Tuesday 27 September 2016

Hung jury at Old Trafford as Louis van Gaal's quest to resurrect Manchester United continues

Published 11/08/2015 | 15:15

Manchester United's Dutch manager Louis van Gaal
Manchester United's Dutch manager Louis van Gaal

LOUIS Van Gaal exudes that regal, haughty air of a blueblood who believes with a bone-deep conviction the entire universe to be his palace.

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Van Gaal’s monarchical bearing acts like a firewall against even the tiniest flicker of self-doubt; utterly certain of his status, when he looks in the mirror he most likely imagines a bejewelled crown upon his aristocratic Dutch skull.

Others, less in thrall to the image he presents, look a few feet higher and see a guillotine perched above the neckline of Old Trafford’s narcissistic sovereign.

Van Gaal has spent more than a quarter of a billion euro in a shade over 12 months on the renovation of Manchester United.

If there is an understanding that massive refurbishment was required, if the first season target of returning of United to the patrician Champions League halls was achieved, much, much more is expected in the months ahead.

Within the boardroom the expectation will be that Van Gaal now resurrects something approaching the best of United’s past: At the very minimum a meaningful title challenge, perhaps accompanied by a trophy of some description.

Even after this opening day victory – a significant upgrade on the deflating loss to Swansea a year ago – there was a hung jury at Old Trafford on whether United are equipped to bridge last season’s 17 point gap to Chelsea.

The home side had just one shot on target, they were bossed in midfield for much of the first and final quarters.  Workmanlike rather than wondrous.

But for a team that took just five points from 15 at the start of last season, this fixture was mostly about the result and the momentum it might generate.

Seizing three points from a Champions League rival made this a satisfactory 64th birthday for Van Gaal.

United did brush against more prosperous times, notably in the authoritative display of Italian defender Matteo Darmian, who brought an immediate right flank security that was beyond Antonio Valencia or the departed Rafael.

Darmian (right) brought a positional intelligence, an instinct to do the right thing, a sense of calm that even evoked some comparisons with Denis Irwin.

On this early evidence the £12m required to recruit the 25-year-old – who saw his afternoon cut short by cramp - might come to be regarded as a blue-chip investment.

Morgan Schneiderlin, even if he endured a couple of nervy early flourishes, clearly represents a midfield enhancement.

Suggestions that here is a Gallic Roy Keane may be a rush towards hyperbole, but the Frenchman did provide a welcome security blanket in front of the central defensive pairing of Daley Blind and Chris Smalling.

In the opening exchanges, before Spurs had their confidence drained by Kyle Walker’s own goal, Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen continually asked difficult questions of Blind and Smalling.

For some time they struggled to find the answers.

Smalling grew into the contest – key challenges on Kane and Nacer Chadli were triumphs of timing and strength – to the point where it seemed that the old defensive superintendent Nemanja Vidic had returned in disguise.

By the end Smalling was a legitimate man of the match contender.

Still, as Spurs probed and but for two decent rebuttals by the debutant goalkeeper Sergio Romero might have snatched an equaliser, it is clear why Van Gaal spent so much of the summer break in pursuit of Sergio Ramos.

A volley of brutal truths still threaten to torpedo United’s reengineered hull.

If the arms and legs that made David De Gea the Premier League’s outstanding keeper last season were in Old Trafford yesterday – albeit in the stands, deemed mentally unfit for action – his heart is already resident in Madrid.

The transfer saga has been a terrible, needless distraction:  Romero, the Argentine deemed surplus to requirements by Sampdoria, didn’t always inspire confidence; slow off his line, with ball at his feet he appeared drunk with fright.

Those two late saves and a clean sheet were sufficient to balance the books.

Van Gaal has handed the six-shooters to Wayne Rooney and advised the Englishman that he expects him to fire 25 Premier League goals.

For those of us who have backed the United captain to seize the day, the omens were less than perfect.

Rooney was a blade in need of sharpening here:  Walker’s own goal was a consequence of the striker needing two touches where an in-form, confident goal scorer would have dispatched the ball to the net with one.

For much of the afternoon Rooney was a peripheral, agitated figure:  That surprise striker Van Gaal has promised cannot arrive quickly enough.

Memphis Depay boasts the usual bottomless Dutch reservoir of self-assurance.

Yet the player who has shone in pre-season, who has “Dream Chaser” tattooed to his muscled torso, spent much of his truncated afternoon pursuing shadows.  He appeared frustrated when called ashore by Van Gaal.

He has inherited the storied number seven shirt and is clearly a player of promise and ambition:  But it is with the figure on his back that any comparisons to Ronaldo Best or Cantona can rest for now.

Bastian Schweinsteiger is among the season’s more interesting recruits: at his best a superior, refined presence, an assured Teutonic presence who has known both the World Cup and Champions League mountain tops.

But suspicions about his fitness first raised by Pep Guardiola, that he might be a hard driven engine paying a price for heavy mileage, appeared confirmed when he was left out of Van Gaal’s starting XI.

When the German arrived on the hour he did appear a class above, the majesty of his Bayern Munich years evident in a few insolent touches.

For Van Gaal to remain secure on the throne, he will require his German praetorian to remain sufficiently able-bodied to patrol the palace walls.

Because even in victory, this mixed, erratic display suggests the guillotine is a long way from being decommissioned.

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