Louis van Gaal is nothing if not confident. Yet, the Dutchman’s faith in his “philosophy” has been tested during the opening weeks of the 62-year-old’s Old Trafford tenure. Defeat to Swansea City in the Premier League, insipid draws against Sunderland and Burnley, and the embarrassing loss at Milton Keynes Dons, have proffered the impression of seamless transition – from David Moyes. It is not the start the Dutchman wanted.
Yet, for all the crisis copy in recent weeks the United manager is likely to include four new players in his team for the fixture with Queens Park Rangers on Sunday. It is an injection of talent that cannot but provide stimulus for the campaign ahead. With the international break over Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo and Radamel Falcao should play some part in the match at Old Trafford this weekend. Luke Shaw, now fit, is likely to make his competitive début. It is welcome relief for a manager whose side boasts just two points from the opening three fixtures of the new campaign.
United’s extravagant spending this summer stretched to some £150 million in the wake of the club’s failed experiment with Moyes. If the empire is indeed crumbling, as so many observers have noted, then the Glazer family is seemingly, and finally, willing to use United’s commercial power to prop up the foundations of an ailing squad.
Yet, this is also an investment that must reap immediate rewards; a top four finish and Champions League football next season as an absolute minimum. The Dutch manager has little doubt – United’s quartet of debutants, plus Ander Herrera and Angel Di Maria, will offer the quality to take the team back into Europe next season.
“I think a club like United has to have targets,” said Van Gaal on Friday.
“I also have targets so I don’t think it [top three] is an unreasonable target. It shall be difficult but a club such as United has to always have a target. I think within the top three is logical because United want to be in the Champions League.”
Van Gaal’s goal is hampered, in the short-term at least, by an injury list that has eased little over the international break. While Van Gaal is keen to press ahead with a 3-4-1-2 system that has not always seemed comfortable with the players, it is the absentees that concern the Dutchman most. Shaw returns after a hamstring problem, but Ashley Young and Phil Jones have picked up fresh injuries over the break.
“The situation has not improved much because while there are players coming back, there are also players who have got injured in the last week,” said Van Gaal. “It’s more or less the same situation and that’s not a very positive one.”
Still, Old Trafford’s gaze will rest on United’s star-studded acquisitions this weekend. Rojo is likely to make his début in United’s back-three alongside Jonny Evans and Tyler Blackett, with Chris Smalling on injured list.
In midfield Blind could line up with Herrera, while Van Gaal has the job of working out how to cram Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Juan Mata and Di Maria into the side. Over the longer piece Van Gaal may opt to deploy Rooney in a role at ‘number 10’, although the Englishman’s dire early season form showed no signs of improving over two matches for the national team last week. Mata is the most likely to give this weekend.
Falcao may not start, although the loan signing Falcao says that he is ready to play.
“I feel well, I started to play two months ago with Monaco and I’ve improved in the last month a lot,” said the former Porto striker.
“I have scored goals and that’s important to a striker. I am confident with my physical form and I am comfortable with my knee. This is a new process, a new team and this year some new players have come in. I think Manchester United will build a big team this season and in future seasons. I feel very good in myself and I can’t wait to get started.”
Falcao has scored 200 goals across 305 games for River Plate, Porto, Atlético Madrid and Monaco. It is a record that brings expectation along with the huge paycheck.
The temptation, of course, remains for Van Gaal to cram his plethora of stars into an unbalanced side. Falcao is every bit a classic number nine, while this is a role to which Van Persie is increasingly evolved over the past two seasons. The observation leaves Van Gaal likely to deploy Rooney, his seemingly undroppable captain, in a the deeper role that provides a goal threat, but removes Mata’s subtly and surety of first touch from the team.
In deeper areas Blind will play a crucial role in coming weeks, screening the back three and providing a pivotal link between defence and attack – especially in Michael Carrick’s long-term absence. The Dutchman’s lack of pace may have kept the transfer fee to a relatively bargain-basement £14 million, but the player’s defensive nous and range of passing should prove an important asset in the season to come.
“He is a player who can see situations in advance,” said the manager.
“He can always pass to the free player, and when he doesn’t have the ball, he knows when he has to press the opponent. That’s a very good ability to have. I like him as a defensive midfielder. He can run for 90 minutes too and is always fit. That’s another very good quality for a player.”
Meanwhile, Harry Redknapp’s Rangers side arrives having not kept a clean sheet against United since 1992 – losing 10 of the past 12 fixtures with the Reds and each of the last five at Old Trafford.
If history is not on the west Londoners’ side then experience might be, with Rio Ferdinand leading QPR’s defence. Ferdinand made more than 400 appearances for United before leaving on a free transfer in the summer. New signings Sandro and Niko Kranjcar will be handed debuts at Old Trafford, although Joey Barton has a hamstring and may not play.
The focus is on United though. With no European football this season United has just two trophies to play for with the summer barely over. Indeed, it is the first time since 1962 that United will chase so little silverware at this stage of the season. This is not a record to be proud of.
Yet, four debutants do offer a bright new dawn; the darkest point having been reached in Milton Keynes last month. United, surely, cannot fail to win again?
United (3-4-1-2): de Gea; Evans, Rojo, Blackett; Rafael, Herrera, Blind, Di Maria, Shaw; Van Persie, Rooney
QPR (4-4-2): Green; Isla, Caulker, Ferdinand, Hill; Phillips, Mutch, Sandro, Kranjcar, Hoilett; Austin
United: Amos, Johnstone, Thorpe, Vermiji, Januzaj, James, Anderson, Fletcher, Mata, Falcao, Wilson
QPR: Traore, Onuoha, Henry, Murphy, Dunne, Zamora, Taarabt, Barton, Fer
United 51 – Draw 32 – QPR 13
Referee: Phil Dowd
Assistants: P Kirkup, S Ledger
Fourth Official: A Marriner
United 3-0 QPR
£1 bet club
Falcao & 3-0 @ 15/1
Running total: £(-)4