Louis van Gaal's reign as Manchester United manager began with a 2-1 defeat by Swansea that revived memories of last year's dismal campaign at Old Trafford.
Maybe now it should be clearer why Louis van Gaal has been telling anyone who cares to listen that nobody should be surprised if Manchester United’s rehabilitation takes longer than they would ideally like. He had warned his new club to expect some difficult moments and here was the hard evidence that the change of manager at Old Trafford is not simply going to wash away the team’s various shortcomings.
For long spells it was a cloying sense of deja vu attached to the team that finished seventh last season, 22 points off the top, and drastically in need of some more dynamism. They were short of ideas, huffing and puffing their way towards a demoralising defeat, and if Van Gaal had listened closely he would have made out the mocking chants from the away end, as the visiting fans embarked on the repertoire of songs that formed the soundtrack to David Moyes’s time at Old Trafford.
Swansea were too streetwise, defending in a pack then breaking on the counterattack and exploiting the mistakes in United’s defence to win through Gylfi Sigurdsson’s 72nd-minute goal, making an immediate impact in his second stint with the Welsh team. Sigurdsson was also involved when Ki Sung-yueng gave Swansea a first-half lead and it would be unfair on Garry Monk’s team if their performance was lost amid the scrutiny of their opponents. They never lost their nerve even after Wayne Rooney’s equaliser, early in the second half, when United finally looked like they might rediscover some of the old panache.
It turned out to be an illusion and Van Gaal will certainly have learned a little more about what needs to be put right. Unfortunately for him, it is a considerable list, bearing in mind the absence of pace, the erratic passing of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, and the general lack of flair, as if somewhere along the line this proud club have lost sight of what should be expected in those red shirts.
The sight of Tyler Blackett in the back line and Jesse Lingard starting the match as the right wing-back should also conjure up mixed feelings. Van Gaal was the man who brought through a 16-year-old Clarence Seedorf and gave a debut to the teenage David Alaba and Thomas Müller but in United’s case these players are in because of the fragile nature of their squad, exacerbated by a punishing injury list and a lack of signings.
Van Gaal has been working with a 3-4-1-2 system ever since he took the job but here was the evidence that too much can be read into positive pre-season results. At half-time, the new manager had seen enough. Ashley Young was moved to left-back in a more orthodox 4-2-3-1 formation and, briefly, there was at least an improvement. Rooney hooked in Jones’s flick-on from a Juan Mata corner and at that stage it was easy to imagine United might complete the fightback.
Instead, Smalling was caught dozing from a quickly taken free-kick and Jefferson Montero, one of Swansea’s substitutes, broke down the left before turning his cross into the penalty area. Wayne Routledge’s shot was mistimed but the ball fell kindly for Sigurdsson to side-foot a shot that struck the goalkeeper, David de Gea, but squeezed over the line.
United had plenty of the ball as they desperately tried to find one of their late goals but their problem all afternoon was that they rarely did enough with it. Too often the ball was passed around at the back or sideways through midfield. It was when they had to be more adventurous that they came up badly short.
Robin van Persie was badly missed and Javier Hernández was poor enough to be substituted at the interval.
Swansea had the greater pace and penetration and opened the scoring in the 28th minute. Until that stage, they had barely threatened but Ander Herrera lost Ki in the buildup and Wilfried Bony did a superb job of getting in the way of Jones to help his team-mate pick his spot without anyone closing him down. Nathan Dyer and Sigurdsson had worked the ball to Ki and his left-foot shot found the bottom corner from just outside the penalty area.
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