United face West Ham in dire straits after Europa League woe at Liverpool
Like a patient assailed by multiple illnesses at once, Manchester United keep throwing up fresh symptoms of discontent.
Thursday's 2-0 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield in the Europa League round of 16 first leg was an abject performance, in which they displayed little tactical coherence anywhere on the pitch -- and, more worryingly, this was the likeliest outcome.
The moment that Marouane Fellaini was named in central midfield, replacing Ander Herrera, the game was up. Liverpool thrive against teams who fail to press them effectively, having thrashed Manchester City home and away in the Premier League this season by an aggregate score of 7-1.
Fellaini is not only slow to the ball, but he is imprecise in retrieving it, meaning that United were overrun in the middle of the pitch. Looking ahead to their upcoming FA Cup tie against West Ham United, they can only hope that Herrera recovers from his knock in time. If he does not, a similar struggle is likely.
It is the most damning indictment of United's current form that West Ham will be able to go to Old Trafford and play with freedom. Old Trafford was once a place where rival teams would turn up with trepidation, unsure that they would emerge with much other than their dignity intact. At one point, they would be lucky to leave with that.
Now, remarkably, visitors are perhaps even less afraid to arrive at United's ground than they were when David Moyes was manager. West Ham may seek to draw upon memories of their famous FA Cup victory at Old Trafford in 2001, when they proceeded to the next round thanks to a late winner from Paolo Di Canio. United will be happier to remember the same tournament two years later when they dismissed West Ham 6-0, but less happy to consider that those days have never felt further away.
Slaven Bilic's men are performing well, with three Premier League wins in a row, and in fact sit two points above United in the division, in fifth place. Bilic has done an excellent job this year, with his team robust at home and enterprising away. The momentum is firmly with them. This season, they have claimed victories at Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City, which is firm evidence they are difficult to intimidate on the road. What is more, they defeated Liverpool in the fourth round at the very end of extra time, so they have proven themselves to be formidable FA Cup opponents this year.
They will be cheered by the news that Enner Valencia and Victor Moses will be returning from injury for the match, while United will have to rely upon a more patchwork arrangement in defence. Michael Carrick has been deputising at centre-back, but his willingness to fill in for his team cannot mask the fact that he is constantly prone to mistakes there.
It is not a natural position for him, and the worry is that when faced with West Ham's attacking threat he will again be exposed. That threat comes chiefly from Dimitri Payet, who operates in exactly the area where United are currently most vulnerable -- that space between defence and midfield, where Morgan Schneiderlin will find himself with a considerable workload. Payet is dangerous both in open play and from set pieces, and he will need to be closed down with far better speed than United have shown in several of their recent matches.
Against Liverpool, in order to ensure greater width, United went to a 3-5-2 formation, using Guillermo Varela and Daley Blind as wing-backs with a central defence of Marcos Rojo, Chris Smalling and Michael Carrick. Van Gaal's intention may have been to speed up play, but the reverse was the case -- the ball was too slow to get forward, partly due to the players' unfamiliarity with this system. The temptation to go to 3-5-2 again must be resisted.
So, too, must be the temptation to play Marcus Rashford on the right wing, given that he is far more comfortable as a central striker, and that his goals have all come from there. It may be wise, in the absence of Juan Mata through suspension, to play Ander Herrera as the No.10.
Anthony Martial may not particularly enjoy being out wide on the right, but he is the most intelligent of United's attackers, and the most adaptable to that position. This might then mean a starting role in midfield for Bastian Schweinsteiger, who has just returned from injury. Though Schweinsteiger does not have the greatest mobility these days, he has shown himself to be better at dictating the play this year than Carrick or Fellaini.
The suspicion is that this is too disjointed a United team to cope with the challenges that West Ham will present, and for that reason the visitors will actually enter this match as slight favourites.
Whether Van Gaal can rouse his team for what looks like their last chance at silverware remains to be seen. Currently, though, the signs are not good.
Musa Okwonga is a football author, poet, musician, broadcaster and social commentator. He is on Twitter @Okwonga.