Louis van Gaal’s grip on power at Manchester United has loosened further after a performance at Sunderland so weak it yielded a 2-1 defeat by the relegation-threatened team.
Already isolated by speculation that Jose Mourinho will replace him, Van Gaal agreed that the “minimum requirement” for a United manager is Champions League qualification. United are six points off fourth place, with an inferior goal difference that effectively makes the gap seven.
There was an acceptance in the Dutchman’s downbeat tone that he knows what will come should United finish fifth or worse. “This kind of match, you’ve to win,” he said. “I think we need to win this game because of the big gap between [us and] the top four. We want to be there and now it shall be very difficult.
“We didn’t have control. That is the truth. The most disappointing [thing] for me is that we could not cope with the aggressive pressure of Sunderland.
“Two set-plays. We know in advance they could score at set-plays. They have a taller team. They organise it well. But the main reason is always in a match you shall be compared with your opponent in aggression, and I think they played with more aggression.”
Van Gaal said he was worried beforehand when he watched the warm-up and thought the players were “less sharp”.
United now face a trip to FC Midtjylland in Denmark on Thursday in the Europa League, and even Van Gaal and Wayne Rooney seemed to think that the chance of winning that competition – and qualifying for the Champions League that way – looks far-fetched.
Painful statistics are lining up: this was a seventh League defeat for United this season, and their points tally is their lowest at this stage in the Premier League era.