Van Gaal holds title challenge up sleeve
United are the chaotic antidote to Chelsea's mechanical dominance, writes Paul Wilson
The new Premier League season is about to commence and, rather oddly, the question on everyone's lips is not who will win the title but how Manchester United are going to fare. A soap opera to rival television's more traditional Mancunian output is taking shape now that Louis Van Gaal knows his way around England and the Old Trafford purse strings have been loosened to the extent that buying or selling almost anyone seems possible.
This is not merely a northern perspective, either. While Jose Mourinho remains in charge at Chelsea, the general perception is that there is where the title will end up, so not much conversational interest is to be whipped up there. It might just be possible to find a few excitable Arsenal supporters who will disagree but Chelsea are the sitting tenants.
In contests against Mourinho, Arsene Wenger still has it all to prove. Manuel Pellegrini is in a similar position, and though the £49m acquisition of Raheem Sterling should brighten up dull afternoons at the Etihad no end, Manchester City appear to be treading water awaiting their next managerial appointment rather than addressing last season's shortcomings and gearing up for a title charge.
That is the Mourinho effect, if you like. He knows how to win things, has the track record to prove it and, short of a bust-up with Roman Abramovich or an unprecedented injury crisis wiping out the league's best-organised defence, it is difficult to imagine what might knock the Chelsea machine off course. The broad assumption is that the title is Chelsea's to lose, or conversely that it is going to take something extraordinary to stop them, and the feeling is that neither Wenger nor Pellegrini have anything extraordinary up their sleeves.
Van Gaal just might. United do not look like potential title contenders yet, it must be said. They have been a long way off the pace for the past couple of seasons and any sensible betting money must go with the defending champions. But at least some sort of revolution is going on at Old Trafford. Van Gaal is not going to take mediocrity lying down.
Looking back with hindsight, David Moyes did not even try to change anything in the first season after Alex Ferguson's retirement, because the mistaken belief was that United had a successful formula that could be replicated by practically any dour Scot with a firm grounding in management.
Van Gaal's brief after that was simply to pick up the pieces and put the show back on the Champions League road, something he managed without too many alarms, though in the early part of last season especially there were as many false notes as flourishes.
Now, though, Van Gaal is putting his own stamp on the side and barely a day goes by without a surprise. Robin Van Persie exiled at 31. Angel Di Maria surplus to requirements at £60m. Wayne Rooney the main man in attack, after regularly being deployed in midfield last season. Luke Shaw bigged up for no apparent reason. Matteo Darmian signed then told he stood behind Antonio Valencia in the pecking order (though he seems to have already won his manager's confidence).
Valencia is hardly the complete article as a right-back in any case but describing him thus avoids listing him in midfield, where United have an almost chaotic assortment of first-team candidates. Assuming Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin will start most games, at least most big games, and Memphis Depay will have a role to play too, that still leaves Juan Mata, Ashley Young, Marouane Fellaini, Adnan Januzaj, Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick to fight for the two remaining places behind Rooney.
Even that ignores Daley Blind, arguably more of a midfielder than a defender, and whoever arrives to take Di Maria's place. If that is Barcelona's Pedro, as appears increasingly possible, then Van Gaal will have some of the creativity he craves, though it would be slightly ironic were the Spain player to nudge Young out of the side. Young was actually one of United's successes last season, only for his manager to point out, fairly though a little tactlessly, that he was no Neymar. Neither is Pedro, evidently, or Barcelona would not be making him available.
Coming from a manager who spent much of the last season stressing the need for balance in the squad, this is almost incomprehensible. All that spending in midfield and still starting with Blind and Phil Jones/Chris Smalling in central defence? Let Van Persie and Radamel Falcao leave and simply revert to Rooney as goal-getter?
There seems to be more confidence than logic at work here, yet confidence should not be underestimated. Most United supporters are probably glad to see Rooney back up front, as will be the player himself. The last time United put their trust in a 29-year-old goalscorer things did not work out too badly, after all.
And if Chelsea's smooth, mechanical efficiency is gently squeezing the life out of the Premier League's title race, then United might be setting themselves up as the unpredictable, unguessable antidote. Are they going to be back as a force this season or will they explode in all directions like a loud but not particularly ingenious firework? No one knows but it should be worth watching. Broadcasters picked the right fixture to open the season.
Moving on to any other business, the answer to the question about whether anyone new can crack the top four this season is no. Will there be any unexpected relegations? Depends what is meant by unexpected.
Bournemouth, Norwich and Watford all look capable of going straight back down, more so than is usually the case, though a couple of last season's survivors still look precarious. Leicester only stayed up by the skin of their teeth and Claudio Ranieri seems an odd choice of manager for a team in their circumstances, reminiscent of when Aston Villa turned to an ailing and out-of-touch Gerard Houllier a few seasons ago and promptly regretted it.
Sunderland supporters will not be expecting to march up the table under draw specialist Dick Advocaat, though they could conceivably finish higher than Newcastle, whose various problems have not disappeared merely by virtue of hiring a former England manager.
Villa themselves have lost their leading scorer and their captain and on the evidence of last season can ill-afford to do so. Yet judging by his shortlist of possible striking replacements - Emmanuel Adebayor, Dimitar Berbatov, Rudy Gestede - Tim Sherwood is still a font of can-do positivity. Rather like Manchester United supporters, the Villa Park faithful might not know what lies ahead but can be reasonably certain of entertainment along the way. And about time too.
Predictions? If you insist. Chelsea champions, Arsenal and both Manchester teams to complete top four. Leicester to go down, along with Bournemouth and Watford. Entertainment value - Manchester United, Liverpool, Crystal Palace, West Ham, Aston Villa. Steady but no cigars - Southampton, Stoke, Swansea and Tottenham. Not all that entertaining - Everton, Newcastle, Sunderland, West Brom. But then again, as Chelsea supporters must say all the time, it depends what is meant by entertainment.
Sunday Indo Sport