The last time Manchester United made the 50-mile journey to Stoke City on Boxing Day, they were up against it.
Seven points adrift of the leaders Liverpool in the Premier League, the only positive in travelling to the Britannia Stadium in late December was the prospect of the biting wind blowing the jet lag out of Sir Alex Ferguson’s players following their gruelling flight back from Japan three days earlier.
That kind of short, sharp shock courtesy of the Staffordshire elements might just be Louis van Gaal’s best hope of energising his players this lunchtime as the Dutchman goes in search of the three points required to keep him in a job.
Seven years ago, United emerged from Stoke with a 1-0 victory after Carlos Tevez’s 83rd-minute goal secured the win which became an oft-quoted turning point from Ferguson’s perspective.
Winning at Stoke, four days after claiming the Fifa Club World Cup with a 1-0 victory against Liga de Quito in Yokohama, was evidence, according to Ferguson, of the never-say-die, iron-clad commitment of his players.
Recent results and performances suggest that Van Gaal cannot rely on the same levels of desire from the class of 2015 as Ferguson took for granted from his world, European and Premier League champions, although the current manager’s fighting talk during his pre-match press conference on Wednesday may yet rub off on his team today.
Where United once defined resolve and bloody-mindedness – the perfect example of a team reflecting the personality of its manager – they now project the image of half-hearted indifference and Stoke is arguably the last place to go with players who would rather be somewhere else.
During Ferguson’s reign, United made five Premier League visits to the Britannia, winning four and drawing one, but since the Scot’s retirement at the end of the 2012-13 season, they have lost there under David Moyes and emerged with only a draw under Van Gaal in the first game of 2015.
The difference between the United of 2008 and 2015 is striking, however, not only in terms of the players at the manager’s disposal.
Back in 2008, the newly crowned world champions started against Tony Pulis’s team with Edwin van der Sar in goal and the likes of Nemanja Vidic, Paul Scholes, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney and Tevez in their starting line-up.
Of that team, only Rooney remains on the United playing staff, with Michael Carrick appearing from the substitutes’ bench.
The pair, if fit, will be crucial today if Van Gaal is to mastermind a positive result, but the two players are showing the inevitable signs of decline from their peak of seven years ago – perhaps embodying the overall lowering of standards at the club since then.
Ferguson would look to field a blend of youth, experience and players in their mid-twenties, allied with pace and adventure, but the team under Van Gaal appears to be an untidy combination of the opposites. The young players are stopgaps, the old-timers are showing their age and those players in their mid-twenties, the supposed bedrock of the team, lack the daring or drive which were crucial components of the Ferguson era.
Juan Mata, Daley Blind and Ander Herrera regularly flatter to deceive, Marouane Fellaini is the squarest of pegs in the roundest of holes, while Ashley Young is inexplicably overlooked and Phil Jones too injury-prone to earn Van Gaal’s trust.
Only Chris Smalling is performing like a player who would have challenged for a place against Stoke in 2008. His colleagues are leaving the faintest of imprints on the team and will probably become no more than footnotes in the club’s history when United finally get their act together.
The same could be said of Van Gaal, a man now being compared to Dave Sexton by those United supporters who know of a life before Ferguson and the glittering era of Premier League dominance.
Sexton, a studious man who managed by coaching manual, was sacked after his four and a half years in charge generated no trophies, but high-profile, expensive mistakes, such as the £1.25m on misfiring striker Garry Birtles.
When Sexton was sacked at the end of the 1980-81 season, with United finishing eighth, the team had just won seven games in succession, but the tedium of the football being played at Old Trafford ensured that he had to go.
Van Gaal is in danger of following the same path as Sexton. The 64-year-old is well-liked by staff and supporters for his personality and statesmanlike approach to managing the club, but most have long since given up waiting for his confident persona to be reflected in the football played by his team.
So where do United and Van Gaal go from here?
Defeat at Stoke would almost certainly signal the end, with United’s owners, the Glazer family, aware of the ramifications a fourth successive defeat would have for the mood within the dressing room and in the stands ahead of a seismic game against Chelsea on Monday.
A win, however, would send out the message that Van Gaal remains capable of inspiring his players, despite their increasing concerns over his unswerving approach and obsession with possession and apparent football by numbers.
He certainly maintains the belief that the situation can be turned around, insisting earlier this week that United can quickly claim top spot in the Premier League.
“We are not in a good position,” Van Gaal said. “But four weeks ago, we were first in the Premier League and in four weeks’ time, we can be back in that position again.”
Van Gaal’s readiness to canvass the opinions of senior players such as Rooney and Carrick offers a chink of light, and a positive performance and result today would hint at the manager’s pragmatism and willingness to soften his stance to save his job.
Some within the club claim to have been pleasantly surprised by the upbeat mood around the training ground following the Norwich City defeat, citing a sense of tensions being eased and air being cleared.
But with supporters now beginning to lose faith in Van Gaal’s ability to restore the swagger and trophies to United, there has to be evidence of more than papering over the cracks.
Stoke again lie in wait, but United travel there without the unity and belief which marked their victory on Boxing Day 2008.
Can Van Gaal turn back the clock to inject the same qualities or is it too late?
He will have his answer by 2.30pm and, such is the unforgiving walk from the dugout to the players’ tunnel at the Britannia Stadium, he will be unable to avoid what the supporters think if it does not go well.
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