“It’s a process and that process needs time,” pleaded Louis van Gaal on Friday. It is perhaps the key message for Manchester United supporters to digest after Sunday’s turgid draw with Sunderland on Wearside. Van Gaal has promised that his methods will bring success; on the evidence of two Premier League fixtures this season it may very well be a long time coming. Moreover, in the wake of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement this is a side still searching for an identity – some 14 months on from the Scot’s departure.
More than Ferguson, however, it is David Moyes’ shadow that lingers. Just as United’s opening day loss to Swansea City could have taken place at any point during Moyes’ short Old Trafford tenure, so the insipid performance in the north east brought further dark memories of the year past.
It wasn’t just that United’s three defenders lacked any cohesion, but that the Reds’ attack, with all the world class riches at Van Gaal’s disposal, remained totally anaemic. It should no longer shock, but Old Trafford’s finest were simply ordinary at the weekend. Soulless and seemingly without real purpose too.
Indeed, a side containing Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young, Juan Mata and Antonio Valencia – more than £120 million invested in the quintet of attacking talent – rarely made United old boys Wes Brown and John O’Shea uncomfortable. It was very much against the run of play when Valencia delivered a low cross for Mata to score in the 14th minute. Easily the attacking highlight of United’s afternoon.
In this Van Gaal has more than a little work to do. While defensive problems were expected, given experienced personnel lost and the radical tactical switch enforced, United’s attacking talent is far too muted. In part Van Gaal’s system that has neutered United’s wings, but mostly because the Dutchman is yet to find a combination to catalyse individual talent into a fluid creative unit.
On Saturday Van Persie, Mata and Rooney rarely demonstrated the potential to become a triumvirate of high class. It was a decidedly one-paced attacking unit: Mata slowed down play when on the ball, Van Persie remains ring rusty after an extended summer break, and Rooney lacks much of the dynamic edge of yesteryear.
On the bench Adnan Januzaj, Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa watched on. The former pair injected pace into the game as second-half substitutes, while Kagawa remained benched, surely wondering whether he has a place in Van Gaal’s thinking at all.
It is Rooney that is the real concern though – and not just because of his new-found seniority at the club, nor the massive pay packet. After all, the former Evertonian is supposed to be United’s talismanic emblem; the squad’s finest player and the man to lift United to preeminence once again. Yet, United’s captain has lost more than a yard of pace, neutering his impact up front. And still the 28-year-old insists on dropping into deeper areas while lacking the subtlety of touch and movement to unlock the best drilled defence.
At the back only Phil Jones emerged with real credit from the Stadium of Light, although Michael Keane enjoyed a positive second half and Tyler Blackett looked composed if at times tactically naïve. On this evidence Jones will fulfil the potential his vast talent commands before the season is out.
Valencia and Young were particularly vulnerable as wing-backs – struggling to translate limited skill-sets to an alien environment. Too often Young struggled against Premier League newcomer Will Buckley, although the former Aston Villa winger remained positive going forward – another outrageous dive aside.
On the other flank Valencia looked anything but a natural defender, allowing Conor Wickham to gain preeminence in one-on-one situations, while losing Jack Rodwell for Sunderland’s goal. Rafael and Luke Shaw will add greater defensive nous, albeit at the risk of further impacting United’s attacking momentum.
Still, Van Gaal remained circumspect in the aftermath. It is, after all, the process and not only the result in which the Dutchman is interested.
“In the first half we played an equal match with Sunderland,” he told Sky Sports.
“We didn’t create much other than the first goal, which was fantastic. In the second half we played much better but we could have created more. We missed too many passes – it was either too slow or too hasty, and then you lose the ball and the tempo is gone from the game.”
Prospective recruit Angel Di Maria will add genuine impetus from either central midfield or the wing, depending on Van Gaal’s tactical thinking. While the Argentinian cannot solve all United’s problems, the Reds’ performance on Wearside will have done much to convince the new manager that £64 million is well invested in the World Cup finalist.
Di Maria offers Van Gaal the option to switch back to the Dutchman’s preferred 4-3-3 system; the manager might even opt for the nuclear option and drop one of Saturday’s under performing attacking trio.
It is also noted with interest that United’s new manager used Januzaj in central midfield on Sunday – an option that proffers a more direct and potentially creative approach, albeit one that comes with a significant defensive risk. Kagawa, meanwhile, remained on the bench after Van Gaal considered and then rejected using the former Borussia Dortmund player in a role “at six or eight.”
“We have four injuries in midfield,” Van Gaal said on Januzaj’s new role. “That is why I played Januzaj in midfield because as a coach I want to win. I have said that we need creative passing and I thought Januzaj could provide that.
“I said to him ‘you are on the bench as a midfielder’ because I want him to focus. You could see it’s not so many times that he’s played there, but he did his utmost and I cannot demand more.”
The coach can demand more of his team overall though. While the 63-year-old is yet to uncover his most dynamic attacking mix, and his team remains on a steep learning curve defensively, there is surely too much talent to remain impotent for long. In this Di Maria will add much – talent of the Argentinian’s rare ilk always does.
Still, there is no guarantee that United will return to the Premier League’s top four by May. After all, Arsenal showed plenty of spirit in coming back from two goals down at Goodison Park, while Liverpool has taken a punt on Mario Balotelli – one that offers plenty of big-game class.
Chatter that United will solidify a bid for Juventus’ powerhouse midfielder Arturo Vidal could make a conclusive difference in this debate. In the meantime Van Gaal’s side remains just a touch lost: on the pitch and in its heart.