Saturday 21 July 2018

Lucky Louis sees his charges get a rub of the green on debut day

Van Gaal breathes a sigh of relief as United's new signings impress, writes Dion Fanning

Tottenham’s Kyle Walker diverts the ball into his own net as Wayne Rooney looks on at Old Trafford yesterday
Tottenham’s Kyle Walker diverts the ball into his own net as Wayne Rooney looks on at Old Trafford yesterday

Dion Fanning

Manchester United are in such a rush these days that it must sometimes seem as if the slow crawl of a football season is in itself a great obstacle to their ambitions.

Louis Van Gaal's work will be judged long before next May, but the early days of August are probably not the time to assess a team, no matter how urgent their rebuilding.

Having spent more than £200m in the past year, United may not be in a position to ask for patience - but the painful grind that was their victory against Tottenham Hotspur on the opening day suggests they'll need it.

They had something else as well, something Van Gaal has always been known for in Holland, where he acquired nicknames which recognised his tendency to get whatever good fortune was around. "We were lucky today," he said after the game, during a press conference which had many golden Van Gaal moments and ended with him singing the chorus to 'When I'm Sixty-Four' to mark his 64th birthday.

A Kyle Walker own goal had given the home side three points against Spurs, while good fortune might have been as important in seeing United through. Yet, Van Gaal was also prepared to take the blame for his side's sluggish performance, admitting he had stressed the need for a victory after last season's poor start to the season.

"You didn't ask about the result?" he said when the first question after the game mentioned United's performance. "Already you are a little bit suggestive," he said with a smile. "But you are right. The most important thing is that we have won. Our start was very bad last year."

He gave four players their debut at Old Trafford yesterday, while only four in the starting XI - Chris Smalling, Ashley Young, Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney - had been part of Alex Ferguson's era only two years ago, another reminder of the speed at which things are being rebuilt and, consequently, dismantled.

"I firmly believe in the refreshment of teams," United's manager said in his programme notes - and few would dispute that. "With new players joining, we also see a number of players departing, which is probably one of the hardest parts of a manager's job."

Perhaps Van Gaal meant the process of finding somebody to buy the players is the hard part, because he has never seemed to find it difficult to move on or to fall out with players.

Van Gaal certainly gives the impression that he is hastily creating a masterpiece which would be completed sooner if the endless trains of the faithless and the cities filled with the foolish were not intent on slowing him down.

Just before half-time yesterday, three men in club suits walked out of the VIP tribune. One of them stopped to playfully slap a security guard, or it may even have been a farewell.

David De Gea's presence in the stand alongside Victor Valdes - who wasn't listed among the squad in the match programme - and Anders Lindegaard, was a reminder that United may need to keep up their frenetic recruitment policy simply because they don't know who Van Gaal will fall out with next.

He had surprised many at the press conference on Friday when he commented that De Gea had not been the player "of last year" during pre-season and would not be ready to play on the opening day of the season.

Van Gaal said De Gea was not in the right frame of mind to start against Tottenham and, while Sam Johnstone had played in pre-season, Sergio Romero was chosen to be among those making his debut yesterday.

Romero hadn't started a league game since December 2014 - so, in dropping De Gea, United were also relying on a player "of last year".

Memphis Depay had a fine debut and, once Spurs had realised that they would need to attack if they wanted to equalise, Romero dealt with everything that came his way.

Matteo Darmian was the most impressive of the newcomers, a feeling that was strengthened when Van Gaal made the strange decision to take him off 10 minutes from the end. In his absence, Christian Eriksen found the space he had previously been denied and United had to hang on.

In those moments Spurs looked like the side which had controlled the first 20 minutes, unsettling United's midfield with their pressing game.

"Neither side could handle the pressure," Van Gaal said, but in the opening 15 minutes United's players were the ones who looked like they couldn't handle it, as Tottenham's midfield closed down Michael Carrick and Morgan Schneiderlin and prevented them from turning on the ball.

When Spurs did get the ball, they relied on Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen - who were linking well - with one move ending with Eriksen putting a chance over the bar.

In the opening spell, United had done little in attack except for a Darmian run and cross, but they were a side which also seemed to sense that Spurs would make a mistake.

Nabil Bentaleb had spent the first 20 minutes hustling in midfield, but Michael Carrick had just intercepted one pass of his before he made it too easy for Juan Mata to read another.

One United ball moved via Memphis Depay to Ashley Young, and his cross found Wayne Rooney. Walker had closed a hesitant Rooney down but, in robbing him, he knocked the ball past Vorm.

United livened up, relieved of the pressure, but the game took a long time to get going and, when it did, invariably it went nowhere.

Mauricio Pochettino said afterwards that he needs more players. There was only one new signing - Toby Alderweireld - in their starting XI but their players waited until late in the second half before they demonstrated that they were any more familiar with each other than United's squad, which is evolving all the time.

Pochettino said he felt his side were fitter than United's, which some people might consider a consolation.

Bastian Schweinsteiger came on to make his Premier League debut in the second half and it was a debut which confirmed Van Gaal's view that he needs to work on his fitness.

Yet, he also offered an authority United need - especially during all the turmoil. Van Gaal seems comfortable with all the upheaval. But that has always been one of his characteristics, along with the luck which seems to follow him around the same way trophies do.

United target staying in Lyon

Reported Arsenal and Manchester United target Alexandre Lacazette has committed his future to Lyon for another year.

The 24-year-old forward, who scored 27 Ligue 1 goals and 31 in total last season, has extended his contract at the Stade Gerland until 2019. The surprise announcement was made during the official presentation of former United defender Rafael.

"I am very happy and proud to prolong my deal," said Lacazette. "Now the gossiping can stop . . . but I hope people are able to keep talking about me because I'm scoring goals and Lyon are winning things."

Lyon, whose league campaign begins against Lorient today, finished as runners-up to Paris Saint-Germain last season.

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