Explaining his team’s latest humiliating loss, Louis van Gaal used an adage to sum up the beleaguered state of Manchester United.
”It is the law of Murphy, I think,” the bewildered Van Gaal said, recalling a saying that means anything that could go wrong, is going wrong.
A great footballing institution is crumbling before his eyes. And Van Gaal, one of Europe’s most celebrated and experienced coaches, is at a loss as to how to fix it.
A 2-1 defeat at little-known FC Midtjylland in front of fewer than 12,000 fans in the Europa League on Thursday was perhaps the low point in Van Gaal’s turbulent 20-month tenure at Old Trafford. It sparked vitriolic abuse from a section of travelling United supporters and apologies from United’s players.
Local paper Manchester Evening News decided to bare its teeth, taking the bold step of calling for Van Gaal to be fired on its back page on Friday.
”We have no excuses,” United midfielder Michael Carrick said in a typically honest assessment.
Van Gaal didn’t quite agree.
At the heart of the Dutchman’s angst was an injury list that now contains 14 players after goalkeeper David de Gea hurt his knee in the pre-match warm-up in Denmark. On paper, a team made up of injured players – including De Gea, Wayne Rooney, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo and Matteo Darmian – appears stronger than the best team available to Van Gaal.
But Van Gaal still put out a starting XI packed with experienced internationals from Spain, France, the Netherlands, England and Argentina. And it folded in the second half, with Van Gaal acknowledging his side was outfought and outhustled.
Add FC Midtjylland – a team formed as recently as 1999 and with 8,000 followers on Twitter compared to United’s 7 million – to the list of so-called minnows to have conquered United this season. It also includes Bournemouth, Norwich and Stoke in the Premier League.
Next up for Van Gaal’s sorry bunch is a trip to central English market town Shrewsbury where the third-tier team looks to pile on the misery for United in the FA Cup fifth round on Monday. Then comes the last-32 second leg against FC Midtjylland in the Europa League on Thursday before a Premier League match against Arsenal on Sunday.
It is shaping up to be a make-or-break six days for Van Gaal and his depleted team. Get eliminated from the Europa League and then lose to Arsenal, and United’s chances of qualifying for the Champions League look bleak. United is currently fifth in the Premier League, six points off the top four with 12 games left.
The club fired David Moyes in 2014 when it became clear that qualifying for the Champions League was beyond the team, and the same fate could yet befall Van Gaal.
The damning statistics are piling up for Van Gaal. Between October and December, there was the run of five 0-0 draws in nine games that highlighted the anaemic nature of United’s attacking play under Van Gaal. Currently, United has the fewest points (41) and fewest number of goals (33) than ever before at this stage of a Premier League season.
Exiting the Champions League and the Europa League at the first hurdle in the same season would add fresh embarrassment for Van Gaal, who has spent $375 million over the past 20 months to mould his squad.
On Friday, Nick Powell – a midfielder on loan from United at second-tier Hull – said he ”completely forgot” to watch the tie against FC Midtjylland. He was playing a soccer game on his computer instead.
It is hard to imagine a player saying this if Alex Ferguson was still in charge.