Thursday 23 November 2017

Players show determination to seal Louis' going away gift

Louis van Gaal lifts the FA Cup. Photo: PA
Louis van Gaal lifts the FA Cup. Photo: PA

Paul Hayward

The FA Cup has pulled a few great managers back from the precipice. Alex Ferguson, early in his Old Trafford career, and Arsène Wenger, three seasons ago, are the best examples. Seldom has a coach stepped into this great Wembley ritual with informed opinion suggesting he would be out of a job either way.

Will a 2-1 win in extra-time save Louis van Gaal? Unlikely. Some people are given a clock as a leaving present. Van Gaal got the FA Cup - or so the odds suggest, courtesy of a fizzing winner by Jesse Lingard, 20 minutes into extra-time. A home-grown youth seizing the day for United: that much, at least, is a familiar script.

Non-Manchester United fans will have found Van Gaal's long dangling act as baffling as it has been tiresome. How could a club who have won 13 Premier League crowns and two Champions League titles end up so paralysed? How could they turn the ostensibly joyous occasion of an FA Cup final into a referendum on the leader's future?

Van Gaal was kept in place from Christmas onwards by Ed Woodward's disinclination to sack him. After the David Moyes dismissal, eight months in, United were loathe to fire a second manager less than two years into a three-season contract. But Van Gaal's failure to secure a Champions League place changed everything. Loyalty and continuity are a poor counterweight to the financial losses incurred by the team finishing fifth in a season of numbing mediocrity.

The slow, painful, endlessly-touted coming of Jose Mourinho to take on Pep Guardiola on the other side of Manchester was touted yet again on the morning of this game by AS, the Spanish publication, who declared that Van Gaal was history.

This is a delicate point to make, but this novel one-game-to-not-save-his-job scenario will have worked its way through to the players, who, with a thumping victory, might have run the risk of a reprieve for a manager they may be weary of.

A constant of Van Gaal's time in management is that players tire of his prescriptive style. Right from the start at United he preached against players acting on "instinct," even though the team's history is founded on free expression.

Many of these United players cited Moyes' Evertonistic tendencies as the reason why they simply could not go along with him as a Manchester United manager. This time, presumably, they will blame Van Gaal's tactical conservatism and overbearing manner. Truly, they have no more gripes to use up. Next time, the dump truck of responsibility is going to unload on them. Which is not to fully dismiss their understandable frustration at Van Gaal's disregard for the United tradition.

Van Gaal's team selection displayed once again the odd blend of patient Dutch precision (Daley Blind), locally-reared precocity (Marcus Rashford), Ferguson-era statesmen (Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick) and extravagant late-transfer window spending (Anthony Martial). United are like a building in which four of architects from different firms were given a level each.

The youngsters aside, United are a team produced by throwing money at a brand that has been relentlessly sweated to generate the money for the manager to throw.

And Van Gaal has lobbed £250 million into that whirlwind. The absolute crux of United's situation coming into their first FA Cup final since 2007 is that they cannot afford long-term damage to their commercial deal-making powers, and therefore cannot permit a manager to impede their box office value year after year.

The starting point for that global star rating is a Champions League place - which Van Gaal has already blown.

Waiting to step out for a contest he claimed to have loved since the 1960s, United's manager could hear the haunting words of 'Abide with Me,' not least: "Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes." At one end of the stadium: Crystal Palace fans with flags and banners and songs in their heart. At the other, a global blend of Manchester United supporters worn down by a dull and unfulfilling season and not quite able to summon Cup fever.

Bombarded by bottles at West Ham, and inconvenienced by an fake explosive device before the season-ender against Bournemouth, United arrived here with a final chance to feel good. Once again Rashford carried the flame for what United always were - a stage for young talent, for a healthy gambler's instinct - until leaving the field injured on 72 minutes. Lingaard then took up the cause With Van Gaal, management has often looked like an exercise in showing how clever he is: a game for Generals, in which players exist to follow orders.

The trouble was: while Young was obeying the instruction to play No 9, Jason Puncheon was smashing the ball past David de Gea at the other end.

But then Rooney broke out of his deep position to carry the ball through and round the Palace defence before crossing for Fellaini to chest the ball down to Juan Mata to equalize.

Whether or not they want Van Gaal, at least United's players were showing they craved a medal. This was a triumph of no little determination but probably no great consequence, from Van Gaal's long-term perspective.

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