Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal found himself under attack from all sides on Wednesday following his team’s meek group-phase elimination from the Champions League.
A picture of the Dutchman sitting in the dug-out with his head in his hands during Tuesday’s 3-2 defeat at Wolfsburg adorned several back pages, The Times branding United’s exit “Embarrassing, Amateurish, Excruciating”.
Van Gaal was already under fire over United’s boring brand of football, amid a run of five 0-0s draws in 10 games, and the club’s former players did not hold back in their assessment of the latest setback.
“United just look like an average team, really, and with an average team you get average performances,” said former United midfielder Paul Scholes.
Former centre-back Rio Ferdinand, analysing the game for BT Sport, said that dropping into the Europa League was unacceptable for a club who reached three Champions League finals between 2008 and 2011.
“I was in a squad that went into the Europa League (in 2011) and it’s an embarrassment,” he said.
“You don’t want to come out of your house, you don’t want to walk around Manchester. You’re looking at people looking at you and thinking, ‘Ah, you’re not good enough.'”
The recurring word on the British newspapers’ sports pages was “humiliated”, with the Daily Telegraph describing United as “a very limited side” who had failed to navigate “a very mediocre group”.
United finished below both Wolfsburg and PSV Eindhoven, sides whose wage bills are dwarfed by their own, and The Guardian said that their fate was “precisely what they deserved”.
Many see in United’s current guise a betrayal of the principles of fast, attacking football associated with the long, glorious tenure of former manager Alex Ferguson.
“The United whom Ferguson embodied, the fighting, attacking, winning United, are no more,” wrote The Times. “They have been replaced by United Lite.”
Michael Owen, another former United player, said that Van Gaal was under “severe pressure”, while the former Arsenal and Wales striker John Hartson suggested the club had reached a critical juncture.
“The owners have a big decision,” Hartson said on BBC Radio Five. “Do they let him continue to spend, or do they rip it all up and start again? I don’t think Van Gaal has cut it at Manchester United.”
Van Gaal has spent over £250 million ($376 million, 344 million euros) on new players since succeeding David Moyes last year, but despite steering the club back into the Champions League, he remains a divisive figure.
Frustrated fans at Old Trafford have taken to chanting “Attack, attack, attack!” in an effort to rouse their team, while there were calls for Van Gaal to be sacked on late-night radio phone-ins after Tuesday’s game.
Facing the media in Wolfsburg, the usually bullish Van Gaal, whose side were knocked out of the League Cup by second-tier Middlesbrough, admitted: “I cannot defend myself.”
But United’s hierarchy are believed to be fully behind the 64-year-old, with senior club sources briefing journalists earlier this week that they expect him to see out his contract, which expires in 2017.
Working in his favour is the fact that, although United’s football continues to exasperate, they are only three points behind Premier League leaders Leicester City and none of their title rivals have yet found form.
United’s next six league games are all against teams in the bottom half of the table, even if that list includes champions Chelsea, while they host third-tier Sheffield United in the FA Cup third round.
It should give Van Gaal a chance to get United back on an even keel, while January brings with it the possibility of adding reinforcements to a squad that is missing several senior players through injury.
But it is make-or-break for Van Gaal and with Carlo Ancelotti fluttering his eyelashes at the Premier League and Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich future unresolved, he cannot afford many more missteps.
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