Lack of urgency lets down Louis van Gaal in Old Trafford bow
Louis van Gaal, still 8/1 to lead Manchester United to the Premier League title, remained cautious and grounded throughout Manchester United’s sensational pre-season form. Whilst fans were whipped into a frenzy by the Dutchman’s aura and swashbuckling system, with tantalising triumphs against the likes of Real Madrid and Liverpool the cherry on the cake, the former Clockwork Orange coach sought to temper expectations.
Van Gaal even chose to remind the Red Devils of his notoriously slow league starts, but surely not even he could have expected the damp squib that was to be his Premier League debut in the Old Trafford dugout.
Amidst all the fanfare, and later recriminations, ex-Swansea skipper Garry Monk’s first outing as a coach was slightly overshadowed, but the former defender had his side drilled to perfection.
Patient and comfortable, the Swans waited for the chances they knew would come against an inexperienced United backline, but barely had to break a sweat in their own half against an impotent attack. This result is unlikely to herald a new dawn at the Liberty Stadium, but the Welsh club took their opportunities with aplomb, and have surely eased the worries of travelling fans.
The Swans were swift, slick and decisive; in short, everything the Red Devils were not. Despite opening scorer Ki Sung-yueng’s heroics, pouncing to strike home from the edge of the area, it was United players who constructed their own downfall, rather than any true brilliance from the Welsh club.
It was a feeling of deja vu for the Old Trafford faithful; different coach and new formation, but same old lacklustre displays.
Whilst Van Gaal’s transfer radar seems to be locked onto additions in central defence, with Marcos Rojo odds-on at 1/5 to arrive before the transfer window closes, there is a worrying lack of action regarding other gaping holes in the squad.
Midfield proved to be the Red Devils’ achilles heel for the umpteenth time in many a season, but after acquiring Ander Herrera for £29m, it seems United have once again buried their heads in the sand regarding the long-running joke that is their baffling transfer blind spot.
Herrera had a quiet Premier League debut, although he did stand up fantastically to Swansea’s opening rough and tumble welcome, but the not-so dynamic pairing of the Basque and Darren Fletcher left Swansea with acres of space to exploit.
This lead to the Swans’ smooth opening goal, with the Red Devils’ defence left cruelly exposed. Only Tyler Blackett, making his first ever first-team appearance for United, acquitted himself well in United’s backline, illustrating an impressive range of passing.
Despite Van Gaal’s famed ability for converting players to new positions ala Bastian Schweinsteiger, United looked very much a case of square pegs in round holes. The need for specialist wing backs was particularly evident, with exciting, attacking talent Adnan Januzaj forced to briefly operate in the role following injury to Jesse Lingard, who was already deployed out of position.
Ashley Young, meanwhile, showed worrying signs that his pre-season form was a mere flash in the pan, with normal service resumed.
The Englishman was dragged out of position on several occasions, and tormented by the likes of Nathan Dyer and Gylfi Sigurdsson. Perhaps that is harsh considering his poor positioning for the second goal was born out of the fact he is a winger and not a defender, but his attacking output also fell flat.
Fans can point to injuries to a number of first-teamers who would likely have started, including Michael Carrick, Jonny Evans, Rafael, Luke Shaw, Valencia, Robin van Persie and Danny Welbeck. Most squads would suffer with seven key players on the sidelines, but United should still have had enough left in the tank to threaten Swansea believably.
One positive for United fans was that Van Gaal showed he is more than willing to scrap an idea if it is not bearing fruit, with his 3-4-1-2 formation ditched emphatically for the second half. The new tactic had underwhelmed, but patience is needed in this environment of instant gratification.
However, considering it appears Van Gaal has selected the system to shoehorn Juan Mata, who was so anonymous he barely warrants a mention, and Wayne Rooney into their best positions, they will have to show much more than they did in this drab and dispiriting opener.
A switch to a back four resulted in a brief renaissance, as new skipper Rooney finally came to life, netting his first goal of the season with a close-range bicycle kick.
Suddenly the stage seemed set for a famous Red Devils comeback, but fans were quickly reminded that this is not the United of old, as Sigurdsson slotted home to seal a famous victory for the Swans.
After the sucker-punch of the Iceland star’s goal, Van Gaal’s side looked bereft of ideas and with their confidence sapped, and showed little urgency to equalise.
A poor performance from Javier Hernandez, who was incredibly isolated, will not improve his transfer prospects, but United should be more concerned about incoming additions. The Manchester club are now 4/1 and 6/1 to reinforce their squad with the blockbuster signings of Angel Di Maria and Mats Hummels respectively, but existing players will also have to prove their worth.