Man United's injury crisis, confusion continues to hurt Louis van Gaal
Louis van Gaal was unable to provide an answer, although not by intention. On Thursday, after a week of worry about how long Daley Blind would be out for following his medial ligament injury with the Netherlands, the Manchester United manager prolonged that wait. He said they still wouldn't know until after another scan in 10 days' time. "It shall be a long story -- but not six months or something."
At the same time, the club's official Twitter account reported it could be close to six months. That was soon deleted, but the damage had been done. It was a moment of bizarre confusion to go with the concern. It was also oddly appropriate.
United are badly struggling with injuries, as well as how to explain the extent of them; they will quickly need some kind of clarity. The problems have hugely complicated their season, disrupting the preparation and cohesion of Van Gaal's new regime. With Blind definitely out of Saturday's trip to Arsenal, he becomes the 23rd United player to miss a match because of fitness this season, bringing their total number of injuries since Van Gaal took over to 39.
Sources state the manager is already minded to accelerate his pursuit of Roma's Kevin Strootman as a consequence, and will look to bring him in for January rather than the end of the season, along with a centre-half such as Aston Villa's Ron Vlaar.
For this weekend, the thinking is Van Gaal may have to put out a team as makeshift as the one Sir Alex Ferguson did in the famous FA Cup quarter-final between the two sides back in March 2011 -- except this time, it's not by choice. United creditably won that fixture 2-0 despite fielding a starting XI that featured seven defenders. However, they're now in real danger of another big-game defeat because of potentially 11 absentees. The lack of update about Blind was also tempered by the news that Radamel Falcao is out for another two weeks.
This is not the best way to get back on track, especially against a side whose top-four place they are supposed to be targeting. There are also other twists to this trip to the Emirates. According to Premier Injuries Ltd, Arsenal are the only club to have lost more days to injury since the start of the season, at 360, than United, who stand at 339.
It's been just a few weeks since Arsene Wenger's own injury crisis seemed to keep getting worse rather than better, bringing to a head much so much discussion about a long-standing criticism of the French manager. Then, ESPN FC reported that Arsenal were still looking into whether their recovery and training methods were an issue, and if more needed to change.
Now, the wonder is whether it is the same with Van Gaal. Are these 39 injuries just bad luck? Is there something deeper at play? Was this preventable? Is it really, as Van Gaal put it, "unbelievable"?
As with Arsenal, of course, the very question is hugely complicated. A lot can influence any one injury, from the number of minutes recently played, to the angle of contact. The manner of Marcos Rojo's injury against Manchester City emphasises that.
One thing becomes clear from talking to sources who work with players from both clubs. There certainly isn't the same level of questioning about recovery or training methods at United. Nowhere close. The issues at Arsenal have led to departing players privately complaining about intensity and how the return from any absence is handled, as well as making unfavourable comparisons with what is done at the national team level.
That is not happening at United. By contrast, the players are generally said to be hugely enthused by Van Gaal's methods -- in particular, his attention to detail. It is also a far cry from the frequent internal grumbles about David Moyes' endless endurance drills.
Mention of the former manager raises another issue. Unlike Arsenal, where 18 years of the same manager have made long-term patterns all too clear, the United squad are adjusting to a third regime in the space of a year-and-a-half. That ensures any problems are hugely difficult to pin-point; it's also difficult to tell what is an old issue and what us a new one. It was only in late September that Van Gaal's own regular man for physical conditioning, Jos van Dijk, took full control from Tony Strudwick.
Such disruptions do distort such things, regardless of the much-vaunted introduction of Toshiba machines to monitor fitness. It is conspicuous that Ferguson's own record of an injury every six days immediately fell to one every three under Moyes -- it has more or less stayed at that level ever since.
That is not all that has remained constant. There are also the individual poor injury records of Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. Falcao, meanwhile, has yet to undergo an extended period of appropriate conditioning work since recovering from January's cruciate injury.
It is possible that a handful of injury-prone players have exacerbated what is a one-off and extreme combination of coincidences. Man United squad-members have been specifically citing "just bad luck". A certain amount is undeniable.
Fitness coach Raymond Verheijen has been one of the few figures directly critical of Van Gaal and put blame on the double training sessions used during United's pre-season tour of the USA.
"When you look at the schedule of a game every three days, that is not ideal," Verheijen tells ESPN FC. "If you do not get rid of the fatigue between training sessions, you accumulate fatigue, and then the nervous system will become slower."
It was one of Van Gaal's own disciples, Pep Guardiola, who worked out that there are only a certain amount of injuries any team can suffer if they want to win a title. Now, an extreme amount could end up affecting United's ability to finish in the top four. The sole buffer is that Arsenal and Liverpool have had similar problems; it is enticing to think what this chase could have been had all teams stayed fresh.
It is still telling that, after 12 games, Van Gaal is counting more injuries than points. He needs to find that answer.
Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.