and in Sam Allardyce's recent revival of a club which for long spells of this season has looked ready to be washed away came the startling realisation that a third goal for the home side was as likely as an equaliser in the closing stages.

Wayne Rooney has watched - and participated in - the collapse of United from champions to also-rans. He spoke with anger afterwards about being second best, but the team overall does not share the captain's fire.

John O'Shea won five league titles at Old Trafford. He has revived remarkably, like the Sunderland team he captains, towards the campaign's close. He knows that the top four, which is slipping out of view for his former side, is the very least expected of them each season.

"Yeah, it is," he said. "That is the given beforehand, when you look at the squads and the budgets and what is spent at clubs to get into the Champions League. That is the challenge they have."

Allardyce has added power, cohesion and shape to Sunderland, but neither of their goals would have been scored if the visitors had a good centre-half.

Daley Blind lost Jermain Defoe for the first, an innocuous free-kick from Wahbi Khazri that sneaked past David De Gea. Chris Smalling lost Lamine Kone for the second, a header that Anthony Martial - who had struck a fine equaliser before half-time - could only redirect off De Gea into the United goal.

In another time, De Gea would have saved both the goal and the blushes of a central defensive partnership that so characterises the demise of the club - but good players get dragged down by mediocrity.

Belfast Telegraph


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