MANCHESTER – Few Manchester United fans thought life after Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford would be easy but fewer would have imagined the possibility of a second successive season without any silverware and devoid of Champions League football.
Monday’s 2-1 home defeat by Arsenal, which eliminated United from the FA Cup, means United face the longest trophyless run since the early days of Ferguson’s silverware-laden era.
Ferguson, who succeeded Ron Atkinson in 1986 after the latter lifted the FA Cup in 1985, barely kept his job during his first four barren years in charge but continued in the hot seat when he ended the drought by winning the competition in 1990.
Ferguson’s compatriot and successor David Moyes lasted less than a season and was sacked last year when it became clear United would miss out on any European competition, with Ryan Giggs briefly taking over the reigns before handing them over to Louis van Gaal.
Heavy spending by the Dutchman has resulted in little improvement as United continued to look a side vulnerable at the back, bereft of ideas in midfield and lacking firepower up front against opposition of any quality.
Having enjoyed consistent results which flattered their performances largely thanks to superb goalkeeping by David de Gea, United paid the price for the many chinks in their armour in Premier League defeats by Southampton and Swansea before the FA Cup fiasco.
Although in no immediate danger of following in Moyes’s footsteps through the exit door, van Gaal must be revisiting some of his transfer decisions although he put on a brave face in the wake of his reject Danny Welbeck putting his former club to the sword.
“It was a surprise that Wenger put him in the lineup in that position,” Van Gaal said after Welbeck, deemed surplus to requirements after misfiring Colombian Radamel Falcao was hauled in on loan from Monaco, struck an opportunist second-half winner.
“Also, a lot of times against the club who a player was playing for, he shall be very motivated. But I think we gave that goal particularly.”
Record signing Angel Di Maria has shown occasional flashes of brilliance like the inch-perfect cross for Wayne Rooney’s headed equaliser, but his first season in English football has so far been a torrid one with the Argentine looking like a fish out of water most of the time.
Struggling to cope with decent tackling and often going down like a sack of potatoes under any kind of challenge, Di Maria was booked for diving and then sent off for grabbing referee Michael Oliver’s shirt.
Even van Gaal had no excuse for the winger’s shocking act, often a common sight in Argentine league football but almost unfathomable in the Premier League.
“I know, of course, and also Angel Di Maria knows that he doesn’t have to touch the referee, so that is not so smart of him,” van Gaal said. “But to control emotion is not so easy in such a match.”
With Chelsea and Manchester City seemingly poised to fight it out for the Premier League title, United now have only a top-four finish to play for and with games against all their main rivals yet to come in the home straight, van Gaal will feel the heat.
Former United midfielder Roy Keane was confident the Dutchman would and should be given time to pick up the pieces and put them back together.
“They’ve got to give him a chance. He needs two or three years to rebuild the club,” Keane said. – Reuters