James Lawton: Louis van Gaal's signings send a message to desperate Man City
Published 17/07/2015 | 02:30
Now that the international transfer market has become such a high-priced lottery - when the big question is not whether the megastar can play but whether he truly has a thirst for the highest competition - it is not so easy to say that a manager is defined by his signings.
Except, maybe, in the case of Louis van Gaal, who this week paraded his three new signings in Seattle.
The Dutchman was launching the second phase of his rebuilding of United, after an impressive first season of re-announcing the club's reputation, and you could be sure the message was received back at the home of the noisy neighbours.
Forty-eight hours after Manchester City presented Raheem Sterling, their little bundle of problematic brilliance, Van Gaal made the basis of his own £50m investment trenchantly clear.
In Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin and Matteo Darmian, he couldn't compete with the headline potential of the most expensive player in the history of English football.
But what he could say, and inevitably did, was that he had acquired for United three exemplary examples of his favourite football theory.
It is that all the talent in the world is limited in value if not backed by the requisite character - and that he had just signed up three players of fine skill but also proven commitment.
"I have to say to the players, you have to fight for your position. Morgan Schneiderlin has to fight Schweinsteiger, Michael Carrick, Daley Blind - these are players who can play in the centre of midfield.
"Matteo Darmian has to fight with Antonio Valencia at right back, he knows this.
"Michael Carrick knows it too, at the end of last season I have told him."
What he didn't say, of course, was that the picture he was painting of the challenges being laid down at Old Trafford stands, for the moment at least, in the sharpest of contrast to the ethos of the Etihad Stadium across town.
Sterling may just re-ignite the fires that ran so low at City in their inept defence of a title that some would say came to them almost by default, not least in the failure of Sterling's old club Liverpool to maintain a challenge once filled with promise.
The embattled Manuel Pellegrini, who so many expected to fall in a summer of harsh evaluation of the club's ageing talent pool and apparently dwindling motivation, proclaims Sterling an inspiring new ingredient, a catalyst maybe but for fresh drive and re-created ambition.
Read more: Unwanted Valdes has swipe back at Van Gaal
However, if either of the Manchester behemoths suggests that an old mooring, and set of values, has been re-found, it is surely United.
The Van Gaal principles of professional discipline, a sense that a career can quickly founder for a lack of will, have maybe never been so emphatically underlined as when he unveiled what looked very much like a new core of resolution in his squad - a quality that was always demanded by his predecessor Alex Ferguson.
And was, of course, the last statement of competitive fury when Ferguson prised out a final title triumph from a squad which would soon be exposed as unfit for purpose.
Schweinsteiger is plainly hired, as he approaches his 31st birthday, not merely for the residue of a talent that helped Germany to the World Cup last summer but was no longer considered to be a guarantee of a place in Pep Guardiola's new Bayern.
He has arrived with the promise of a determination to fight in a way peculiar to the tradition of United, and one that was epitomised by Bryan Robson and Roy Keane.
Schweinsteiger may not bring the best of himself, the years of monumental physical and emotional effort have no doubt seen to that, but what he still has is deemed to be vital to Van Gaal's continued effort to re-make the club he found in such disarray so recently.
It is a remarkable tribute to the enduring quality of a natural-born competitor, one who was first released on to the big stage by Van Gaal when he was in Munich.
Neither Schneiderlin nor Darmian have anything like the same pedigree but in important respects they meet the Van Gaal criteria.
Darmian, as the manager has already pointed out in his unforgiving way, is a sounder defender than the departing eye-catcher Rafael da Silva, and he also has impressive speed.
Most vitally he has established himself in the Italian national team, a place which denies entrance to all but the most technically sound defenders.
Schneiderlin, as he proved with Southampton and France, is a midfielder of poise and creativity - and also a professional of some considerable responsibility.
When Southampton's new manager Ronald Koeman contemplated a half-empty training field after the player exodus that came before the start of last season, he made a swift understanding with the Frenchman.
"Give me a season," said Koeman, "and you can make your own future."
It was a good deal, the new Saints flourished, and no doubt Schneiderlin ticked a box for Van Gaal which perhaps Sterling and his agent might never recognise.
Where all this leaves United, when set against the weight of the new elite of European football, the truly big spenders Real Madrid, Barca, Bayern and the emerging Paris SG, is a question which will be examined soon enough.
But on their own battleground, United have surely raised a flag for the value of strong discipline and the most serious commitment.
It is a claim that City can hardly register with the signing of the anarchy-inclined Sterling and all the question marks now set against such former stalwarts as Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany.
City, maybe with a little desperation, have gone for new blood. United have paid less for an older strain, but there is not much argument about which, at this point, looks the more reliable.