|United players celebrate Fellaini's winner|
The campaign against Louis van Gaal is not that Manchester United are fifth in the league or that they crashed out of both European competitions early or that the club seems past its glory days. Manchester United are not new to tough times. A generation of fans at the club might be but the club did not win its admirers and make its name over a period of two successful decades.
It has become a cliche for just about any club but there is in fact such a thing as a 'Manchester United way of playing football'. Right from the days of Sir Matt and the Babes and even through the tough times of the 1970s and 80s under Docherty, Sexton, et al, United were favoured and famed for their footballing philosophy--the club always had a go. Because of that, opponents were always guaranteed chances themselves and indeed United were always vulnerable to concede but that was an irrelevance in the context of the ethos of the club. United came at you regardless who you were and almost oblivious of their own deficiencies. It's a mindset that has seen the club emerge as England's prime club even in the modern day era.
Louis van Gaal has essentially betrayed the identity of the club. Fans could take a bad season if the club's ideals were defended by their manager. For a club that has a go, coming away from White Harte Lane on Sunday with a miserable one shot on target remains unacceptable. It doesn't matter the statistics from the middle of the pitch if it all adds up to one shot at the opposition goal. It's easy to see where van Gaal's methods are limited in all this because it means that if the opposition goalkeeper manages to keep out the one shot on target that will come his way, United are effectively reduced to a blank.
Now, United do have an incredible worldwide audience. To ask that millions wait all week to watch the side muster a shot at the opposition goal is quite simply unacceptable! The football is insane! This is Van Gaal's biggest indictment, but incredibly, and to the frustration of many fans, the Dutchman has made 2 years of managing the club by always pulling out a result from the hat when he has been a game from a full blown crisis.
Last night, Manchester United's season, or what is left of it, was faced with a stern examination from West Ham United. The FA Cup remains the only realistic relevance about the club's season. With no side above United in the league left in the competition, there has never been a greater chance for the club to win a first FA Cup in 12 years. Except that United, fresh from a chastening at White Harte Lane were not favourites last night.
Therefore to come away with a 1-2 victory and arguably one of the best performances under Louis van Gaal drew mixed emotions with fans. There are those who have grown sick of the Dutchman pulling out such a result with his back against the wall and thereby buying himself a further stay of execution. Others are forced to rally behind the manager to salvage any pride they can from this season with another god performance.
Ultimately the frustration remains that this Manchester United team can capitulate like they did at White Harte Lane and yet play like they did last night. Make no mistake about it, West Ham are one of the premier league's toughest tests for sheer physicality and pace of the game. They can easily force anyone in the league into submission. And yet here is this supposedly young and inexperienced United team that matched the Hammers for pace, power and bettered them for quality.
More than anything, and true to the club's identity, last night, United actually had a go. By halftime alone, they had doubled the shots on target they managed on Sunday by full-time. There was an admirable directness about their play that forced the home side to do plenty of defending---something many of those defenders had not expected against a side that averages just the one shot on goal.
Individually, Marcus Rashford yet again stood out for the highest praise but this was a team performance. From goalkeeper to attack, United were committed to the cause and possessed a belief about them that we've not come to identify with the club this season; so much so that it didn't matter that the bench seemed flooded with better player personnel than what van Gaal had chose to start with. What fans would give to keep this confidence about them!
Often times a great performance is not reflected by a fine goal, but last night was one of the the exceptions. Marcus Rashford was nowhere near the Manchester United team last winter but he's up to six goals in 11 games for the senior side and most of them have been taken with such finesse of execution that at times we are forced to remind ourselves that he's just 18! Manchester United have racked up some fine FA Cup goals down the years, but the opener last night will rank among the best of them for execution if not importance. Rashford led a youthful brigade of fine individual performances.
Marouanne Fellaini is not the player most fans wish to see start a game for United, especially if it means that Morgan Schneiderlin is on the bench but the Belgian acquainted himself well with the game after benefiting from a midfield axis that involved Michael Carrick but most crucially Ander Herrera. Fellaini gets beaten with his own stick a lot so he deserved poetic justice in the narrative that his smuggled effort was the one that eventually won the game for United.
Individuals aside, Manchester United paused in their abysmal walk through the season to deliver a team performance that resonated with the identity of the club. Unfortunately, we cannot even begin to trust that it will remain the case for what is left of the season.