Stoke sound death knell for Van Gaal
Stoke City 2-0 Manchester Utd
High in the stands, one Stoke City supporter had come dressed for the occasion, wearing a Jose Mourinho mask and carrying a placard marked as a P45 for Louis van Gaal.
The Grim Reaper appeared for one of David Moyes's matches and Van Gaal has been straying into similar territory.
Van Gaal's team were abject for long spells and the last time they went so long without a victory goes back to an eight-match sequence from December 1989 to January 1990, in the days when a banner appeared at Old Trafford calling time on the pre-knighted Alex Ferguson. "Ta Ra Fergie," it read. "Three years of excuses and we're still crap."
At the risk of being cruel, Van Gaal has managed the same in 18 months, with no apparent sign he is any nearer to everything clicking. This was their fourth successive defeat in a run of seven games without a victory and it finished with him floating the idea he may yet resign. A plodding team have managed 14 goals in 16 matches and it cannot be written off as a blip when, going back to April, they have won only 14 of their last 34 games.
While Bojan Krkic, Marko Arnautovic and Xherdan Shaqiri led their opponents a merry dance, United aimed for Marouane Fellaini, misplaced passes, lacked clarity and in the worst moments looked like they would rather be somewhere else.
"We did not dare to play football," Van Gaal said after the match, a sentence that goes against everything that should happen when the players pull on the club's colours.
The indignities now include Stoke's supporters chanting "boring, boring" when Van Gaal's team had the ball. United's manager could not confirm he would still be in charge of tomorrow's game against Chelsea, and perhaps the most startling part is that their latest ordeal ought to have been an occasion when his players put on a united front. On the contrary, if you came here looking for signs that they are as puzzled by Van Gaal as everyone else, there were plenty of them. Their body language was appalling during those first-half moments when the damage was inflicted.
Stoke have now beaten three out of England's four Champions League qualifiers here this season and it would be a tremendous pity if, among all the scrutiny of Van Gaal, that record was overlooked.
They attacked with great flair during the first half, sensing their opponents were there for the taking, and when they were put under sustained pressure, we saw the old doggedness after the break, defending with great determination while still looking dangerous on the counter-attack.
Mark Hughes described them as "brave and confident" - all the things that United were not. "It would have taken a very good team to stay with us," the Stoke manager added.
Van Gaal can take a glimmer of encouragement from his team's improvement after the interval, but he would be wrong to dwell it on too much and it was strange to hear him talking of a team that had lost its nerve on an afternoon when he dropped his captain. Wayne Rooney might not be the player he was but, for all his flaws, he does not lack heart or the appetite to get on the ball.
As it was, United were lucky Arnautovic, having scored a beauty, could not make it 3-0 after he ran clear on 36 minutes, and a traumatic first half for Van Gaal was summed up by Daley Blind trying a cross from the left, scuffing it out of play and ending up on his backside.
Blind had terrible problems trying to subdue Shaqiri. Ashley Young's inexperience as a full-back was shown up and Juan Mata rarely came out of a shell of his own making.
As for Memphis Depay, his ordeal lasted only 45 minutes, featuring the ignominious moment when he attempted a back-header to David de Gea, made a pig's ear of it and cost his team the opening goal. Krkic was left with virtually an open goal after Glen Johnson picked out his run, and the days have gone when United went by the mantra that they always had to respond forcefully once they went behind.
Seven minutes later, Young's hare-brained handball gave Krkic the chance to try to curl a free-kick around the defensive wall. The ball came back off the cluster of bodies and what happened next from Arnautovic epitomised Stoke's confidence. His first touch set up the shooting opportunity and the second was lashed past De Gea with power and precision, swerving in from over 20 yards.
Rooney came on at half-time for Depay and there was at least a measure of urgency to United's second-half play. Their best chance came after 64 minutes, but Jack Butland has been outstanding for Stoke this season and spared his team with a sprawling save to keep out Fellaini's shot. It was fine goalkeeping, but Fellaini, six yards out, should have made a much better contact from Rooney's cross.
Butland also turned away later efforts from Anthony Martial and Mata, but it was not the onslaught that might have been anticipated.
The old United are no more and the lingering memory of Martial's performance will be his dive to try to conjure up a first-half penalty. "That's just embarrassing," the home crowd chanted. Krkic did the same in the second half, but the difference was that Stoke's tormentor-in-chief could get the better of his opponents in a legitimate way, too.
For Van Gaal, it was a long walk down the touchline to pass the away end.
At a glance
Tweet of the match: @Rioferdy5: "I'm not even surprised....that's what hurts even more at @ManUtd ....come on boys" - former Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand was not impressed with the club's latest performance.
Star man: Marko Arnautovic: Stoke caused United trouble across the final third all afternoon and the forward occupied all three positions behind Bojan Krkic at various times. He was too strong for United's defenders, who bounced off him when he ran with the ball. He picked United apart when he lifted his head up and took his goal superbly well.
Moment of the match: Arnautovic's goal, a late contender for the best of 2015. The Austrian showed superb composure when the ball dropped to him after Bojan's shot was blocked and he rifled the ball into the top corner.
Moan of the match: Diving: Anthony Martial feigned a trip in a bid to earn a penalty in the first half. Referee Kevin Friend did not fall for it, but did not book Martial. He had his yellow card out of his pocket after the break, however, when Bojan went to ground in the United box without being touched. The striker did not appeal for a penalty, but it was clear what he was trying to do and deserved his booking.
Who's up next? Everton v Stoke, Manchester United v Chelsea (both tomorrow)
Sunday Indo Sport