Manchester United facing Big Sam's Sunderland at the wrong time
If there is to be a recovery for Manchester United, if this recent flicker of form is to be sustained, Louis van Gaal will have to get the better of one of the Premier League's most experienced and tenacious managers, a man who has been a thorn in the side to some of the division's most illustrious names. This weekend, United travel to Sunderland. This weekend, Van Gaal faces Sam Allardyce. And there is history here.
In February last year, after his West Ham side had been denied victory by a late Daley Blind equaliser, Allardyce took a swipe at United's tactics.
"In the end we couldn't cope with Long-ball United," he said. "It's not how you normally see United play, but it got them a goal in the end. You might just criticise Louis van Gaal for playing long balls as much as I'm sometimes criticised for being direct. In the end it's paid off for them so you can't knock it."
It seemed like a throwaway comment, the sort of jibe that might otherwise be forgotten after a day or two. But Van Gaal took the bait. In an extraordinary press conference ahead of United's next game, the Dutchman handed out stat sheets with data to illustrate that Allardyce had been wrong.
While it was nice that the hitherto standoffish Van Gaal finally wanted to discuss tactics on a deeper level, the move backfired horribly. He looked rattled, more concerned with the opinions of others than befits a Manchester United manager. Immediate comparisons were made to Sir Alex Ferguson. What would he have done in the unlikely event that Allardyce had taken a swing at him? He'd have ignored it, or shrugged it off, or shot it down with one casual snort of flame. He would never have fired up the photocopier to coordinate an evidenced response.
Of course, Van Gaal is not the only manager who has fallen foul of Allardyce. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was easily riled and always contemptuous of Bolton Wanderer's aggressive, direct game under Allardyce. Jose Mourinho complained about Allardyce's "19th century football" after a goalless draw between Chelsea and West Ham.
Allardyce's response to that one, when informed by the press, was to laugh uproariously. The two men are friends, but Allardyce always relishes those moments, no matter who it is. You suspect that he was eagerly awaiting a response from Jurgen Klopp when he referred to the Liverpool manager as "a soft German" after their clash in December. Klopp was shrewd enough to sidestep that one.
But Allardyce is no troll. Sunderland's rescue is arguably the biggest challenge he has faced and though the Black Cats remain in the relegation zone, performances are slowly improving. For all the talk of the Anfield walk-out affecting Liverpool, it was Sunderland who had the fight and the energy to claw their way back into the game. And earlier that week, they put in a far better performance against Manchester City, only to lose to a single Sergio Aguero goal.
There's renewed confidence in Sunderland now, the fans are optimistic, there's a sense that the injection of new players in January will make the difference. Allardyce has certainly given the players he inherited more than a fair chance. His predecessor, Dick Advocaat, felt that the squad was not up to the required standard and performances in the first half of the season have vindicated that view. New blood has arrived.
Sunderland supporters are particularly keen on their new centre-back, Lamine Kone, a formidable figure signed from Lorient after a controversial pursuit. He has already won the hearts of the Sunderland supporters after clashing with Yaya Toure last week, the Ivorian bouncing off him like a rubber ball. He is the sort of centre-back who would head away a jumbo jet if it flew too low over the Stadium of Light and, after so many performances have been compromised by individual errors, his presence will be crucial.
Wahbi Khazri has arrived from Bordeaux and comes with a reputation for exquisite set pieces. Jan Kirchhoff, once of Bayern Munich, brings height, technique and, theoretically, a bit of sophistication to the team, though his debut against Tottenham may have been too early for him. Allardyce knows well that it takes time for new players to adjust to the pace of the Premier League.
Adjusting to the pace of United has not been a problem in recent months, but their stagnant football has developed unexpectedly of late. Wayne Rooney made mention of a new free-flowing style that had emboldened the players, but he was quickly slapped back into line by Van Gaal. The Dutchman's view is that the instructions haven't changed, but the players have grown more confident and more able. We shall see.
The Stadium of Light, when the team shows fight and the blood of the supporters is up, can be a foreboding place to visit. Allardyce told reporters this week that he still has much to do at the club, that his work has only just begun and that he cannot be considered a success until he has taken Sunderland to safety.
For all the signs of improvement in the United side, there are just as many for the Black Cats. Van Gaal has been testy and short-tempered with journalists in recent weeks, lashing out at anyone who dares to highlight his weakness. He may have more cause for fury on Saturday, with or without any barbed comments from Allardyce. This is not a good time to play Sunderland. This is not a good time to come up against one of the Premier League's most enduring figures.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.