Man Utd 'dismal' as Cambridge defy odds to earn FA Cup draw
Louis van Gaal demonstrated a colourful command of the English language this week to illustrate just how nervous some of Manchester United's performances this season have made him feel - and it was very unlikely he was sitting comfortably in Cambridge.
On a freezing, rain-soaked night that provided trademark conditions for an FA Cup shock, a dismal United allowed League Two side Cambridge United to deservedly bridge a 76-place gap between the clubs to earn a fourth-round replay at Old Trafford.
And such was the bankruptcy of United's performance that Van Gaal was left in the undignified position of making excuses for the failure of a superpower lying fourth in the Premier League to see off a team lying 12th in the fourth tier of English football.
If Van Gaal admitted they were "twitching our ass" during some games, there was nothing here that would calm his concerns about United's current condition.
Man Utd predictable, ponderous and pedestrian
The chatter about formations that surrounds much of Van Gaal and United's work this season is acting as a figleaf to disguise a more uncomplicated truth about the way their season is unfolding.
As in recent games such as away to Yeovil Town in the FA Cup third round, the home defeat by Southampton and the win at QPR, United's play has been so laboured as to stand on the verge of slow motion.
This was never more evident than in the first half at The Abbey Stadium. Predictable, ponderous and without imagination, Cambridge United looked the livelier side and any potential threat United did pose was produced at such a pedestrian tempo it was easily snuffed out.
Radamel Falcao's search for goals has been highlighted but he was not at fault here. United's failure to even get in position to deliver the final ball, let alone deliver the final ball, gave him little chance apart from one second-half opportunity.
The concern is that this was a United side costing £183m, containing £59.7m British record buy Angel Di Maria, Falcao and the great hope Adnan Januzaj, who is currently suffering a fallow period. Even the introduction of £83m worth of substitutes in the shape of Robin van Persie, Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw could not make the difference.
United had 75.2% of possession - 78.8% in the second half - and yet it seemed they were only able to exert their superiority and pose a threat when fatigue set in for Cambridge. United played 587 passes to Cambridge's 192 but could not make it count.
When the season started, with the acquisition of the likes of Di Maria and Falcao, it looked like Van Gaal was front-loading his side with goals to compensate for an uncertain defence in pursuit of a top-four place.
This led to plenty of excitement in the opening months but momentum has been lost recently. United have won only three of their last eight games, including that victory at Yeovil, scoring just nine goals.
The influence of Wayne Rooney, rested on Friday, was sorely missed. He would have relished the sleeves-up battle.
When United enjoyed their successes, pace was a key ingredient of their recipe. Where is it now?
Is Van Gaal getting an easy ride?
United may be in fourth place in the Premier League and overwhelming favourites to reach the FA Cup fifth round, but there is no doubt the great Van Gaal revolution that was the hope when he replaced sacked David Moyes has shown signs of stalling.
And while Van Gaal's honesty has rightly endeared him to many, he did not cover himself in glory with a succession of lame excuses after United were held to a goalless draw by Cambridge.
Pointing out flaws in the pitch is an old one in FA Cup combat but it was more Van Gaal's unexplained grievance (he declined the offer to explain) about referee Chris Foy that carried the whiff of desperation.
No-one could recall any serious injustice to United and yet Van Gaal announced "everything is against us" without actually producing a shred of evidence to support his claim.
Make no mistake, had Moyes used similar deflection tactics he would have been criticised so Van Gaal can expect no different - in fact even less so given the money he has been allowed to lavish on his restructured team.
And had Moyes deputed Phil Jones to take United's corners he could have expected a bucket of caustic soda to be emptied over his head, so why is Van Gaal overseeing this piece of misplaced innovation?
Surely United have better set-piece operators than a defender who showed few of his supposed strengths in an undistinguished display, let alone a hitherto undetected (and so far unfulfilled) talent as a set-piece expert?
It did not sit well to hear the manager of Manchester United clutching at straws for failing to beat a team that only returned to the Football League this season.
Cambridge bridge the gap
This carried all the classic ingredients that still makes the FA Cup special - a Premier League giant facing the minnows under lights in grisly weather conditions with potential for an upset.
And Cambridge United made a nonsense of their lowly status to fulfil their part of the bargain and give the city known around the world for its university a night when it could take pride in its football team.
Head coach Richard Money revealed he had told his players: "Look at that Manchester United shirt. Look at that badge - and then stick your chests out and go out and play."
And play they did. Two different footballing and financial worlds coming together.
Cambridge's players were even warned they would be forking out £39.99 for a new shirt at the club shop if they fancied a spot of souvenir swapping with the likes of Van Persie or Di Maria.
In the event they were all wearing their sweat and rain-soaked Cambridge shirts amid wild celebrations at the final whistle, deserving all the acclaim.
Coach Money also deserves credit. Cambridge were superbly organised and motivated. He identified United's defensive weakness and made no secret of his plan to exploit it, with seven players sent into the six-yard box for corners, creating a confusion that almost brought a first-half goal for Josh Coulson.
Before tired legs took their toll, Cambridge matched United stride for stride - and then dug in through some nervous closing moments when the likes of heroic keeper Chris Dunn and defenders Coulson and Michael Nelson manned the barricades.
They will have their day again in the replay at Old Trafford and may need to dig even deeper. They and the fans who gave them such unswerving backing deserve to savour every moment.
|Cambridge United v Manchester United|
|Cambridge United||Manchester United|
|Honours||Division Three (1991), Division Four (1977), Division Four play-off winners (1990), Conference play-off winners (2014), FA Trophy (2014), best football food in 1998.||Three European Cups, 20 English titles, 11 FA Cups, four League Cups, among others|
|Wage bill||About £1m||About £200m|
|Most expensive season ticket||£450||£900|
Minnows in the money
Richard Money's tongue may have only been partially in his cheek when he claimed Cambridge chairman Dave Doggett would have been unhappy had they deprived themselves of that trip to Old Trafford by scoring a late winner.
Manchester United - according to the Deloitte list published this week - are the second richest club in the world with a revenue of £433.2m in 2013/14. Cambridge, in contrast, have a turnover of £1.6m and have flirted with extinction in the last decade.
Money admitted the financial difference the replay at Old Trafford would make is "mind blowing." The game may be worth up to £1.7m, more than Cambridge's annual budget on top of the reported £500,000 already raked in from this first game.
A small part of Cambridge will decamp to Old Trafford on 3 February and, with the possibility of a crowd in excess of 70,000, this well-deserved draw has played its part in further securing Cambridge's financial future.
United's annual wage bill is in excess of £200m - Falcao earns £265,000-a-week as part of his loan deal from Monaco - while Cambridge's outlay is £1.1m.
To watch Cambridge's players throwing themselves behind goalkeeper Dunn when it looked like Di Maria might snatch a late goal was proof that the FA Cup meant more than money to these players - but there will have been plenty of smiling faces in the boardroom at The Abbey Stadium.