Reports suggest that Louis van Gaal’s future as Manchester United head coach will be on the line when his side travel to Stoke City on Boxing Day (12:45pm live on Sky Sports).
Last weekend’s 2-1 loss at home to Norwich City consigned United to their third consecutive defeat. They have failed to win any of their last six matches in all competitions and have won just three of their last 13 in a period that has seen them suffer exits from the Capital One Cup and the Champions League in addition to falling out of the Premier League top four.
There are two differing viewpoints on expectations at United. Some would argue that they are still a side who are re-establishing themselves following their seventh-place finish two seasons ago and that their aim should simply be to maintain a top-four place. But others would say that having spent so heavily since Van Gaal’s arrival, they should have been expected to push on and offer a genuine title challenge this time around.
The latter seems unlikely given their current position and form, while the former is also far from a given. While it is only goal difference that currently separates them from Tottenham Hotspur in fourth, there is a slide in motion that Van Gaal needs to arrest as soon as possible. Other teams have improved, while United appear to have stagnated.
The Dutchman’s position has not been helped by the cautious and unstylish manner in which his side have played so far this season. United’s supporters are accustomed to a more open and attacking approach and many are growing frustrated at the lack of panache on display on Old Trafford. A results-based coach can justify himself when results are going well but it becomes much harder to do so once they begin to turn against him.
Those hoping for a more entertaining match this weekend will probably be disappointed because results to date suggest that it is highly likely to be a low-scoring encounter. There is only one team in the Premier League whose matches have averaged less goals per match than those featuring Man Utd so far this season and that is Stoke, their hosts on Boxing Day.
The Potters invested in some interesting forward options over the summer, including Switzerland international Xherdan Shaqiri and former Barcelona winger Ibrahim Afellay, but their arrivals have not yet coincided with an improvement in final third output. Stoke are currently the league’s joint lowest scorers, with just 14 goals in their 17 matches to date.
In fairness, there have been some signs in recent weeks that the new signings are starting to get on the wavelength of the incumbent forwards, most notably in the excellent 2-0 win at home to Manchester City in which Shaqiri assisted both goals for Marko Arnautovic. The underlying statistics also suggest that Stoke could reasonably have been expected to score more than their current total given the quality of the chances they have created to date.
However, given that those same statistics suggest that they have been fortunate to concede as few as the 16 goals they have let in so far, it would unlikely have made much difference to their league position. Stoke have finished ninth in each of the last two seasons but in light of the strong pre-Christmas form of Leicester City, Crystal Palace and Watford – three sides who finished below them last year – that may prove difficult to replicate this time around.
Three points on Saturday would clearly help Stoke’s cause but it is hard to see them achieving that given the struggles they’ve had in scoring against sides who are content to sit back and hit them on the break – the likes of Palace, Watford and West Bromwich Albion – so far this season. Man Utd can be expected to keep things tight in what is likely to be an even encounter low on goals.