The fact that it was the Manchester United goalkeeper, David de Gea, who took the man-of-the-match award following his side's narrow 0-1 Premier League victory away against Liverpool yesterday afternoon reveals much about the nature of the result.
This was a fixture that United were extremely fortunate not to lose, let alone take three points from, and while one might defend Van Gaal by invoking the cliché about how playing poorly and winning is the hallmark of champions, the reality is that United have underperformed all season and sit seven points off the top of the Premier League, two points behind fourth-place Tottenham Hotspur, and have long since been eliminated from a straightforward Champions League group.The Guardian's Andy Hunter labelled United's victory a "smash and grab" job and the stats make it difficult to dispute the accuracy of his description.
Liverpool enjoyed more possession than their opponents (53:47), they had 19 shots to United's seven, forced De Gea into making four outstanding saves, made 11 clearances compared to United's 32, committed six fouls compared to United's 18, and recorded 16 crosses compared to United's 10. Most revealingly, Wayne Rooney's 78th minute winner was the only shot that United managed on Simon Mignolet's goal and Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was entirely justified in reflecting that it was a match his team should never have lost."I didn't see too many chances for Manchester United and we didn't take ours", Klopp said. "Of course it is frustrating. We lost a game that we should not have lost." It is extremely rare for a team in any sport to be so comprehensively outperformed as United were at Anfield and win, and were it not for the presence of De Gea in the Manchester United goal, it seems safe to suggest that Van Gaal's team would have returned to Manchester empty-handed.
The Dutchman, a veteran of 25 years of senior-level football management, surely knows better than anybody else that United cannot continue playing as poorly as they did at Anfield if they are contend for the Premier League title. This circumstance makes it all the more difficult to fathom why he boasted about how yesterday's triumph has fired United back into the league title race."To beat Liverpool is always important," Van Gaal said. "It was important because our competitors have lost points. We are seven points behind now. We have a lot of matches still to go. We started 2016 very good with a lot of wins – this game will give a big boost to the players and the fans and the environment of Manchester United."
Even if United blew Liverpool away with Barcelona-type football, these comments would seem optimistic.
The "very good" start to 2016 Van Gaal references is composed of two turgid, one goal victories against Swansea and Sheffield United at home prior to yesterday's smash and grab on Merseyside, and it is testament to the extent of the Old Trafford club's struggles that the Liverpool win was only United's sixth in their last 19 matches in all competitions.This is the club's worst run of form in a quarter-century, and if there was ever a time for Van Gaal to consolidate and play-down media expectations, it was surely after yesterday's victory. Four teams block United's path back to the top of the table and they have still to play Tottenham, Manchester City, West Ham and Chelsea away as well as Arsenal and Leicester at home before the season is out.
On current form, would one struggle to justify backing Van Gaal's team to win any of those fixtures and the manager's comments yesterday have only increased pressure on a Manchester United team already struggling under an enormous weight of expectation.
[Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images]