Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal asked to be judged three months into his role at Old Trafford and West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns is a game he will be expected to win if the Dutchman has any real designs on a top four finish.
Despite sitting just two points off fourth spot, van Gaal has overseen just three competitive victories during his time at Old Trafford, all coming at the Theatre of Dreams. Captain Wayne Rooney is still suspended after his red card against West Ham United and so Juan Mata is expected to deputise in his absence.
Ander Herrera, who has been suffering with a cracked rib, Chris Smalling, Michael Carrick, Phil Jones and Ashley Young all have a chance of featuring should they prove their match fitness to van Gaal. Victory at the Hawthorns would be United’s first away from home this season, having failed to win at Sunderland, MK Dons, Burnley and Leicester City.
Although the bookmakers expect United to win comfortably, the Hawthorns is far from an easy destination. Alan Irvine’s side have only lost one of their five home fixtures this campaign. Most recently they defeated newly-promoted Burnley 4-0. West Brom forward Saido Berahino, who burst onto the scene last season, has scored more goals this season than all of his teammates combined. Furthermore, West Brom have only managed to keep one clean sheet this season and Irvine knows his defenders have to be on their best form if they are to keep strikers like Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie quiet. United have only failed to score in one league match this season – the 0-0 away draw at Burnley. West Brom captain Chris Brunt is expected to be fit to face United despite injuring his groin representing Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, forward Victor Anichebe is likely to miss out due to a hernia problem.
Although West Brom boast a decent home record, recent Monday night history favours United in this clash. The Baggies have only been victorious in two of their previous 18 Premier League fixtures on that day. Furthermore, United have never been defeated at Hawthorns in the Premier League.
Van Gaal’s three-month report card has seen some extreme reviews. While some claim his relatively easy start to the season should have yielded a far better Premier League position than sixth, numerous injuries combined with inexperienced players having to learn a new system – or philosophy as the Dutchman calls it – has led many to claim van Gaal has done as good as he can.
Now is where the talking stops and van Gaal’s side – after the three months judgment period he asked for – will be expected to start putting games to bed in the clinical fashion they seem to be starting them. However, with three wins in four games, United have crept up the table. Victory at the Hawthorns will only give the players more confidence as they head into consecutive matches against Chelsea and Manchester City – the two sides expected to battle it out come the end of the season.
Commentary By Robert Shepherd