'Manchester United players look tired of Van Gaal' - Michael Owen
Loss in Newcastle tonight could spell the end
Michael Owen believes that Louis van Gaal could be just one more bad result away from the Manchester United exit door and senses that his players already know that the end is nigh.
The former United striker was present at Saturday's drab FA Cup encounter with Sheffield United, a game which confirmed his view that drastic change is required.
Owen feels there is a real danger that Van Gaal's side will miss out on a top-four finish and the Champions League and therefore thinks that a repeat performance at Newcastle tonight could prompt a quick decision even if the United board have to wait until the end of this season to make a permanent appointment.
The possible availability of Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola - he still reckons that the latter is attainable - and the option to promote Ryan Giggs has, in his opinion, strengthened the argument for a change in the dugout.
"The whole thing feels like it's coming to an end," said Owen yesterday, speaking to the Irish Independent. "There's so much discontent amongst the fans and maybe even the players as well. This is not just about Sheffield United; this has been a year and a half of mediocre performances. If they get beat at Newcastle, they could have a decision to make.
"He's still in a few competitions; they're in the Europa League and the FA Cup and there are things to play for. The season isn't dead. But I can't see them winning anything. They had six games to get out of an average Champions League group and they were awful.
"When you think that Chelsea, everyone's banker, are probably out of the Champions League race, then Manchester United should be a certainty to qualify. But they're not. Going to Old Trafford now compared to when I was playing, it's like chalk and cheese. You used to go to the ground thinking how many could they score today. Now, they don't even make chances."
The lethargic performances have bred discontent in the stands and the problem for Van Gaal, as far as Owen is concerned, is that the players also look to be fatigued by the regime. "Football players are like employees in any business," he says, "Everyone will have a view on the direction.
"Normally, the 11 that are playing are happy with the manager, and the others aren't and you get that in any walk of life. But with Manchester United now, even the 11 that are playing, they look tired of going out there and not enjoying football. Wayne Rooney must be thinking, 'How many touches am I going to get today?' They can see it happening, that it's matter of time."
And, while he acknowledges that Rooney may not be the force of old, he does have some sympathy for his former international colleague. "He started at a young age and he's been going at it for a long time," he explains.
"Even if he's starting to regress a bit, you'd still want to see him in a team that's creating chances and feeding the ball into the right areas because he's such a good player, with a football brain, that he will always have something to offer. It's hard to say anything conclusively about him because of the way that the team is playing."
When it became apparent that David Moyes was a beaten docket, Owen felt that the hierarchy were in a tight spot because of the absence of outstanding candidates available. The situation has changed this time around and despite strong suggestions that Pep Guardiola is Manchester City bound, the 36-year-old says that United should be exploring every opportunity.
"You could argue that the two best managers in the world are going to be free, in Mourinho and Guardiola, and that must have a bearing on when they move," he explains. "Van Gaal had already said himself that he isn't going to manage forever, he doesn't have a long-term plan.
"In terms of getting those managers, we're talking about Manchester United here. They're one of the biggest three clubs in the world so of course that you can get the biggest names and I'd be sounding out both of them. With Guardiola, they could be losing out on the best team in the world to their rivals; surely there has to be some kind of contact made there. With Mourinho, there's possibly an issue with the style of play but he's a winner.
"And then there's Ryan Giggs. That's the other option; he could fit seamlessly into it. Football is constantly evolving and it might be a young man's game. He understands the dressing room and he could be the way to go. When Moyes left, it was too early for him."
Owen has previously expressed concerns about the quality of the squad that Van Gaal has put together, and there is an awareness that any new man would have to make changes. There is a school of thought that the lack of star quality could impact on the attractiveness of the role compared to, say, the elite personnel that City have at their disposal in attacking areas.
"There will have to be investment, that's clear," says Owen. "But I think there's better quality there than what we're seeing. It's been suppressed by the approach and the performances. With the way they're getting set out, it looks as though they've got no real chance of playing well. The way things are now, I don't see any improvement coming."
BT Sport pundit Michael Owen was speaking ahead of two live Barclays Premier League games this week available only on the Setanta Sports Pack. The games will see Owen's former clubs Newcastle United and Manchester United face off tonight at 7.45pm on BT Sport 1. Then tomorrow, another of Owen's former clubs Liverpool will be in action against table-toppers Arsenal live on BT Sport 1 at 8.0pm. To subscribe, visit www.setanta.com