Cup not enough for Van Gaal as United seek spark

By Mitch Phillips

LONDON, May 23 (Reuters) - For a club that in 2000 was happy to ditch their defence of the FA Cup so they could play in the World Club Championship, winning soccer's oldest trophy was never likely to be enough to convince Manchester United to keep faith with Louis van Gaal.

Too little, too late looks to be the thinking of the United board if, as was widely reported by British media on Monday, the Dutchman is to be sacked as manager two years into his three-year contract.

If Van Gaal had combined that record 12th FA Cup success by snatching a Champions League place then perhaps he might have survived but, with Jose Mourinho waiting in the wings, there will be few fans lamenting the departure.

For generations of supporters brought up to expect high octane attacking football against teams who for decades went to Old Trafford merely to survive, excuses about injuries did not justify the lamentable quality of United's play.

This season's dire statistics, beyond the key one of fifth place, are a damning indictment on Van Gaal's tactics.

United scored 49 goals in 38 games, in contrast to a previous Premier League average of over 76.

They finished with the most 1-0 wins and the joint highest number of goalless draws. Opta reported that their total number of shots on target, 430, was 15th in the 20-team league and they made more backwards passes than any other side.

On the back of that, Van Gaal's departure was widely predicted and initially reported while the sweat was still dripping from the trophy after United's 2-1 victory over Crystal Palace on Saturday, their first FA Cup win for 12 years.

Just as his predecessor David Moyes struggled to win over players and fans bloated on the years of success under Alex Ferguson, Van Gaal, for all his pedigree, also seemed to suffer in the Scot's lengthy shadow.

A story in Monday's Guardian newspaper said that squad members had talked among themselves about openly defying the Dutchman's rigid tactical directions, which allegedly included instructions to players not to take first-time shots.

It also reported that the two most senior players, Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick, had raised concerns with Van Gaal about his post-match "evaluation sessions" in which he publicly criticised players in front of their team mates


With such widespread dissatisfaction it easy to forget that the 64-year-old former Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Netherlands coach was seen as the safe option when he was hired in May 2014 following Moyes's sacking.

He immediately returned the club to the Champions League with a fourth-place finish but despite heavy spending on the likes of young forwards Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial and German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, United stagnated after briefly topping the table at the end of September.

Martial apart, the new players have struggled to justify their fees, and Van Gaal increasingly turned to talented youngsters such as Marcus Rashford.

By mid-December United were out of the top four after humiliating back-to-back defeats by promoted clubs Bournemouth and Norwich City and they exited the Champions League with a whimper after finishing third in a modest group behind VfL Wolfsburg and PSV Eindhoven.

Van Gaal became increasingly tetchy and walked out of a news conference ahead of a Christmas defeat by Stoke City.

At home to Southampton they were booed off and in Denmark supporters, already frustrated by finding themselves in the Europa League, chanted obscenities about how bad United were in a 2-1 loss to FC Midjytlland.

Despite recovering with a 5-1 win in the second leg, United then lost to Liverpool in the round of 16.

A late challenge for fourth place, the Cup run and the fan-pleasing use of several young players, bought Van Gaal some time but in the bigger picture, it has not been enough to change the mood.

"The players are bored, fans are bored, everyone's bored," former midfielder Paul Scholes said after one particularly meek Cup display against third tier Sheffield United in January.

"You look across at the bench and Van Gaal looks bored as well." (Writing by Martyn Herman, Editing by Ed Osmond)

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