Once again this weekend Manchester United will go into a match in the curious position of being within touching distance of the top of the Premier League, yet with the conversation around the club dominated by talk of the team’s uninspiring play. The club’s supporters have voiced their discontent regularly at Old Trafford this season, and now, ahead of Saturday’s visit of West Ham, a tabloid report has emerged claiming that the players are also unhappy with the methods of manager Louis van Gaal.
Regardless of how much truth there is in the Daily Mail’s reporting of the squad being bored with lengthy and endless meetings, it is yet another negative story surrounding Old Trafford. And it has been the negativity on the pitch that has been the cause of much of the complaint. Manchester United have the best defensive record in the Premier League, conceding just 10 goals in 14 matches. But scoring goals has been a very different story. Just twice in their last nine matches in all competitions have United scored more than a single goal in a game.
Van Gaal’s tactics, with an emphasis on control and possession over flair, have been heavily criticized, but the personnel at his disposal has been a major contributory factor in the lack of excitement. Wayne Rooney has struggled to get going throughout the season, and has scored just once in his last eight appearances. Meanwhile, the club’s biggest signing of the summer, the still raw Anthony Martial, has followed his blistering start at the club by netting just once in his last 12 outings. Add to that the fact that Memphis Depay is still struggling to perform with any consistency, and it explains why United’s points in their last two Premier League outings have been secured by midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Still, despite all of those problems, a 1-1 draw away at then-leaders Leicester City left Manchester United just a single point off the top of the table. In a wide open title race, they remain very much in the running for a first championship since the retirement of legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013. It is, though, a very different scenario in the Champions League, where United will travel to Wolfsburg next Tuesday likely needing a victory to avoid tumbling out of the completion before the knockout phase.
It is difficult not to think that such a hugely important contest will play at least some part in Van Gaal’s team selection on Saturday. Already his squad is stretched thin with Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia ruled out long term, but this week has also seen Marcos Rojo dislocate his shoulder for the second time in 13 months. And Phil Jones, Ander Herrera, Jesse Lingard and Rooney remain fitness doubts for the weekend.
West Ham have experienced their own fair share of injury troubles of late. Under new manager Slaven Bilic, the London club made a superb start to the season, securing notable wins against Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea. But since a serious ankle injury ruled out their star man Dimitri Payet, West Ham have taken just one point from two matches, including a 4-1 defeat to Tottenham late last month.
And Bilic lost another influential player this week, with Diafra Sakho ruled out for up to eight weeks with a thigh injury. With fellow striker Enner Valencia still yet to play this season after suffering a pre-season injury, West Ham will be left relying on Andy Carroll up front, a player no stranger to injuries himself.
West Ham will also have to fight against a dismal recent record at Old Trafford, where they have tasted defeat on their last eight visits.
Prediction: Before Payet’s injury, this may well have been yet another big away win for West Ham. Bilic has proven himself highly capable of setting his team up in an organized fashion to frustrate the opposition, as well as exposing gaps on the break. But Payet’s quality was vital to the team’s counter-attacking threat, and they may struggle to break down a Manchester United side that has been impressively set up without the ball. As it is, West Ham could still shut down United and help produce another stalemate at Old Trafford.
Predicted score: Manchester United 0-0 West Ham