It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Losing at home was a David Moyes thing – all seven of them in the Premier League last season. Ground zero of Manchester United’s worst campaign in more than 25 years. Louis van Gaal’s appointment was, by contrast, the start of a bright new dawn: sophisticated tactics, positive attacking football and, above all, a clean slate. That pretense was blown away in 90 short minutes last weekend.
Success will surely come, but United’s defeat to Swansea City at Old Trafford laid bare just how far this United side has fallen. Premier League title winners little more than 15 months ago, United now faces the very real prospect of two seasons out of the Champions League. After all, Swansea’s victory did little more than expose just how fragile Van Gaal’s squad remains; short in defence, midfield and wide areas.
Confidence shattered, after what now seems a superficial period of redemption in the United States, the Reds travel to Sunderland more in hope than genuine belief. The Mackems have effectively beaten United three times on the spin – in the Capital One Cup semi-final over two legs and at Old Trafford in the Premier League in the Spring. There will be few on Wearside ready to let Van Gaal’s side have an easy ride on Sunday afternoon.
The remedy is both simple and complex. The charade that the club can buck the market trend and obtain English and European preeminence on will power and bargain signings alone has gone. In its place a new reality – that with no structural advantages, or Sir Alex Ferguson at the helm, United will compete in an open market against a slew of clubs willing to outspend the Glazer family.
Around £140 million has been spent in the past 12 months. It probably isn’t enough. Profits or points? Tampa Bay will decide. In the meantime Van Gaal is entrenched in the belief that his “philosophy” will bring success to United, with a recognition that there are few short-term fixes.
“Two weeks ago, I was the king of Manchester and now I am the devil,” the Dutchman said on Friday.
“It’s the football world and it is especially the media in this football world. I think the fans of Manchester United are intelligent. I’ve already said in all the press conferences in the USA that it shall be difficult in the first three months for the players especially, but also for the fans.
“I said to Ed Woodward and the Glazer family that it’s always like that and they have hired me because of my philosophy. I am not hired to be fired, but to build up a team and that is a process which needs time.”
It is, says Van Gaal, this philosophy that will take United on a journey back to the top. One where the Dutchman will only acquire players adhering to this vision – if Ed Woodward can deliver on the bold claims of early summer.
“I have brought another philosophy to the club and that is difficult,” adds Van Gaal.
“I have to give a lot of information and now we are in the process of a lot of information. For example, I have to drive at this moment on the left side and then I have to pay a lot of attention to drive properly. It costs me a lot of energy.
“I can imagine the fans are scared. They have seen already the last year and now seen also the first home match and then I can imagine that. But they have to believe in the philosophy we bring in to this club and the players believe that. They have shown already in the United States, now they have to show it here. That needs time.”
For the time being Van Gaal is set to take United into the season with Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw and Marcus Rojo as the clubs’ only summer recruits. Hardly the significant rebuilding promised. The irony of the trio being unavailable through injury for United’s trip to the North East will not be lost on the veteran Dutchman.
Shaw is unavailable due to injury, while Johnny Evans, Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck could also miss out, having missed last weekend’s fixture against The Swans. Herrera has an ankle problem and will miss at least a week, although Robin van Persie is available for selection. The Spaniard will have a scan on the injury this week, along with Marouane Fellaini who also has an ankle problem.
Jesse Lingard is out meaning Adnan Januzaj may have to fill in as an emergency right wing back unless Van Gaal risks Rafael da Silva.
Rojo is yet to receive a work permit despite completing his move from Sporting Lisbon on Thursday and does not travel. This is another change from the era of old – United used to apply for a work permit before completing an acquisition.
Meanwhile, Sunderland manager Gus Poyet could hand a home début to three transfer window signings: Jack Rodwell, Jordi Gomez and Patrick van Aanholt. Defenders Billy Jones and Santiago Vergini are available, however Emanuele Giaccherini misses the game with a groin injury.
“Playing Manchester United – one of the top teams in England and the world – makes it even more special, so we are really focused on being ready to play the game,” said Poyet.
“To win or to have a chance of winning against the top teams once you may be lucky, but to do it regularly you have to be playing at your best, take your chances and defend well. You have to have as close as possible to a perfect game.”
Generous words given United’s performance against Swansea last Saturday.
Still, history is at least on United’s side: the Reds are unbeaten in 12 league games at Sunderland since a 2-1 defeat in March 1997. This is no time for Van Gaal to start a Moyes-esque trend for breaking records.
But will victory at the Stadium of Light will contribute to a title victory come May? Van Gaal, like many supporters, has little belief.
“It’s a process and that process needs time. It’s not an overnight job. It is not a question of being champions at the end of the season because we have to build a team and that process takes maybe longer.”
Sunderland (4-4-2): Mannone; Roberge, O’Shea, Brown, Van Aanholt; Johnson, Rodwell, Cattermole, Larsson; Fletcher, Wickham
United (3-4-1-2): de Gea; Smalling, Jones, Blackett; Januzaj, Cleverley, Fletcher, Young; Mata; Rooney, Van Persie.
Sunderland: Pantilimon, Jones, Vergini, Bridcutt, Buckley, Gómez, Altidore, Mavrias, Graham, Mandron, Smith, Watmore, Agnew
United: Amos, Da Silva, Keane, James, Zaha, Powell, Anderson, Kagawa, Hernández, Wilson.
Sunderland 41- Draw 36 – United 62
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistants: S Child, H Lennard
Fourth Official: P Dowd
Sunderland 1 – 2 United
£1 bet club
Robin van Persie & 1-2 @ 18/1
Running total: £(-)1