For a hugely under pressure Premier League manager, a trip to take on high-flying lower-league opposition in the FA Cup offers potential pitfalls aplenty. And that’s now the scenario facing Louis van Gaal as he attempts to stumble on from the latest questions over his future and lead Manchester United into Friday’s FA Cup fourth round match at Championship side Derby County.
After a run of eight winless matches through December, Van Gaal had steadied the rocky ship with three wins in four matches, including a victory at the home of fierce rivals Liverpool. But just how precarious his brief recovery had been was illustrated fully on Saturday, when United crashed to a 1-0 defeat at home to Southampton. Remarkably, it was the seventh match this season that Manchester United had failed to score at Old Trafford, and the 11th match in succession at the Theatre of Dreams in which they had been unable to produce a goal in the first half.
The boos that rang out around Old Trafford at the final whistle on Saturday were neither a surprise nor an unfamiliar occurrence in this season of suffering in the red half of Manchester. A bigger surprise is that Van Gaal remains in charge.
Reports have emerged in recent days that the veteran Dutch coach was twice talked out of resigning as manager over the troubled Christmas period, and that a similar chain of events transpired after Saturday’s latest setback. While United, through other media briefings, have denied that was the case, there currently appears a remarkable lack of leadership at one of the richest clubs in the world.
Despite the team having been knocked out of the Champions League and Capital One Cup, and currently sitting five points off the top four in the Premier League, executive vice chairman Ed Woodward is seemingly desperate for Van Gaal to see out the season. Yet he may not be able to survive the ignominy of Manchester United crashing out of the FA Cup to a club from England’s second tier.
Van Gaal only just scraped through a painful third-round contest, when his side required an injury-time penalty from Wayne Rooney to beat League One outfit Sheffield United at Old Trafford. And the United captain is not expecting a straightforward night on Friday.
“Derby have nothing to lose,” Rooney told MUTV. “No-one is expecting them to win and they will try to cause an upset. We know that and have to be ready for that. It will be a difficult night for us, Sheffield United at home was a tough game, so we have to be ready to battle and win the battle. Hopefully then our qualities will show through.”
If there is a crumb of comfort for Van Gaal, it comes from the fact that Derby are not exactly in stirring form either right now. Under the charge of former Real Madrid assistant coach Paul Clement, Derby were tipped by many for automatic promotion back to the Premier League this season. They were well on course for just that at the turn of the year, but a run of one point from four matches now sees them down in fifth, six points off the top two. Still, Clement has insisted that his squad will host Manchester United relishing the chance to test themselves against a Premier League heavyweight.
“The camp's in good spirit,” Clement said, according to the Derby Telegraph. “Every game is an opportunity to put on a big performance and no motivation is necessary for this game. We all know these are the kind of tests we would have week in, week out in the Premier League. It is a challenge we are really looking forward to and one against a team that is not in great form but is a massive club with a great history.
“Both clubs, United and ourselves, are in a difficult period. United have had an awful December and a mixed January, but you know on any day they can produce a great performance. We have to be ready for a difficult game.”
Manchester United will have major problems in defense for the clash at the iPro Stadium. Already without Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw and Ashley Young, Van Gaal could also be missing Matteo Darmian and Phil Jones. Derby remain without Will Hughes, Craig Forsyth and Jake Buxton.
Prediction: Any idea there may have been of Van Gaal working through a process to get the team playing and flourishing in his system has now surely evaporated. For the time being, he is merely staggering on until he is put out of his misery. It is difficult to see the players flourishing in such an environment and Friday promises to be another tough watch for United fans. Yet, with Derby’s recent struggles, conceding plenty of goals and scoring few, United and Van Gaal could at least live to fight another day.
Predicted score: Derby County 1-1 Manchester United