Belfast Telegraph

Van Gaal's United a pale shadow

By Mark Ogden

The last time Manchester United made the 50-mile journey to Stoke City on Boxing Day, they were up against it. Seven points adrift of the leaders Liverpool in the Premier League, the only positive in travelling to the Britannia Stadium in late December was the prospect of the biting wind blowing the jet lag out of Sir Alex Ferguson's players following their gruelling flight back from Japan three days earlier.

That kind of short, sharp shock courtesy of the Staffordshire elements might just be Louis van Gaal's best hope of energising his players this lunchtime as the Dutchman goes in search of the three points required to keep him in a job.

Seven years ago, United emerged from Stoke with a 1-0 victory after Carlos Tevez's 83rd-minute goal secured the win which became an oft-quoted turning point from Ferguson's perspective.

Winning at Stoke, four days after claiming the Fifa Club World Cup with a 1-0 victory against Liga de Quito in Yokohama, was evidence, according to Ferguson, of the never-say-die, iron-clad commitment of his players.

Recent results and performances suggest that Van Gaal cannot rely on the same levels of desire from the class of 2015 as Ferguson took for granted from his world, European and Premier League champions, although the current manager's fighting talk during his pre-match press conference on Wednesday may yet rub off on his team today.

Where United once defined resolve and bloody-mindedness - the perfect example of a team reflecting the personality of its manager - they now project the image of half-hearted indifference and Stoke is arguably the last place to go with players who would rather be somewhere else. During Ferguson's reign, United made five Premier League visits to the Britannia, winning four and drawing one, but since the Scot's retirement at the end of the 2012-13 season, they have lost there under David Moyes and emerged with only a draw under Van Gaal in the first game of 2015.

The difference between the United of 2008 and 2015 is striking, however, not only in terms of the players at the manager's disposal.

Back in 2008, the newly crowned world champions started against Tony Pulis's team with Edwin van der Sar in goal and the likes of Nemanja Vidic, Paul Scholes, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney and Tevez in their starting line-up.

Of that team, only Rooney remains on the United playing staff, with Michael Carrick appearing from the substitutes' bench. The pair, if fit, will be crucial today if Van Gaal is to mastermind a positive result, but the two players are showing the inevitable signs of decline from their peak of seven years ago - perhaps embodying the overall lowering of standards at the club since then.

Ferguson would look to field a blend of youth, experience and players in their mid-twenties, allied with pace and adventure, but the team under Van Gaal appears to be an untidy combination of the opposites.

Only Chris Smalling is performing like a player who would have challenged for a place against Stoke in 2008.

His colleagues are leaving the faintest of imprints on the team and will probably become no more than footnotes in the club's history when United finally get their act together.

The same could be said of Van Gaal, a man now being compared to Dave Sexton by those United supporters who know of a life before Ferguson and the glittering era of Premier League dominance.

Sexton, a studious man who managed by coaching manual, was sacked after his four and a half years in charge generated no trophies, but high-profile, expensive mistakes, such as the £1.25m on misfiring striker Garry Birtles.

Van Gaal is in danger of following the same path as Sexton.

Defeat at Stoke would almost certainly signal the end.

A win, however, would send out the message that Van Gaal remains capable of inspiring his players, despite their increasing concerns over his unswerving approach and obsession with possession.

Belfast Telegraph


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