United’s winless run now stands at seven matches thanks to their 2-0 defeat to Stoke on Boxing Day courtesy of goals from Bojan Krkic and Marko Arnautovic.
The victory margin may not have looked big on paper, but make no mistake – there was a large gulf in energy, composure, desire and skill between the two sides at the Britannia Stadium.
United hogged possession, but did little with it. There was no flair, no penetration nor a cutting edge about their play.
And even though most of the 2,557 United supporters who had made the trip down the M6 clapped the players off at the final whistle, Van Gaal did not seem to have much fight in him when he addressed the media shortly after.
The Dutchman had the support of the board in the build-up to the game in Staffordshire, but he acknowledged after the final whistle that there was a “new situation” now that he had overseen four straight defeats and also discussed the possibility of resigning. The United manager admitted it would be hard to lift his players for this evening’s home game against Chelsea – a match he desperately needs to win.
“When you lose four matches in a row it’s much more difficult,” Van Gaal said. “It’s like that. And the pressure of the environment shall increase, so it’s much more difficult and there are no artificial ways to solve that. We need a victory and that is very important.”
Van Gaal believes his players will fight for him at Old Trafford. When asked if he thought the players still believed in him, the 64-year-old said: “Until now, I can say ‘yes’.”
There was an admission from the United manager that his side had regressed since they momentarily topped the table with a 2-1 win at Watford last month.
“A month ago we were first in the Premier League but we lost important games and now we have to come back in more difficult situations than last year because last year everyone believed and there was progression, now there is a fallback and that is different and everybody is judging also different,” he said. “That is what is happening now and you have to cope with it.”
United’s freefall has been profound. They are now sixth in the table having won two league games in their last nine.
Even David Moyes had garnered more points at this stage of his sole season in charge of the club. In fact, should United fail to win today, they will end the year with their lowest points total in 26 years.
Midfielder Michael Carrick insists it would be wrong to think that the winless run shows the players are not fighting for the manager.
“I have a lot of pride in myself and in my performances and I think it is a bit disrespectful when people say that the lads aren’t trying for the manager,” the United vice-captain said.
“That hurts us a lot because that is not the type of people we are.
“We’re playing for this great club. It is a special club. It is pride in yourself, pride in the club and pride in everyone –your team-mates and staff.”
Carrick admitted the players’ pride had been dented by United’s longest run without a win since the 1989-90 season, and called on his team-mates to respond by beating Chelsea.
“It is a horrible run, and it is a horrible feeling. It hurts badly,” said the midfielder, who captained the side at Stoke as Wayne Rooney was dropped to the bench. “We’ve just got to try and turn it round on Monday. It is the only way.”