The last chance of a trophy for Manchester United this season passed with defeat to Arsenal in the FA Cup on Monday, and for the first time since 1987-89 the club will go two consecutive seasons without a major trophy, domestic or European.
But come this weekend, that will pale in comparison with the worries about Champions League qualification.
United’s fixture list for the final 10 games of the season looks far from straightforward, starting with Tottenham on Sunday and then Liverpool away the following weekend. They still have to play Chelsea and Everton away and Arsenal at home.
Realistically Arsenal, United, Liverpool and Spurs are competing for the last two Champions League places, with Southampton the outsiders, and I still feel that Liverpool are favourites for third.
Watching United at Old Trafford on Monday, I know what Louis van Gaal is trying to do with this team. I do like the concept. I just question whether he has the players to do it.
In recent weeks, Van Gaal has tried what I would describe as a more Barcelona-style approach to games. His centre-backs push wide, the full-backs push on and the team pass the ball. It has worked against the weaker teams but it is against the stronger sides, starting with Spurs and the high-pressing game they play, that you have to wonder whether it will be found out.
To play this way, you really need to be exceptional. Barcelona can do it because they have the players and they have been playing this way for years. United have spent around £220m in the last three transfer windows and yet I would question whether they have the players to operate this system.
Against Arsenal, there were times when United went more direct to Marouane Fellaini but not as much as might be expected. For what other reason was he in the team? At least it gave United a chance to play in their opponents’ half.
It might be a bit prehistoric, and there is no chance that Van Gaal will want to do it long-term, but if United keep playing the way they are, they will be found out against better sides.
I understand what Van Gaal is trying to do. I like that he is playing with the wide players. I also know that as former players we cannot harp on about the old days for ever. Things change, although I believe that certain principles, of attacking, entertaining football, should always be protected.
Like any other match-going fan – I have two season tickets for Old Trafford – I want to see the team play well and win. I just don’t think this system is the best for these players.
What I find hard to understand is how, in March, United are playing another new style with no evidence that they have the personnel to do it. There must be concerns for Juan Mata, who has not started a league game since January 17. Given the system Van Gaal seeks to use, I wonder why Mata does not play instead of Fellaini.
I still believe that Van Gaal is the right man for the job. I don’t think he will change his mind about the way he wants the team to play. He is a stubborn man and that is no bad thing in football.
But I am afraid to say that if he wants to play this Barcelona style then the club will have to go back into the transfer market this summer to get the players they need to do it. (© Independent News Service)