English is a language richer than most; an idiom to suit almost every nuanced turn of meaning, situation and experience. The language of Shakespeare, Morrisey and, well, Wayne Rooney. Take, for example, the belief that lightning never strikes twice, at least not in the same place – a subtle turn of phrase indicating that the unlikeliest of occurrence rarely repeats. While climatologists have, in reality, proven that lightning often does strike in the same place, Rant suspects that you get the gist.
Ed Woodward, Rant is certain, does not. After last summer’s humiliating farce in the transfer market, precipitated by the executive vice chairman’s naïvety and David Moyes’ dithering, the Essex-born executive really need not have been looking towards the skies. This summer was supposed to be different. That is the story United supporters were told. Not only was the club prepared to “break” the world transfer record, but supporters were told to “watch this space” as the club moved decisively in the market.
Deals for Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw were sealed shortly after the World Cup concluded, albeit a month later than Woodward had seemingly briefed the fourth estate. Although, in truth, neither was beyond even Woodward’s domain – almost £30 million spent on a teenager at price that even Chelsea rejected, and the same again for the 24-year-old Spaniard, yet to play for his country, for whom United activated a well publicised release clause.
Dark clouds are gathering though – and one suspects that much of United’s success or failure in the months to come will be defined by Woodward’s ability to fill the considerable holes in Louis van Gaal’s squad before the transfer window closes.
There is, indeed, a strong school of thought that United enters the new season weaker than it ended the last. After all, five players have left the club before a Premier League ball has been kicked – Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidić, Patrice Evra, Anders Lindegaard, and Alexander Büttner. Ryan Giggs has retired and more still will go before August is out.
In this the spectre of failure looms large, no matter the brilliance of United’s new “trainer-coach.” Failure to qualify for the Champions League in 2015/16 is a scenario that the club cannot abide, although one that remains firmly in the narrative. It is a story in which the Glazer family’s business model begins to break down, with prize money and sponsorship revenue materially impacted. One wonders quite why there isn’t a greater sense of urgency some 15 days before the window draws in.
Still, while the midsummer chatter is dominated by thoughts of squad evolution, van Gaal’s arrival has brought much cheer to the United faithful. The post-World Cup summer included six victories in succession, with high quality opposition to boot. True, United’s fitness was at least a week ahead of many rivals, but in this there were still thrilling wins against Roma, Internazionale, Liverpool and Real Madrid, among others. No Moyes-inspired defeat to a Singha All Star XI here.
The Dutchman’s positivity has coursed through the club, from double training sessions that have brought barely a peep of complaint, to a tactical revolution undertaken with gusto. These are, after all, largely the same players whom Moyes accused of trying to get him sacked just months previously.
On the pitch United has played attacking, if at times pragmatic, football, with possession cherished and a multifaceted approach enjoyed. van Gaal’s 3-4-1-2 system offers goals and defensive security, papering over gaping holes in central midfield, defence and on the flanks, for the moment at least. Much as the Dutch achieved during the World Cup, van Gaal’s promise is that he will extract more than the sum of United’s parts in the months ahead. The Reds may well need it.
In goal, David de Gea has reportedly struck up a fine working relationship with new coach Francis Hoek, the genius behind van Gaal’s decision to substitute Jasper Cillessen for Tim Krul ahead of a World Cup quarter-final penalty shootout. de Gea has benefited from time with both Eric Steele and Chris Woods in previous seasons – the latter being the only member of Moyes’ team to leave United with credibility intact. Hoek will enable the 23-year-old to progress further.
In defence United remains desperately short, with four internationals having left the club during the summer. Reports that van Gaal has not taken to Rafael da Silva only compound the club’s desperation to strengthen before the window closes. In Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, van Gaal boasts a trio still growing into their roles – and a system that could well bring out the best in each. No more the lonely treks up and down Moyes’ touchline for Smalling and Jones.
Yet, for all the trio’s promise each has suffered injuries in recent seasons; none has completed more than 30 Premier League games in any one campaign. The – lack of – weight of numbers becomes increasingly pressing when United’s alternatives are the callow Michael Keane, Tyler Blackett or makeweight defenders, Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick. Woodward’s failure to secure a top-level central defender will surely undo United’s campaign if it is not remedied before 1 September.
There is a similar story in midfield, where Herrera has impressed with a broad range of passing, plentiful energy and sound technique. Yet, the Spaniard continues to offer the air of a nimble creator positioned in a deeper role – more goal giver than getter. It is an observation that has led van Gaal towards Juventus’ powerhouse Arturo Vidal, a player to create, destroy and score in a single package. The Chilean’s signature has become such a focus that the temptation towards panic will be strong should Vidal not sign in the days ahead.
Fletcher’s revival is an unexpected bonus; a story of determination that is a lesson for many. The Scot’s vice captaincy is the good news beacon of the summer and richly deserved as well. Yet, the 30-year-old has not completed a 30 game season in more than four years. When the competitive fixtures come thick Fletcher cannot be asked to carry United’s midfield alone.
Herrera aside, van Gaal has little on which to place his faith – Carrick is injured until the autumn and creeping towards his mid-30s. Tom Cleverley failed to impressed over the summer and Anderson is one respectable bid away from ending seven years’ failure. Nobody expects Fellaini to remain at Old Trafford beyond August.
On the wings Ashley Young’s metamorphosis from one-dimensional wideman to potent wing-back is a boon, albeit in a role that he is yet to play in a competitive fixture. Antonio Valencia may perform a similar task on the right, while Adnan Januzaj will be proffered the opportunity to deputise for Juan Mata as United’s principle creator. It is, perhaps, a surprise that van Gaal has chosen to retain Shinji Kagawa with so many of a similar ilk in the squad.
Much will depend on how newly appointed club captain Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie strike up a partnership that has not always been at ease. van Gaal’s system should suit both; Rooney in the striking role that now suits him best, and van Persie no longer isolated. In mind and body it should be said.
van Gaal has also been sponsored by the Premier League’s fixture computer. The Dutchman’s side faces three newly promoted clubs, three among the relegation contenders last season and MK Dons before Everton visits Old Trafford on 5 October. Momentum will be gained where Moyes lost so much in the early weeks of the campaign. The absence of European football may hurt the balance sheet, but it will also aid tired limbs.
Tougher questions come in the weeks ahead though. As it stands van Gaal boasts questionable tools with which to succeed at United. The Dutchman is well aware that he working with sub-par materials, just as Moyes bellowed a year thence. The benchmark has simply been readjusted: Champions League qualification and a decent cup run is a very un-United level of ambition, but one mandated by the disastrous Moyes experiment.
The Scot’s moaning brought risible contempt. van Gaal something different: a mark of respect. The fact is, however, United remains some way behind the club’s rivals, even if the Dutchman could yet be the signing of the summer. Eyes are on the prize. Whether Woodward is a help or hindrance to that is still an open question.