Alex Ferguson holds key to Louis van Gaal's future at United
Man United 0 Southampton 1
Amid growing pressure to step down as manager, Louis van Gaal has conceded that he has not met the expectations of Manchester United's supporters.
In the wake of a 1-0 defeat to Southampton that was wretched even by the standards of this season at Old Trafford, he said: "I am very disappointed that I cannot reach the expectations of the fans. They have - or they had - great expectations of me and I cannot fulfil them. I am very frustrated because of that."
But, still fresh from a wave of abuse as he walked towards the dressing rooms on the final whistle, Van Gaal refused to say whether he still had the appetite to carry on. "That is a question I shall never answer to you," he said.
Yesterday the club's former chief executive, David Gill, added to the pressure when he said there could and should have been better football from United this season.
The club have scored the same number of Premier League goals as Sunderland and only Aston Villa have scored fewer at home. Gill even admitted he had chosen to go to the cinema on Saturday night rather than watch the highlights of the Southampton game on Match of the Day.
"I am not going to sit here and say that is attractive," Gill told the BBC. "Manchester United, going back to the 1950s, played in a certain way. We want attacking football and I am sure that will be a key part going forward.
"Louis van Gaal has managed top clubs in Spain, Germany and Holland and I don't think he found that difficult, but it is the sheer competitiveness of the Premier League [that has undermined him]."
Van Gaal (below) who last week seemed to have secured his position in the short term with a fourth straight win over Liverpool, did not attempt to defend the display against Southampton, managed by Ronald Koeman.
"I agree with the fans booing so it doesn't have any impact," he said. "They have also a knowledge of football, of entertaining football, and you have to play football to entertain the fans.
"I don't think we have entertained the fans against Southampton, so they can be very angry, but when we won [against Liverpool] they were not so angry any more. But now we have lost in the last minute."
It sounded like a concession speech from a beaten man and with Jose Mourinho having reportedly sent United a six-page dossier as to how he could turn the club around - something his agent, Jorge Mendes, denied - Van Gaal seems very near the end, although he still commands significant support in the dressing room.
After the 2-1 home defeat to Norwich in December that left him similarly depressed, players came to Van Gaal urging him to carry on and offering help and advice.
If he is to survive in his post, then the opinion of Alex Ferguson is likely to be significant. It was the withdrawal of his support that was decisive in the decision to remove David Moyes.
There are few people closer to Ferguson than Gill, who now serves alongside him as a non-executive director at Old Trafford.
Gill suggested that in the short term United would stand by their beleaguered manager.
"Undoubtedly, it has been a season of under-achievement," he said. "Everyone would agree with that, given the investment that has been made.
"But I know everyone here from the owners to Ed Woodward [the chief executive] and Louis van Gaal and his team and all his staff are working extremely hard to turn it around. It is not easy."
Saturday was Groundhog Day at the Theatre of Yawns. Another home game, another defeat for United.
The brief flurry of momentum created by the win at Anfield dissipated in a fug of disillusion, a mood summed up by the man in front of the press box yelling that it was about time someone wrote how bad it all was. Except he didn't say bad.
Marking his debut with a thumping header past David De Gea, Charlie Austin, the £4m signing from Queen's Park Rangers, won the three points for a disciplined Southampton.
Rising above a flat footed United defence, he seized the earliest opportunity to demonstrate his credentials as a Premier League striker.
After his goal, United had three minutes including added time to recover. But, as balls were swung balefully in the direction of Chris Smalling, acting as emergency centre forward, it was clear they wouldn't have scored had there been an hour left.
Challenging for the title? The only title Van Gaal's United are in danger of achieving is the one for the least plausible attacking outfit in United history.
It began as an exhibition in Dutch tactics, a chess match of second guessing your opponent. Though chess matches are generally livelier affairs.
Both Van Gaal and Koeman set up their sides in cagey line-ups with three at the back and a deep lying midfield four.
Koeman could be forgiven his caution - his team were the away side. As was suggested by the chant emanating from the visiting end to point up the gloomy silence thickening around Old Trafford, Van Gaal was supposed to be at home.
In the absence of any attacking intent, United's players had clearly been instructed to shoot from a distance.
Anthony Martial had a go, Wayne Rooney tried twice and missed on both occasions, Daley Blind fired in what turned out to be his team's only shot on target, which was easily dealt with by Fraser Forster.
Southampton were no more threatening. Ricardo Soares shot into the Stretford End, Ryan Bertrand overhit a free-kick from the left and Saido Mane, once a target for United, fell over himself in pursuit of Dusan Tadic's shrewd chip in behind the back-line.
The boos started as early as the 25th minute, when Jesse Lingard, seemingly on the point of breaking away after a Southampton corner had been cleared, instead checked and passed backwards.
His failure to run forward in the manner of Giggs, Ronaldo, Best, and Coppell, a manner that was once commonplace, was typical of the cowed, ambitionless, risk-free grind of the Van Gaal era.
And the chorus of disapproval only grew as, for the 11th successive match here, the first half ended goalless.
Featuring not a single moment that might encourage the 75,408 supporters to the edge of their seats, it was 45 minutes as poor as any in this wretchedly uninspired United season.
The announcement as the second half began that Marouane Fellaini was to be replaced by Juan Mata brought a surge of hope from the crowd.
However, any impetus from the change was short lived. The booing duly returned as Blind misdirected a doleful hit and hope out of play.
By now Koeman sensed opportunity, sending debutant Austin into the fray. "I mentioned to Charlie go to the box, make a good header and it's 1-0," he said. Simple as that: it was the winning move against a team whose ability to make any of their own appears to have been entirely misplaced. © Independent News Service.