IF NOTHING else, for the sake of providing a regular distraction from the pressure of trying to attain a top-four Premier League finish, Manchester United could really do with beating Preston tonight in the FA Cup.
That league pressure was laid bare last week, when manager Louis van Gaal showed his short fuse by publicly taking issue with West Ham boss Sam Allardyce’s assertion that United were adopting long-ball tactics.
Van Gaal probably went too far in handing out statistics and diagrams, but the gauntlet had been thrown down and he wanted to nullify this debate. I don’t have a problem with that. United are so high-profile that this tag becomes a talking point for everyone and can start to become a distraction for players.
This was not about him and Big Sam; it was a case of trying to nip it in the bud. Besides, he was right: yes, they did go direct to get a point at West Ham, but they are not a team that usually uses long-ball tactics.
It showed that Van Gaal is susceptible to critics at the moment. Former United player Paul Scholes has been among them, and there are plenty of less qualified people to take a view from.
Scholes highlighted the importance of taking risks, and how United’s players seem scared to do so. For all of his strengths as a coach, that could be a downside of Van Gaal’s style.
They look to be playing by numbers. When a team ticks, coaches need only have very little input, but United have struggled for wins so much this term that they haven’t broken free of the shackles of negative coaching.
I’ll be interested to see how the picture looks in a month’s time, because as the season goes on the wins become more critical and the pressure rises further.
A team like United should be going to Preston to roll them over, though I suspect they may have to settle for winning a tight battle to continue their cup progress.
They’re big enough to cope with that and their league aims, and any victory just now can only help confidence.
Trevor Steven is a former England international who played at two World Cups and two European Championships. He now works as a media commentator.