Belfast Telegraph

Rude awakening leaves Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal craving fresh blood

By Simon Hart

It was Phil Neville, speaking on the BBC on Saturday lunchtime, who noted that the last time Manchester United had played with wing-backs was on the opening day of the 1995/96 season. That was the day of a 3-1 defeat at Aston Villa and Alan Hansen's famous observation that "you win nothing with kids" – the cue, famously, for a League and Cup double-winning campaign.

Two decades on, there were even harsher verdicts delivered after Saturday's sobering 2-1 home loss to Swansea City which marked an ignominious start to the reign of Louis van Gaal.

Steve McManaman, another ex-Liverpool man playing the Hansen role on BT Sport, declared this the worst United team in the Premier League era, and few would argue that his claim carries rather more substance.

"Don't Panic" was the headline on the back page of Saturday's Manchester Evening News – in reference to the lack of transfer activity since the arrivals of Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw in June – but it is tempting to imagine Van Gaal having an urgent discussion with Edward Woodward, his chief executive, after United's unconvincing display.

Van Gaal showed with his team selection – handing debuts to midfielder Jesse Lingard and Tyler Blackett, who played on the left side of the back three, and Jesse Lingard – that he is a man to continue his new club's admirable tradition of bringing through their own, but the troubles of 20-year-old Blackett underlined United's problems.

He did not have a Gary Pallister alongside him, as the Neville brothers had in 1995, but instead Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. And his inexperience told when he kicked the ball straight to Wilfried Bony, allowing Swansea to take a quick free-kick in the run-up to Gylfi Sigurdsson's winning strike. With Ashley Young's defensive struggles at left wing-back highlighted by the fact he was exposed for both goals, the need for reinforcements to make Van Gaal's preferred 3-4-1-2 system work looked urgent.

Van Gaal's pursuit of Sporting Lisbon's Argentina defender Marcos Rojo and interest in Ajax wing-back Daley Blind –and failed attempt to sign Thomas Vermaelen – reveal his wish to add experience to his back line. Further upfield Arturo Vidal and Angel Di Maria remain reported targets, understandably so given United's lack of both pace and creativity.

There are echoes of last year when, as David Moyes recalled in a newspaper interview yesterday, United were missing out on other targets. "There was talk of [Cristiano] Ronaldo when I first arrived," Moyes said. "We were close to getting a couple of major names. I'm not getting in a blame game here but things just didn't materialise."

Whatever Moyes' failings, his conviction that he needed more time to turn United round seemed reasonable in the light of Saturday's events, and midfielder Darren Fletcher believes time is needed now for a team "still learning the new system and implementing it".

Van Gaal has history here – he took just two points from his first three Bundesliga games with Bayern Munich.

But regardless of which players Van Gaal does sign, Fletcher still argues that the players already at the club should not be written off.

"It's disappointing today but comments like [McManaman's] give us a greater determination, without a shadow of a doubt," he said.

"This whole club is about bouncing back from adversity. You have to be a big character to play for this club."

Applauding Van Gaal's decision to promote the club's youngsters, Fletcher added: "There are plenty of characters in the dressing room and plenty of players ready to step up. People talk about the players that have left but I see it in the eyes of the young players, they're ready for it."

Only time will tell, though United can at least rely on Wayne Rooney, the new captain. He scored their equalising goal, hit the post with a free-kick and was seen running back to shout at his defenders after Sigurdsson's decisive strike.

Rooney said United's defending had let them down but promised an improvement would come.

"We know last season was a disaster [and] we were ready for the start of this season [but] conceded two sloppy goals and we have to learn from that," he said.

"We have to be more demanding in what we are doing. We will learn, especially with the manager we have got."

What may take time, on Saturday's evidence, is for Van Gaal to restore United's old fear factor. Swansea had never won at Old Trafford until this year. Now they have done it twice in eight months. Fletcher admits it is a priority. "I think it is, yes.

"We've lost games in the past at Old Trafford and it does happen in all seasons but we want to bring that fear factor back and I still think we can," Fletcher insisted.

For Van Gaal, it was certainly a rude awakening. He believed, courtesy of pre-season, that major surgery wasn't really required at Old Trafford.

But this was a real wake-up call, and now he's racing against time to avoid another disappointing United performance in a transfer window.

Belfast Telegraph


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