Sunday 19 January 2020

New start, but Swans make United pay for old failings

With a big blow on the pitch, the focus will now be off it

Gylfi Sigurdsson of Swansea City celebrates scoring his team's second goal as Manchester United crashed to an opening day defeat under their new manager. Photo credit: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Gylfi Sigurdsson of Swansea City celebrates scoring his team's second goal as Manchester United crashed to an opening day defeat under their new manager. Photo credit: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Dion Fanning

In the long run, which in football means anything beyond the next 72 hours, Louis van Gaal might welcome the defeat by Swansea City at Old Trafford in his first competitive game yesterday. In the short-term - and football is often nothing but a series of short terms - this was a demoralising blow for United and their supporters, who felt things would be different this year.

There was nothing politic about Van Gaal's words afterwards. The confidence built up during United's impressive pre-season would be "smashed" by the defeat to Swansea, he said, and there was a sense of disbelief at Old Trafford. They had endured much last season, but all had changed. In fact United had embraced revolutionary change, but the result - at least this result - was the same.

Van Gaal said the title would not be decided on the opening day and the fact that he was talking about the title illustrates one difference with Moyes. Arsenal's defeat on the first weekend last season didn't prevent them embarking on an impressive run in the Premier League and returning to the top four must be United's target.

Van Gaal's achievements in management will ensure he is not vulnerable and is unlikely to be sacked before the end of the season as David Moyes was, but that doesn't mean that there will be patience from the supporters.

When Moyes was under pressure, some, like Gary 
Neville, warned that United must not become a sacking club, whatever that means. United acted fast to get rid of Moyes and that was the right thing to do, but in the process they may have become a club that goes in search of scapegoats and as they rebuild, they won't be hard to find.

Marouane Fellaini was booed during United's final pre-season game last week, suggesting that some supporters remain on the hunt for people to blame.

Alex Ferguson was in the stand yesterday, but if he was seen as an overbearing presence for Moyes last season, this year the pressure will be on somebody other than the man in the dugout.

At the final whistle, Ed Woodward shuffled out of the Old Trafford directors' box, his desire for a straightforward exit hindered by the contingent of Swansea directors, along with friends and family, who were applauding their side from the VIP tribune. United had lost an opening day home game for the first time since 1972 and Woodward will have to spend the next couple of weeks making the signings that will improve this side because there is only so much Van Gaal can do to improve the players he has.

Afterwards, Van Gaal 
refused to talk about the players he needs, saying that if he did so after the defeat, they would become linked to the loss and he didn't want that. Others won't be so restrained.

There were mitigating circumstances, specifically United's lengthy injury list, but Woodward had told supporters to "watch this space" as he giddily promised signings that would transform United from a team that finished seventh to one that some have predicted would challenge for the title.

The next couple of weeks will be as fascinating off the pitch as on it. United confused stability with drift last summer and there is nothing in Van Gaal's nature that suggests he is prepared to copy the mistakes of others.

Yet this was a blow. Much was made of United's gentle run of opening fixtures this season, but having lost at home to Swansea on the opening day, the idea that there can be anything gentle in the rebuilding of Manchester United has to be dismissed. Perhaps there were a few players among the Manchester United team who thought it would be easy, but Van Gaal said that he felt they were nervous in the first 45 minutes and Swansea City looked the more organised, the more complete side, although Van Gaal said it was easier for them as they played on the counter-attack.

They also found United's weaknesses. Van Gaal has made no secret of United's vulnerability. "Every team shall create possibilities or chances because we are playing with a big space behind us," he said again 
afterwards. Swansea would try to get behind the wing-backs and their opening goal came as they played the ball in front of United's defence with the midfield looking characteristically helpless.

Another injury when Jesse Lingard didn't recover from an Ashley Williams challenge didn't help Van Gaal. Williams seemed intent on adding to United's injury crisis going in hard just after Lingard was replaced, but Phil Jones bounced back up. Van Gaal made another change at half-time, taking off Javier Hernandez, replacing him with Nani and ditching his 3-5-2 formation.

Swansea had found it too easy to deal with, especially as Ashley Young was a wing-back who appeared unable to run, a profound failing in that position. Young started the second half at left-back, a platform for him to demonstrate other failings. Swansea's manager, Garry Monk, said afterwards that his side had spent pre-season working on being "ready to play against whatever formation we face", but he can't have anticipated the work being so easily rewarded.

United gave a demonstration in the negative aspect of the formation as they looked predictable for the first half and found it impossible to create space for their forwards.

But Young was not the only problem. Manchester United's front three spent 45 minutes looking disconnected from each other and their team-mates. Juan Mata could find no way into the game, Hernandez looked limited whenever he moved away from the box and United were never close enough to Swansea's goal to discover if he had retained his sharpness inside it. Rooney spent 45 minutes trying to overcome everyone else's deficiencies as well as his own.

Van Gaal has always promoted a certain type of football, but he has never been afraid to abandon something if it isn't working. He has principles and if they don't work for the team, he has others.

The second half suggested he had found them when Rooney equalised with an overhead kick, the crowd roared and it looked like there was life again.

United were now playing with a flat back four and looked like they would overrun Swansea and this would be the perfect start for Van Gaal, combining a scare to keep everybody grounded and remind the board what they need with the victory that would suggest he has the touch of genius to take all United's troubles away.

Instead Swansea scored again through the excellent Gylfi Sigurdsson after Young misjudged a cross and United ended the game hitting long balls into the box hoping that Fellaini could be a saviour. David Moyes' big signing had scored the winner in injury-time against Valencia on Tuesday night, but that felt like another time.

United were listless in the final minutes, another failing carried over from last season. This wasn't pre-season, this wasn't the fairytale and scapegoats weren't about to become saviours.

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