Manchester United need to bounce back from their disappointing early exit from the Champions League with victory away to Bournemouth on Saturday (17:30 GMT, live on Sky Sports).
Louis Van Gaal’s (pictured) side were knocked out at the group stage of the competition after giving up an early lead to fall to a 3-2 defeat away to Wolfsburg on Tuesday. PSV Eindhoven won at home to CSKA Moscow to pip United to second in the group and consign them to a place in the Europa League when European competition resumes come February.
The premature elimination has further amplified supporter unrest brought about by the cautious approach Man Utd have adopted so far this season. Van Gaal’s methods succeeded in returning the club to the Champions League with a top-four finish last season but are now starting to grate on supporters accustomed to a more expansive style of play.
In the Premier League, only matches featuring Stoke have seen less goals than the two-per-match average United’s fixtures have yielded, while matches involving United are the only ones to have averaged under 20 shots and under seven shots on target. Patrons of Old Trafford have already witnessed five 0-0 draws in all competitions so far this season.
Van Gaal’s side may currently be fourth in the league table, just two points behind surprise league-leaders Leicester and level on points with local rivals Manchester City, still the bookies’ title favourites, but given the money spent since the Dutchman’s arrival, it is perhaps fair for the club’s supporters to expect at least a little more entertainment along the way.
A results-driven style of play becomes very hard to justify once results begin to falter and United’s Champions League exit, along with their record of just three victories in their last 11 matches in all competitions, has rightfully increased the pressure on their head coach.
Van Gaal could point to a fairly extensive injury list as an excuse, but if he does so he is unlikely to get much sympathy from his opposite number on Saturday. Bournemouth coach Eddie Howe has had to confront the large majority of the early months of the club’s first-ever top-flight season without two mainstays from their promotion campaign and two players in whom they invested heavily over the summer in order to boost their hopes of survival.
Tyrone Mings was the first to fall, suffering a season-ending knee injury at home to Leicester in late August. Later in the same match, his fellow new arrival Max Gradel went down with a similar injury that will keep him out until March. An ankle injury sidelined defensive lynchpin Tommy Elphick in mid-September and then another serious knee injury brought Callum Wilson’s excellent start to his top-flight career to a crushing halt later that same month.
In the circumstances, it is of great credit to Howe and his remaining players that they are positioned just outside the relegation zone in 17th. This was always going to be a tough campaign for Bournemouth, even with a fully fit squad, so while a season-long battle against the drop looks likely, they can take at least some hope from their displays to date.
The Cherries are lacking that little extra bit of quality they need at both ends of the pitch but have nevertheless persevered with the bright and energetic football with which they romped to the Championship title last season. That they have taken more shots than they have conceded suggests they are at least doing something right.
Howe’s side ended an eight-match winless streak with an historic 1-0 win away to Chelsea last weekend and will fancy their chances of pulling off a similar upset on Saturday. United have, though, won four of their eight league away matches so far this season and while they cannot be relied upon to entertain, do possess sufficient quality to tip the balance in their favour in what is likely to be a well-contested encounter on the south coast.