By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 17, 2015) US Soccer Players – If you want to make things difficult for any coach, put them in a situation where they have to say nice things about an over matched opponent that they’ve had trouble beating. There are a few ways to go. The insincerest form of flattery perhaps. Maybe an appeal to history that has nothing to do with the current version of the team. Or focus on your own club in a way that moves the opposition to not much more than a footnote.
That’s what Manchester United manager Luis van Gaal did following his club’s 3-1 comeback win over Preston North End in the FA Cup on Monday. Who can blame him?
“I was reasonably satisfied with the first half,” van Gaal said. “We didn’t give anything away and it’s always difficult in such games especially with the long balls and the fights between the central defenders and Kevin Davies. It’s always difficult but we only gave away one chance, I believe, in the first half. Then, in the second half, their goal was a little bit unlucky because it deflected but, after then, we showed an unbelievable team spirit again. We changed the shape and that was the solution.”
There’s no way to really win in these situations for the better team. Even calling the team with more resources, higher-rated players, and greater expectations “better” carries with it a set of preconceptions. It’s a setup, with the public eager for the only good story. The big team gets thumped by the underdogs and we get another FA Cup giant killing. Except that’s not the full story, especially with a super club in trouble like Manchester United.
Luis van Gaal deserves credit for putting the FA Cup in clear focus. United should show interest in lifting a trophy that gets them back into Europe. That takes none of the pressure off of the rest of the Premier League season. Instead, it adds additional games with United working to get into the only European competition that matters.
Nobody at Manchester United has to say ‘Champions League or nothing.” It’s the working implication since David Moyes lost the manager’s job late last season. It’s also obvious for any club in Manchester United’s category. None of them spends what they spend to delight away crowds in the domestic league, cups, or the Europa League. The point for them is the Champions League.
That creates the kind of tension with the domestic cup competitions that sees the elite clubs not exactly sobbing on their way out. It also creates an optional route for those that could get something out of a domestic cup while their season slips away.
Aston Villa continue to start their backup goalkeeper and rotate their squad in the Fifth Round of the FA Cup while trying to get out of the relegation zone in the Premier League. That’s not even surprising, once again putting the focus on the obvious. One goal is more important than the other, and there’s no pretending otherwise.
What that means for Manchester United is an interesting Sixth Round (aka quarterfinal) against Arsenal. That’s not a draw that anybody wanted. In this era of the FA Cup, there’s no expectation of even first choice in the Sixth Round. Save it for a Wembley game in the semifinals or final, when the competition itself could use the increased focus. Instead, it’s another coaching scenario. Do van Gaal and Arsene Wenger have a go at each other in the quarterfinals? Does a full strength United losing to a not as full strength Arsenal tell us all we need to know about van Gaal’s United? Is there even any winning for United with Wenger and Arsenal needing to focus on the Champions League?
This is supposed to be a transitional season for Manchester United. Every new player joining the club did so knowing they would miss a season of European soccer. There’s no alternative here for United other than to finish the season in a Champions League place. Adding to that pressure by applying any focus or first team energy to the FA Cup is an interesting choice. United under van Gaal seem to have made it, with Arsenal an unlikely obstacle but nothing more than that. It also might be the biggest statement van Gaal makes in his first season in charge.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
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