In sport, as Jordan Spieth so recently demonstrated, nothing is certain. The unpredictability of outcome is what makes us go back time and again. It would therefore be foolish to suggest that Manchester United have absolutely no chance of reaching the semi-final of the FA Cup. So let’s just put it this way: only those anxious to be quickly separated from their cash should back them in this evening’s replay against West Ham. The truth is, United can rarely have gone into a game with so little hope.
Even among the 5,000 visiting United supporters heading to the Boleyn Ground there will be not be much expectation of anything other than defeat. West Ham are on a roll, re-energised by Slaven Bilic’s bold, adventurous management, driven by the excellence of their playmaker Dimitri Payet, with a centre-forward in Andy Carroll finally fit enough to give us a reminder of his soaring aerial prowess.
Encouraged by a noisy crowd relishing the instant nostalgia of the last knock-out game to be staged at the venerable old East End stadium, on paper they are so far ahead of their visitors frankly it seems irresponsible of the bookies to accept any money on United.
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That it should come to this is remarkable. Manchester United reckoned second class citizens in a game against West Ham would have seemed incomprehensible just three seasons ago. But times change. The United hoping not to get snarled up in the London traffic as they did ahead of the game against Tottenham on Sunday are not the United of the recent past.
In fact, choked, cowed, dull and unedifying, they are a hapless parody of what went before, recognisable as a United team solely by the colour of their shirts. And every single one of those 5,000 supporters will know exactly why that is. The reason can be condensed into three words: Louis van Gaal.
It seemed almost impossible in the early New Year that the Dutchman would still be in charge of United come April. Everything he was doing ran counter to the heritage and strength of the club. He had made a side once renowned for its attacking verve too nervous to cross the halfway line. His tactical approach of hoping to hold on for a draw ran absolutely counter to the club history of refusing to yield. He was presiding over the rapid destruction of decades of attacking tradition. Plus, he had just put together a miserable run of five successive defeats.
That he is still in place is extraordinary. Not that it came about because there has been any sort of change in his approach. He was rescued by happenstance, by injury in the early New Year to senior players obliging him to pick a couple of youngsters whose zest and verve he had not yet been able to eradicate. Injuries had prevented him from his rigid determination to pick two defensive midfielders whatever the circumstance and instead he was required to play Ander Herrera plus use the young hopeful Marcus Rashford. Results duly followed.
Though of course, being Louis van Gaal he was not inclined to allow the obvious to dictate his thinking. Having stumbled upon a system that worked, most of us would have stuck to it. But he is above such things. So, as soon as his midfielders returned to fitness he returned to the blanket defence-first hold and hope.

Martin Demichelis and Marcus Rashford

Image credit: Reuters

He obliged Rashford, a player with a predator’s instinct who anyone with half a brain can see should be trusted to play at the front, to play out of position, tracking back. Worse, having effectively drained him of enthusiasm, he dressed him down in front of the other players after an ineffective performance, thus further compromising his confidence. So, by last Sunday and the wretched performance at Tottenham, he had effectively rid the team of all the uplift they had received from that run of wins in January.
This is what Van Gaal does. As a coach he subscribes to the view that everything can be planned beforehand. He cannot bear the idea that a player might jeopardise things by acting on his own intuition, so sends his team out on to the field with a rigid set of plans. And ostracises them when they do not adhere to them.
On the training ground, he bores his players with endless repetitive drills instead of allowing them to express themselves. On the pitch, you can see it in his insistence on complex, over-worked short corners or that stupid free-kick routine which required the construction of a wall of attacking players who merely ended up getting in the way of the kick; he thinks he knows better than them.
Worse, he is a confidence hoover. Quite how a player of Angel Di Maria’s ability was reduced to tame inertia under his tutelage seems incredible. Until you discover that in training he relentlessly undermined the Argentine’s spirit by his remorseless insistence that he do what he is told rather than what comes naturally.

West Ham v United: Van Gaal's future in balance

A team with players of the pace and ability of Rashford, Antony Martial and Jesse Lingard, plus the intelligence and guile of Juan Mata should not be playing as if their boots are filled with lead. Imagine what that quartet might deliver if they were controlled by a coach who trusted their instincts and gave them the space to express themselves. Imagine how Mauricio Pochettino might improve them as he has Dele Alli, Harry Kane and Eric Dier.
Which makes you wonder what precisely Van Gaal believes he is doing at United. Clearly he thinks he should be there next season, he is already planning summer tours and transfer targets. But what does he hope to achieve? Why is he undermining his own chances of longevity by deliberately contriving performances that run counter to the club’s sense of itself?
In sport, the unexpected does happen. United might, despite all the weight of assumption, scrape a result against a far better balanced, better prepared, better coached West Ham tonight. But the fact is as long as Van Gaal remains in charge, the occasional scraping of results against superior opposition will be the most any United follower can anticipate.
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