Man United struggles continue as Louis van Gaal makes no excuses
SUNDERLAND, England -- There was no hiding Louis van Gaal's disappointment when he faced the press at the Stadium of Light after Manchester United's seventh defeat of the season.
The furious fire that flashed in his eyes at Stamford Bridge last week was conspicuous by its absence. At times, he seemed to sag as he tried to explain where it had all gone so wrong. It's one step forward, two steps back for United, and the optimism generated by two improved performances against Stoke City and Chelsea has suddenly evaporated.
Refreshingly, Van Gaal made no excuses for his team's demise, but public displays of honesty are unlikely to improve the mood of the team's supporters. They certainly won't do anything to quell the rumours that Jose Mourinho is on his way.
"I think as Manchester United, you have to keep the ball in spite of the pressure of Sunderland," he said. "You have to keep the ball and you have to create chances. We didn't have control. We didn't have control in the first 20 minutes. In the second 20 minutes, we had that control and we scored.
"But the most disappointing thing for me is that we couldn't cope with the aggressive pressure of Sunderland in their own half."
Van Gaal used the word "aggression" or "aggressive" on six occasions during a short press conference, always deploying it in Sunderland's favour. The Black Cats put in a proper shift, fighting for the ball, emboldening the crowd and subsequently being emboldened by the crowd, swirling in a sweaty, self-perpetuating cycle of adrenaline. United, better technically in almost every position, were always reactive, always second best and never anywhere near the levels you might have once expected of this club.
The Dutchman was visibly frustrated -- why shouldn't he be? Teams can lose through a lack of talent or luck but to lose due to a lack of fight is never acceptable. This was the Sunderland renewed and reinvigorated by Sam Allardyce's winter signings, but it was still the Sunderland from the relegation zone, the team from which their previous manager had walked away complaining about a lack of quality. Manchester United should be better than this.
"It is a big disappointment," Van Gaal said afterward. "I cannot say it another way. You prepare for this game the whole week, and then it's always a big question: If you can cope with the tactics or the aggression or some quality of the opponent, you have to show your own ability against that and there is always for everybody a question. But today was very disappointing.
"I think we need to win this game. There's a big gap between top four, and we want to be there. Now it shall be very difficult."
His views echoed those of his captain, Wayne Rooney, who had said much the same in front of the TV cameras. Van Gaal's objective for the first season was to return the club to the top four, a mission he barely accomplished. The plan for the second season was to challenge for the title. Nowhere was it written that they would end up scrapping with West Ham and Southampton for a Europa League slot.
Van Gaal has complained bitterly of criticism from the press in recent weeks, but the only surprise is that he seems so surprised by it all. This is a man who has managed Barcelona (twice) and Bayern Munich, not to mention those two spells with the Dutch national team. Pressure and criticism is a part of life at that level of football, even when you're winning. He should know that better than anyone. After all, he replaced Sir Bobby Robson at Barcelona in 1997 when the Englishman was moved upstairs despite winning the Spanish Cup, the Spanish Super Cup and the European Cup Winners' Cup. Quite why the intense scrutiny and judgemental observations have come as a shock to him is a mystery.
It's certainly not going to get any easier for him now. The barbs about United's ponderous, lethargic style of play will continue to stick; the rumours of Mourinho's impending arrival will continue to persist. It's inevitable when a team plays this poorly. And yet it's not all Van Gaal's fault.
United have reportedly spent over £250 million since Van Gaal's arrival. Their wage bill now exceeds Manchester City, but there is still no obvious long term plan. Millions are squandered on world-class attacking midfielders, but transfer windows come and go without the arrival of high-calibre defenders to replace the now long-departed Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
Club sources brief about an ambitious "galactico" policy, apparently without realising that Real Madrid's version has historically delivered wildly unbalanced squads and just one Champions League trophy in nearly 14 years. The wish list widely reported in December left the impression that the club is now being run by a starstruck executive out of his depth.
There has to be a strategy moving forward. There has to be a plan with more foresight than just lashing out cash to secure a place in the top four. There has to be more for the United supporters than encouraging news of lucrative corporate deals.
Off the pitch, as last week's financial results showed, United are performing well. On the pitch, there's a lack of fight, a lack of pace and a lack of planning. And it cannot continue.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.