Storm clouds gathering over Van Gaal after another toothless capitulation
Manchester United 1 Norwich City 2
Published 20/12/2015 | 02:30
Louis van Gaal is clearly angling for a thesaurus as a Christmas present.
The Manchester United manager said he had no words to describe the disappointment of the past week, going out of the Champions League, going down at Bournemouth and so on, so imagine his dismay when Alex Neil's relegation-battlers took a first-half lead at Old Trafford and held on for three points.
By the time Cameron Jerome slotted a shot past David de Gea, six minutes before half-time, the match had already settled into a familiar pattern.
United had started brightly, with Anthony Martial in particular looking lively on the right wing, but a series of half-breaks and potential openings had come to naught. While Norwich City were stretched at the back at times, and occasionally defending doggedly, shots on target for Declan Rudd to deal with were few.
Wayne Rooney, playing up front for a change on the occasion of his 500th United appearance, saw a shot deflected narrowly wide midway through the first half and might have expected Memphis Depay to do better than spoon the ball over the bar when he sent in a tantalising, curving cross minutes later. That was about it for goal attempts before the interval, at least from the home side.
Norwich did rather better, after initially looking short of confidence in front of goal. Alex Tettey might have opened the scoring after wrong-footing the United defence with a delightful turn, only to send in a tame shot with a clear sight of goal.
The visitors were at least gaining a foothold in the game as the interval approached, and they gained a reward for endeavour when Nathan Redmond helped set up the first goal. At first it looked as though the winger might have shown too much of the ball to the United defence, yet he managed to gain a crucial last touch to nudge it past Phil Jones and into the path of Jerome, who slipped Chris Smalling's attempt at a covering tackle and held off Michael Carrick's challenge to place a shot past an exposed De Gea.
There were mild boos and jeers from the home crowd as the players left the pitch, but worse was to come. Norwich doubled their lead just before the hour with an even better goal than the first, made by Jerome and capably finished by Tettey.
Jerome was in the centre circle when he received possession, yet with a determined twisting turn he was free and his pass played Tettey into the inviting gap between Ashley Young and Smalling. De Gea was beaten for the second time in the afternoon by a crisp shot from the edge of the area.
Rooney tried to hit back with an overhead kick that flew too high, before Van Gaal sent on Ander Herrera in place of Marouane Fellaini. The crowd approved of that, for although Fellaini's distinctive head had been a focus for much of United's attacking, it was an approach that all too clearly was not working.
United redoubled their attacking efforts, all the while aware that Norwich were quite handy on the counter, and gained a reward when Rooney touched Young's cross on to Martial, who showed strength and perseverance in riding a couple of last-ditch penalty-area challenges before crashing a shot high into the net. That brought the stadium fully to life, the previous carping abandoned in anticipation of a grandstand finish - yet those days appear to be gone.
Juan Mata finally forced a save from Rudd from a free-kick; Young sent a piercing low cross into the Norwich penalty area that surprised his team-mates as much as the opposing defenders; and Smalling managed to miss the target with a close-range header in the closing seconds. The visitors actually managed to come closer to scoring another when De Gea had to beat out Youssouf Mulumbu's late effort.
Norwich are out of the bottom three and deservedly so. They might not have had as much of the ball as United, but they were sharper with their goal chances. Without a win in six games, this is not the Christmas Van Gaal was hoping for, especially now former players are calling for change and a couple of top-quality coaching alternatives have just become available.
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