MANCHESTER — “Louis Van Gaal‘s Red Army!”
That was the song once again heard from the Stretford End at Old Trafford as Manchester United beat Arsenal 3-2 on Sunday in a hugely entertaining contest which papered over the obvious flaws the Red Devils possess.
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Van Gaal fielded a hugely inexperienced team as injuries continue to ravage his squad. This week alone he’s dished out five debuts with youngsters James Weir and Tim Fosu-Mensah making their bow off the bench and Marcus Rashford marking his Premier League debut with two first half goals.
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Rashford, 18, now has four goals in his first two appearances for United (he scored twice on his full debut against FC Midtjylland in the Europa League on Thursday) and stole the show.
With United leading late on in the second half but Arsenal pushing hard for an equalizer, a bizarre moment occurred which will be talked about for years. Van Gaal raced down to the sidelines and threw himself onto the floor, clipboard and all, as he remonstrated with the officials and complained that Arsenal’s players were taking a tumble.
Speaking to reporters after the game, Van Gaal explained his uncharacteristic, over-zealous reaction.
“That was too emotional because at that time you a little bit too emotional because it is not good for the referee, the linesman, the fourth referee. I was emotional,” Van Gaal said. “It happens not too much. Normally I am sitting on my bench and I have a lot of criticism because I am sitting on my bench. I have apologised to the referee and the linesman. I have to control my emotions.”
Van Gaal’s flop aside, the Dutchman was delighted with his team’s fighting spirit as he singled out his central midfielders for praise as they halted Arsenal’s attacking flow and gave the injury-hit side a platform to build from.
“Arsenal is one of the best teams in the Premier League with creative players,” Van Gaal said. “You cannot see too many chances for them and when they score it was errors of ourselves but most of all the fighting spirit of the team to bring this result to the end and you could see was seen also by the fans and it was great to be in Old Trafford again for all the fans and also all the players.”
He was reluctant to heap too much praise on Rashford but did say the teenager was “fantastic” and that “his performance was better than the first match.”
With speculation mounting over Van Gaal’s future as rumors linking Jose Mourinho to the United job (something Van Gaal called “an absolute scandal” this week) continue, his side managed to grind out a win that sees them move to within three points of the top four even though near neighbors and fourth-placed Man City have a game in hand.
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Top four hopes aside, to pull off this win despite having youngsters slotting in left, right and center, Van Gaal deserves credit. As he points out, he’s been here before with Ajax and Bayern Munich.
“It is the culture of Manchester United and that is why they take me as a manager,” Van Gaal said. “It is of course crazy all the injuries we have, today 12 injured players so now it is a little bit overdone, I think but you see youngsters give always spirit to the team. I have a lot of experience with that and that is also a very important aspect of my philosophy.”
ProSoccerTalk asked Van Gaal about Memphis, who again shone and was a constant threat for Arsenal’s defense. Despite not producing the goods in the final third like he did in midweek in the Europa League, Van Gaal praised the Dutch winger for his resilience.
“I think he played a better match against Midtjylland because then he made better decisions and he was playing for the team but he shows also the team spirit,” Van Gaal said. “I was very pleased with him. He played his best match for Manchester United, I think.”
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As for Wenger, he refused to totally dismiss hopes of winning the title as the Gunners sit five points behind leaders Leicester with 11 games to go but said “the answer will have to come quick and strong” if they’re going to stay in the hunt.
So, are Arsenal’s title hopes over?
“Nobody knows,” Wenger admitted. “We dropped three important points and we have to show we can fight and bounce back on Wednesday night and not feel sorry for ourselves.”
Wenger was hard pressed to explain exactly what happened to his title-chasing team, but he seemed to agree with Van Gaal when stating the Gunners had lost the battle in midfield.
“I think they defended well. Every time we got in the flow they stopped us with little free kicks in the middle of the park,” Wenger said. “On set pieces I expected us to do more. We were not dangerous enough.”
The Arsenal boss was asked if this ranked as one of his toughest defeats to Manchester United, given their lack of experienced and fit players. He was having none of it but did give glowing praise to match-winner Rashford.
“Let’s not go overboard. They had still a few millions on the pitch from De Gea to the midfield. They spent a lot on Depay, he is not a player from the academy,” Wenger snarled. “The player who was surprising for me talent wise was Rashford, the timing and intelligence of his movement was great. He could be a very positive surprise for Manchester United.”
What was Wenger’s view of Van Gaal’s theatrics as he stood just a few steps away from the Dutchman when he decided to throw himself to the floor?
“Nothing,” Wenger smiled. “Look, you will have to ask him the question. I don’t want to comment because you will say I am a bitter loser. I am in fact.”