LONDON – A football club is like a family.
You can criticize your family, but if an outsider speaks badly of your nearest and dearest you become very defensive.
Last Monday, Louis van Gaal had little positive to say about Manchester United after a dreadful display had somehow seen it beat Southampton 2-1.
“The performance was not good enough, we were lucky,” said van Gaal whose team managed only three shots, the Reds’ worst return in the Premier League in 14 years.
Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville joked that Sunday’s game between United and struggling Liverpool would be like “the Dog and Duck versus the Red Lion.” Van Gaal did not appreciate Neville’s humor and told the former United defender to “pay attention” to his words. The family is at war.
United has won five consecutive matches, rising to third place and only eight points behind Chelsea, which lost at Newcastle last Saturday.
A side that has rarely hit the high spots and has had to deal with an ongoing injury list that never seems to improve is now within three wins of the leaders. There is so much to praise about the way van Gaal is stamping his personality on United, yet at the same time there is so much the Dutchman has to improve.
Van Gaal has used 18 different center-back combinations this season with Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Tyler Blackett, Michael Keane, Jonny Evans, Marcos Rojo, Patrick McNair, Tom Thorpe, Michael Carrick and Daley Blind part of various central-defensive formations. McNair was taken into protective custody when he was substituted after 38 minutes at Southampton because it was too much for a boy doing a man’s job.
Though few would agree with him, van Gaal insists he has enough quality in his squad not to be particularly active during the January transfer window. One of his biggest problems is that he has yet to decide on his best formation or the players to fit into it, switching between a three- and a four-man defensive line. In midfield, van Gaal has been hampered by inconsistent performances by Juan Mata, Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera, who look like world-beaters one week and the next making you wonder why such vast sums were paid for them.
It is a similar story in attack. After a slow start, Robin van Persie has hit the goal trail again, but Wayne Rooney, so influential for much of the season, has gone off the boil.
While United has managed to overcome its various hurdles, ninth-place Liverpool stumbles from one setback to another. Last season’s runnerup was knocked out of the Champions League after the 1-1 draw with FC Basel and face a winter of treading water. The Reds won only one of six Champions League ties, scoring just five goals and the side is a pale shadow of the team that played free-flowing football last season, the title slipping from its grasp in the final weeks.
The loss of Luis Suarez to Barcelona and Daniel Sturridge to injury has not helped, but there is so much else wrong with Liverpool, whose manager, Brendan Rodgers, has not tried to make any excuses. It would be difficult for him to defend the indefensible. Just about every player who shone last season has lost form while Rodgers’ £100 million-worth of summer recruits have failed to make any sort of impact.
Dejan Lovren looks anything but a £20 million defender, Adam Lallana cannot get into an ordinary side, while Mario Balotelli has been noticeable only for insulting messages posted on social media. To remain faithful to goalkeeper Simon Mignolet is almost a dereliction of duty.
In 23 games Rodgers has not named the same team in successive games so he is obviously struggling to decide on his best — some might say least worst — XI.
Last season’s achievements have given Rodgers sufficient credit for the club’s American owners not to consider the manager’s future, though three wins in their last 12 matches has left confidence low at Anfield going into Sunday’s clash with their biggest rivals. If coming within touching distance of the title in May was a surprise, Liverpool’s subsequent demise is equally puzzling.
While Liverpool’s European interest is now focused on the Europa League, salt is rubbed into its wounds as Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City join the big battalions in Monday’s Champions League draw.
Arsenal was stunning in beating Galatasaray 4-1 in Istanbul even if the Turkish champions were so poor they seemed like intruders in UEFA’s premier club competition. The Gunners host in-form Newcastle on Saturday with Arsenal fans split about Arsene Wenger to the extent fights broke out between fans at Stoke last weekend.
Wenger was abused by some Arsenal followers — one hesitates to call them supporters — after the 3-2 defeat, the vile language used by these louts recorded on mobile phones and posted on the Internet, a sad comment on the power of social media.
The Frenchman’s sympathizers say it is impossible to compete with the wealth of Manchester City and Chelsea, so to qualify for the Champions League knockout stages every season while keeping the club financially viable is a meritorious achievement.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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