If Louis van Gaal’s start at Manchester United has been anything but auspicious then few will blame the veteran Dutchman for seeking a little help from above. Requests of the Divine are common in football, of course, although it is to a far more potent force that United turned this week: money. Ángel Di Maria’s calling may not have been Old Trafford until recent days, but the £59.7 million that United paid for the Argentinian proved to be an intervention to break weeks of negotiation deadlock. Signed for a British record fee, it is no exaggeration to assume Di Maria will be pinned as United’s saviour from the off.
The 26-year-old Argentine brushed off suggestions that United’s extravagant outlay places the new acquisition under increased pressure. Yet, the fee eclipses the total Saturday’s opponent Burnley has spent in the 132-year history of the club. One of England’s oldest at that. Such is the polarisation of income in the Premier League.
The Reds’ vast revenue and newly unrestricted wallet should push Van Gaal’s side back towards domestic ascendancy in the years to come. For the time being Van Gaal has just a single draw to show for three dismal performances from his team this season. Defeat to Swansea City on the Premier League’s opening day was concerning and the draw at Sunderland unfortunate, but nothing in recent memory is quite as desperate as United’s 4-0 hammering at Milton Keynes Dons last Tuesday. Fringe players and youth dominated Van Gaal’s selection, but this was a still side containing seven full internationals. Van Gaal expressed no surprise, but it shocked supporters that the Reds embarrassment of riches was so easily humiliated by the decade-old third division side.
Di Maria cannot fix all the ills so vividly demonstrated at stadium:mk but the hugely expensive import will certainly add guile, pace and penetration in the final third. These are three qualities that the Reds have seemingly lacked this season despite the attacking talents available to United’s new coach.
More than £120 million has been spent by United in the transfer window to date, although Van Gaal’s squad remains absent a tough-tackling midfielder and experienced central defender. These are weaknesses that United may fix with yet more spending before the transfer window shuts on Monday night. Then, says the Dutchman, United’s resurrection is a factor of time and his own talents.
“We have to look at the future. We are doing that now with Manchester United by restoring and rebuilding a new team. That takes time,” said Van Gaal on Friday.
“I am sorry to say that for the fans because they are amazing, in my opinion. We were at MK Dons and lost 4-0 and they were singing and supporting the players. I think it is fantastic that we have such fans. I hope we shall fulfil their expectations but it is not done in one month, in spite of our wins against Real Madrid or Liverpool. Of course, we have to win and give results. Hopefully we will start on Saturday at Burnley.”
Di Maria is almost certain to start after the veteran coach declared his new acquisition “ready to play” this weekend. Whether Van Gaal includes the record signing alongside Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Juan Mata – or drops one of his star men – will be one of the talking points of the weekend. The pedestrian nature of United’s performances, especially against Swansea and Sunderland, suggests the Dutchman’s team will benefit greatly from the injection of Di Maria’s dynamic talent.
“He has impressed me,” Van Gaal told MUTV on Friday. “The first training session was with all the boys and he was very impressive. The second was a little bit less so but he has to adapt to the culture and the players with whom he shall play. It is the other way around also: the United players have to adapt to his way of playing.
“He has a lot of hunger to play because he wants to support Manchester United. He said it in the press conference. He is a very modest guy. He wants to work for the team. He is ready to play..”
The Argentinian’s countryman Marcos Rojo misses out having failed to secure a work permit in time for the visit to Turf Moor. Shinji Kagawa may have played his last game for United after suffering a concussion at MK Dons, with former club Borussia Dortmund reportedly willing to pay £8 million for the Japanese international. Meanwhile, Chris Smalling, Luke Shaw, Rafael da Silva, Marouane Fellaini, Michael Carrick, Jesse Lingard and Ander Herrera miss the game through injury.
Injury problems in midfield and defence leave Van Gaal with few options in the Dutchman’s preferred 3-4-1-2 system. While Jonny Evans suffered a difficult match at MK Dons, Van Gaal may be loath to once again expose the inexperienced Tyler Blackett and Michael Keane in an unfamiliar back three. Shortages in midfield mean that either Phil Jones or Adnan Januzaj could line up alongside two of Darren Fletcher, Di Maria or Juan Mata in central areas.
Either way United will need to be both more penetrative in attack and secure in defence at Turf Moor. In both Van Gaal demands greater care in possession and more accuracy in front of goal from his new squad.
“I hope we can build up more carefully than the last matches because we created a lot of chances in the last match against MK Dons, but we had problems in building-up situations,” said the Dutchman. “We also lost the ball in the first phase of our building-up and then we gave the ball away. They had six chances and scored four goals. We had 11 chances and zero goals.”
Meanwhile, Burnley manage Sean Dyche boasts a fully fit squad aside from the injured Sam Vokes. The 43-year-old is tasked with keeping Burnley up despite the Lancashire side boasting the smallest budget in the Premier League. Indeed, Burnley’s transfer and wage bill was eclipsed by many in the Championship last season.
Like United Burnley has suffered a difficult start to the new campaign, losing to Chelsea and Swansea in the Premier League and then being dumped out of the Capital One Cup at home to Sheffield Wednesday on Tuesday night. Still, the most recent fixture at Turf Moor between the sides was decided in Burnley’s favour by a single Robbie Blake goal.
Neither does United’s form present an obvious away victory, although it is hard for Van Gaal’s side to countenance anything else on Saturday lunchtime. Lose or draw and the Dutchman will suffer yet more lurid headlines and further tales of United’s burning empire.
“There’s a bit of ‘hoo-ha’ about Manchester United at the moment,” said Dyche.
“I don’t look at that, I look at the players they’ve got, the manager they’ve got, the club they are. I don’t think you start looking at them for any other reason other than they’re a fantastic club, a very good group of players and a renowned manager. We’re not naive enough to think that there’s any other reason, they’ll come here to play hard and try to get a result, and of course we’ll do that as well.
“Whether they are under pressure or not, it will only be shown when the whistle blows. That’s when two teams come together and ours will be ready, organised and certainly fit enough, we know that. We have to look at ourselves and not get involved in what is going on at Manchester United.”
Van Gaal, by contrast, is consumed by United’s fate, although the Dutchman lacks little in self-confidence.
For United supporters, meanwhile, almost £60 million spent on Di Maria this week is heaven-sent.
Burnley (4-4-2): Heaton; Trippier, Duff, Shackell, Mee; Arfield, Marney, Jones, Taylor; Jutkiewicz, Ings
United (3-4-1-2): de Gea; Jones, Evans, Blackett; Valencia, Fletcher, Di Maria, Young; Mata; Van Persie, Rooney
Burnley: Wallace, Kightly, Sordell, Reid, Gilks, Ward, Barnes, Cisak, Lafferty, O’Neill, Long, Ward, Howieson
United: Amos, Johnstone, Thorpe, Vermiji, Keane, Cleverley, Powell, Januzaj, James, Anderson, Lawrence, Welbeck, Hernández, Wilson
Burnley 44 – Draw 19 – United 57
Referee: Chris Foy
Assistants: M Mullarkey, M McDonough
Fourth Official: M Clattenburg
Burnley 1 – 2 United
£1 bet club
Di Maria & 1-2 @ 35/1
Running total: £(-)3