Given his visible anger over rumours that his sacking was forthcoming, Louis van Gaal’s determination to change Manchester United’s mood should have re-doubled. Instead, he managed to look even more incompetent. Van Gaal has proved himself entirely incapable of turning the tide. He is not saving, but drowning.
This is a squad going through the motions, limply ceding a fourth straight defeat in a season for the first time since 1961. United’s players might not have completely downed tools, but they are hardly whistling while they work. United have also conceded two or more goals in each of their last four matches. The defensive solidity of autumn feels a long, long time ago.
“I’m not even surprised, that’s what hurts even more,” tweeted Rio Ferdinand shortly before half-time. And nor were we. Having beaten Chelsea and Manchester City in recent weeks with the fluidity and movement of their front four, Stoke did exactly the same to Manchester United. At times during the first half, it was embarrassing.
Stoke may have changed their style of play, but the mood of supporters remains on point. “You’re f**king s**t,” was the repeated chant towards United’s players. Few away supporters would have argued with that accusation. Their side improved after the break, but only to a point somewhere short of satisfactory.
At least Van Gaal’s team selection was different, if not the performance. With two games in three days, the manager could have claimed to be resting Wayne Rooney, but refused to play dumb: “Was it a tactical decision? Yes of course. With this game plan it’s better to play with Herrera instead of Rooney. It’s not a drastic measure, it’s my gameplan.”
Rooney had been praised by tabloid journalists for inspiring his team in the build-up to the match, but has now slumped to his lowest United ebb. This was the first time he has started on the bench outside the League Cup since January 28, 2014. Thank goodness for the rallying cry, eh? Without that United would really have looked poor. Rooney’s second-half performance was as dreary as every other in the last few months.
If Van Gaal had given with one hand, he took just as much back with the other. Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick both started in midfield with Ander Herrera, with the Spaniard in a reserved midfield role. A penny for the thoughts of Morgan Schneiderlin, benched once again.
“I used to play all the games with Southampton but things have changed,” Schneiderlin said in October. “I happened to be on the bench, you have to take it philosophically.” That came after his exclusion from the shambolic 3-0 defeat to Arsenal. The below statistic (taken before the Stoke defeat) reflects his case for selection. A new manager may bring better fortune.
United's last 10 games with Schneiderlin starting: W5, D5, L0 United's last 10 games without Schneiderlin starting: W3, D2, L5
— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) December 26, 2015
Freezing out certain key players – while hanging his hat on others – has become the lasting legacy of Van Gaal’s fall from grace. Schneiderlin has been treated worse than most, but Ander Herrera, Ashley Young and Matteo Darmian all have their own complaints. So too do the players forced out over the summer.
Nineteen months into his Old Trafford reign, and no player is in top form. Not one. United might consider themselves a club that offers more patience than the average, but the time for perseverance has ended. They are on the slide. Juan Mata, Herrera, Memphis Depay, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Darmian and Schneiderlin will all surely feel the warmth of a new start with a new coach.
“There’s no disguising the fact we’re in a very bad period,” said Van Gaal before the game. “Things must begin to improve immediately.” He was right, too. The Dutchman is a dead man walking at Old Trafford. The next few days will bring his inevitable sacking.
“We can turn this situation around,” was Van Gaal’s other pre-match missive. “The best way to come out of this period and improve is for us all to stick together.”
Not true, Louis. The best way is for you to shuffle out of the back door. At best you made United functional, and at worst catastrophic. Expecting that to be sustainable is lunacy, even considering the inadequacies of United’s hierarchy.