It is the metaphorical morning after Manchester United’s humiliating defeat to Milton Keynes Dons in the League Cup. Probably, one of the club’s worst performances in recent memory; right down there with any from the David Moyes era. Even considering that Louis van Gaal’s team was comprised mostly of youngsters, too few grabbed their chance and delivered. Least of all the experienced players. End of an era – quite possibly the last game in United’s shirt for many, including Javier Hernández and Shinji Kagawa, who desperately need a change of scenery. No happy endings there.
If supporters did wake up to welcome in a new era at United then it’s still five in the morning. With so many false starts fresh in memory the fear of the dark remains. The hope is that, at the second attempt, the dawn is finally here. The real question is: will it get darker yet?
How to describe this August? Probably, with what feels different: new faces. First, two of the club’s transfers this summer were long in the making, with both Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw targets under Moyes. In the case of the former, he came with a rather embarrassing history of negotiations. Both have proved to be popular with the fans though and are welcome additions to the squad, albeit not players to cure a chronically broken team alone. Between this and Manchester City appointing Moyes’ scout as a ‘European talent spotter,’ one might say that Scotsman’s short tenure was not without it’s bright spots. Granted, the same scout might lend to a ‘glass-half-full’ conclusion too.
Unfortunately expectations were set high from the start. Van Gaal’s results at the World Cup and those on tour – namely against Real and Liverpool – meant an overhyped beginning to the new season. Fans have waited too long for something to cheer and perhaps the excitement clouded everybody’s judgment. The collective should have known better than to believe all is back to normal in an instant, especially with so many experienced players leaving. It’s not as if there weren’t signs in pre-season, such as the dismal first half against Liverpool.
This squad needs major surgery though, both figuratively and literally, with so many players injured at the start of the campaign. Combine that observation with chronic underinvestment since 2005 and a last-minute approach to transfers, which is beginning to look habitual under Ed Woodward, and it’s no wonder that, once the competitive games started, United gave Moyesian performances: confused, lacking in pace, and weak at the back.
Indeed, Van Gaal has frequently argued that he needs time in a manner not unlike Moyes, albeit far more cocky. The Dutchman first predicted that it’s going to take three months to rebuild this team; he then changed it to a “maybe, more than a year.” Van Gaal has a bank of credit but fans might be more suspicious in time – he dared some to dream before realiszing the full complexity of the task at hand.
Of course, things change. New faces have arrived since the MK circus followed an unimpressive draw and opening defeat in the Premier League. Marcos Rojo wasn’t anybody’s first choice to strengthen the defence, but he might turn out a good buy. Meanwhile, with Ángel Di Maria’s acquisition, the pitiful excuse for owners and Woodward finally delivered on their many promises, bringing in a world-class player with the size of cheque required. Rumours persist – solidifying by the hour – that Daley Blind and perhaps Arturo Vidal are coming next. If the pair joins then it will bring to around £200 million the amount spent this summer and, more importantly, guarantee United boasts its strongest squad in years. Vidal, unlikely as it seems, might even replace Roy Keane almost 10 years after the Irishman left the club. It would bring many a tear to the eye.
And this is where this summer feels different. For all Moyes’ resentful musings in that Daily Mail interview, including the surreal boast that he wanted to bring Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo to the club, the Scot never looked like a man who could make things happen where it mattered. Just maybe, most of all, in the heads of United’s greedy American owners. Van Gaal, on the other hand, brings confidence, even a cockiness to the table. While this means something in itself considering the state of the team he has inherited, the Dutchman was also bold enough to publicly declare that he needed not just more players, but those of a high quality. One couldn’t escape the notion that if his bosses failed to deliver, Van Gaal could always just leave – a PR-blow that would cost more to the Tampa family than actually stumping up the sums required.
Ignoring for the moment that the Glazers have bled United dry for so many years – and will keep doing so for the foreseeable future – the ball is in Van Gaal’s court now. It is his turn to deliver. And United needs that now more than ever. If pre-season affected expectations, imagine if you will what Di Maria and, perhaps, Vidal in United’s midfield might do to the collective confidence! The thinking goes: if United wanted a Champions League spot before, shouldn’t the spending make the Reds genuine title-contenders?
Is it ridiculous to demand the title or, at the very least, a fight to the end? This time a year ago supporters were wary of that ambition; many would have been pleased with a good cup run and a Champions League place. Much has happened since. This is a club and a team still in transition, but now with a better manager, probably a better squad, and without the burden of Europe.
Those signatures remain an IF, although Blind is seemingly on the brink, so caution remains the word. Underpromise and overachieve and all that. Everything is so different and yet similar to a year ago.
Except, maybe, there’s one more thing required. Van Gaal strong-arming the Glazers into spending the club’s own money was a good start, but now it’s his team, his responsibility, and his time to deliver. By the end of this season we need to see the real United. Van Gaal’s United. The team is long due a new-found identity. Guarantee that and a Champions League place and, for now, anything else will be a pleasant bonus.
Van Gaal’s shaky start will be forgiven as part of the a process in finding the club’s new identity. This summer the Glazers finally walked the talk and, admit it, it feels nice. Confidence is up again. This is going to be, well, a year; a good one. It should be.
The Dutchman loves a challenge. Sir Alex Ferguson did too; his successor not so much. So now we wait. It’s five in the morning, but the day is almost here. As Gary Neville says: let’s attack it.