First game of the season, first injury crisis to overcome. New campaign, new manager, same old problems. Is it something in the Carrington water? Louis van Gaal has been in the top job barely two months, but he takes Manchester United into the season’s opener against Swansea City with nine players out of action. Given the paucity of options available, it is a headache for which the Dutchman has few remedies. This was supposed to be the bright new dawn.
Injuries mean that Antonio Valencia, Luke Shaw, Jonny Evans, Danny Welbeck, Anderson and Sam Johnstone sit out the Swans’ visit to Old Trafford on Saturday. Robin van Persie, Adnan Januzaj and Marouane Fellaini remain in a fitness-building phase after this summer’s World Cup. It means that van Gaal will hand a début to at least one promising youngster, perhaps two, in Tyler Blackett and Reece James. So much for the promised summer of transfer market activity.
Still, six victories in as many matches during pre-season has drilled confidence into the Dutchman’s squad. It was badly needed after United’s worst campaign in a quarter century under David Moyes. The Scot’s sacking brought to an end one of the most incredulous appointments of United’s rich history. van Gaal’s should be the beginning of something so much better.
Yet, logic – and limited resources – dictates that United’s climb back to the top is one of slow progress. Or at least one in which supporters may have to be realistic about the challenges ahead this season. Not least with executive vice chairman Ed Woodward having failed to secure the players that his perpetual briefing suggests will flow through Old Trafford’s doors.
van Gaal remains realistic though, at one in believing that his squad is “below top quality” and yet prepared to proffer his players an opportunity to impress.
“I cannot change everything, I have to adapt to the culture,” said van Gaal in his first pre-match press conference at Carrington on Friday.
“It’s a process and we have to make steps. Sometimes you fall and you have to make another big step. That’s the process but you are not champion in October. You are champion in May. I have another philosophy. I have another way of dealing with players to normal coaches. I’m not concerned where we might be and I’ve said that in my meetings with Woodward and the Glazers. I am very confident. I am not nervous.”
On the pitch van Gaal will employ a makeshift defence in his now preferred 3-4-1-2 formation. With Evans on the sidelines, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and debutant Blackett will form an unlikely back three, with two from Rafael da Silva, Ashley Young and James on the flanks.
Elsewhere the Dutchman’s preferred team is yet to fully take shape, although Ander Herrera will make a competitive début for the club, presumably alongside Darren Fletcher in central midfield. Captain Wayne Rooney should partner Javier Hernandez up front, with Juan Mata in his preferred role at number 10.
“Sam Johnstone – the goalkeeper. Antonio Valencia, Shaw and Evans – three defenders. Welbeck. I believe that is it,” said van Gaal of his injury list.
“We have analysed Shaw and it is difficult to lay a finger on it. It is difficult to look for the solution but there are a lot of reasons. After the World Cup, all the players are coming back at different moments and it is very difficult to train. We have the travel, jet-lag and a lot of matches in 14 days. Another reason is the amount of training sessions but we are doing half of what I have done with the other clubs so I cannot assume we have done that wrong.
“I am very confident and I am not nervous. We have players injured and I am not nervous. We have beaten them all until now but tomorrow is the match that counts.”
van Gaal has time, of course, and the Dutchman begins the season with a significant bank of credit, earned for the positive way in which United approached pre-season games in the United States. Possession football, an attacking philosophy and victories buy time even if United plays out the season looking up to rivals from Manchester and the capital.
Not that old hands tend towards that circumspect narrative. This is, after all, United, where trophies abound and negativity, in part, drove Moyes out of a job.
“We’re out to win the league,” claims vice captain Fletcher.
“You start every season at Manchester United with the aim of winning the league. I don’t think this club should ever fall into the trap of being satisfied with finishing in the top four. That’s not the Manchester United I know. You play football to win trophies at this club. It’s a dangerous mindset to be getting into if you start thinking you’d be happy to get into the top four and everybody around the squad is thinking about winning the league.”
Even Rooney, one of Moyes’ favoured sons, has quickly readjusted to the United way. Success may well be qualification for Europe, but it is a truth that gains only tacit acceptance in van Gaal’s camp. In public United’s confidence has been restored.
“It has to be better,” said the 28-year-old. “There are no two ways about it. We have to improve a lot on last year. We know that as a team and we have been working hard to make sure we’re going to get the right results. We are not a club who will settle for finishing in Europe. We’re a club that wants to win trophies and for us it’s only a good season if you do that.”
The Swans arrive after a traumatic 2013/14 campaign in which Michael Laudrup was dismissed to leave rookie Garry Monk in charge. The 35-year-old former central defender spent a decade at the club, much of it in the lower reaches of the Football League, before the Dane’s sacking brought a first coaching job. The role has been made permanent following an interim spell last season.
Swansea lost to Moyes’ United 4-1 on the opening day last season, but seek a stronger start to the new campaign, albeit one in which expectation is set at survival. After all there has been considerable loss of talent over the summer, with Ben Davies and Michel Vorm moving to Tottenham Hotspur, Chico and Pablo Hernandez to Qatar, and Michu to Napoli, albeit on loan.
Still, Monk has secured the signatures of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Jefferson Montero, Lukasz Fabianski and the exciting forward Bafetimbi Gomis. The latter may yet be a replacement for in-demand Wilfried Bony.
Whatever the challenges, Monk talks a good game. His team may need the confidence despite United’s lengthy injury list.
“All of the focus is on them and that suits us fine,” he said. “Whenever you go there you know it is going to be tough because of the quality they have. They have had a very positive pre-season, but we have had a very good week’s training and we’ll be positive.
“Everyone is beatable in this league. On any given day, if things drop right and you’re on the top of your game, we can beat the big clubs and we’ve proved that already. We know it will be difficult but we don’t fear them – we see it as a challenge.”
It is a challenge for van Gaal too. Just one in which half a term remains on the sidelines.
United (3-4-1-2): de Gea; Smalling, Jones, Blackett; Young, Herrera, Fletcher, James; Mata; Rooney, Hernández.
Swansea (4-3-3): Fabianski; Rangel, Bartley, Williams, Taylor; Sigurdsson, Shelvey, Montero; Routledge, Bony, Gomis
United: Amos, Lindegaard, Evans, Januzaj, Nani, Powell, Zaha, Cleverley, Kagawa, Fellaini, Da Silva, Keane, Thorpe, Petrucci, Varela.
Swansea: Cornell, Tremmel, Amat, Tate, Tiendalli, Cañas, Obeng, Richards, King
United 11- Draw 5 – Swansea 7
Referee: Mike Dean
Assistants: S Bennett, D England
Fourth Official: M Oliver
United 3 – 1 Swansea
£1 bet club
Wayne Rooney & 3-1 @ 25/1