Manchester United’s emphatic victory over Club Brugge on Wednesday should be the game that sets the tone for a season to come. After all, this was a fixture in which United, for once, threw caution to the wind, Wayne Rooney started scoring again and Ander Herrera impressed in the central midfield role many believe is his right. For one night only the pieces clicked into place: here was a United side in attacking flow, with Herrera dictating play, Juan Mata drifting unpredictably into dangerous positions, and the predatory Rooney on the shoulder the last defender.
The suspicion remains that the manner of United’s victory in Belgium is just an illusion though. Not that the Reds will fail to win games this season – Louis van Gaal’s side will do that more almost any – but that the balance of the Dutchman’s team tends toward pragmatic conservatism. It is the philosophy that has defined Van Gaal’s first 15 months in Manchester; one that is more likely to return with United traveling to an in-form Swansea City on Sunday.
It is the small decisions that make the greater whole of Van Gaal’s philosophy whatever the over-arching principals. Never more so than at the Liberty Stadium, where Van Gaal could build on a flowing attacking performance in Belgium. Or seek the control of a low tempo, high possession, defensive base. It is in the minutiae that the answers are found: one defensive midfielder or two; Mata with the freedom to roam or limited by defensive responsibility; the dancing feet of Herrera unleashed or the brute force of Marouane Fellaini unbound?
Those decisions come into sharper relief against the backdrop of recent results against the Welsh side. Swansea beat United at Old Trafford in Van Gaal’s first game in charge of the club and then again in his 31st. Forty-nine games down, Van Gaal’s task is to find a result against the Swans where he has failed to do so before. It is, of course, also a chance to capitalise on results going against both Chelsea and Liverpool this weekend.
The over-riding sentiment remains cautious though, and Van Gaal’s instinct still tends to self-preservation. The cock-sure confidence of Friday morning press conferences is too often betrayed by the limits placed on his team on the pitch. Far from the swagger in the Jan Breydel Stadium last Wednesday, the evidence points to a sense of circumspection in south Wales on Sunday afternoon. One that may be proven correct by a United victory, but that will limit the visitors’ inventiveness nonetheless.
“I don’t want to lose again,” admitted van Gaal on Friday. “It’s the only club we could not beat or gain one point against. It’s a difficult team against us and before my period it was also difficult for United so I hope we can improve and that we can show that we are better than last year. I hope we can show our fans that we have improved. I hope we can show that.”
“Swansea are a very good team, they play a positional game like we do. They want to build up and have a good attack with speed and creativity. They proved they are a good team this season in the draw against Chelsea and against Newcastle and when I see the individual players I see that they have quality.”
Swansea, meanwhile, continue to flourish under Gary Monk, albeit this is a team that has secured just five league points this season. There was disappointment that the Swans could not beat Sunderland in the north-east last weekend, although a fine victory over Newcastle United followed a draw at Stamford Bridge. Whatever else, Swansea – with a fraction of United’s budget – will push far larger clubs for a place in the top echelons of the Premier League this season.
Indeed, in Bafétimbi Gomis the Swans boast a goalscorer of rare pedigree, while Jefferson Montero has started the campaign in outstanding form on the left-wing. The pair cost a combined fee of just £3.5 million. In times of abundance a rare steal.
That sense of momentum has inevitably brought higher expectations. Swansea’s progress under Brendan Rodgers, Roberto Martinez, Michael Laudrup and now Monk is based on a sound financial platform and sensible executive management. These are also traits that can be warped when a club ‘chases the dream’ of perpetual growth.
For the moment, however, Monk is relishing his success; one built on a sense of confidence and place.
“We showed against Chelsea we can compete against the bigger teams and really show what we can do,” said the 36-year-old. “We are at home, in front of our crowd and we need to make this a fortress, and if we are ready and focused we will give anyone a game here.
“It’s important to keep raising the expectation levels, but we have to be realistic as well and manage those expectations in a good way. This is Manchester United we are talking about. The squad they have, the money and power they have – they have to be favourites.”
Indeed, the visitors are. The question remains: does Van Gaal also know it?
Team news and line-ups
Van Gaal must choose whether to stick or twist with Herrera in south Wales. The Spaniard was deployed as one of two central midfielders against Brugge, although the suspicion remains that Herrera will only be used at number 10 or not at all on Sunday. Fellaini could come into the side in support of the lone striker Rooney, with Adnan Januzaj injured – an observation backed by Van Gaal’s assertion that Herrera is a “controlling” midfielder not the “second striker” he seeks.
Elsewhere, Van Gaal could buttress central midfield, where all three of Morgan Schneiderlin, Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger will only start if Fellaini does not. Marcos Rojo is fit and should make the bench, although Phil Jones is still unavailable and Jonny Evans is set to join West Bromwich Albion.
The home side welcomes midfielder Ki Sung-yeung back into the starting line-up, with the Korean having played more than 80 minutes in the League Cup last week. Monk enjoys an almost fully fit squad and is likely to make few changes from the side that drew with Sunderland last Saturday.
Swansea subs from: Nordfeldt, Britton, Routledge, Éder, Rangel, Tabanou, Bartley, Amat, Fulton, Emnes, Grimes, Dyer
United subs from: Johnstone, McNair, Rojo, Carrick, Herrera, Pereira, Valencia, Young, Hernández, Wilson
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistants: M Mullarkey, P Kirkup
Fourth Official: R East
Swansea 0-0 United
£1 bet club
a player to be sent off @ 11/4
Match graphic by @cole007