Manchester United suffered a first premier league defeat of the season at Swansea on Sunday to bring into sharp focus the state of the club ahead of the close of the transfer window and in view of the rest of the season ahead. In what was Louis van Gaal's 50th game in charge of the club, United failed to respond quickly to a change of shape by the home side early in the second half to cede their unbeaten status this season.
On the Team News
Ander Herrera's start in the Number 10 position was greeted with much cheer but more so because Louis van Gaal set out what on paper looks looked like our strongest XI. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin won the midfield vote ahead of Michael Carrick while the manager resisted the temptation to start Fellaini from the off.
United started brightly and should have scored at least twice within the opening 20 minutes. Juan Mata sliced a clean shot wide when he really should have aimed for the far post. At least he managed to get the shot away. The same however cannot be said about Wayne Rooney. The captain was put through twice in the opening half but failed to capitalise. When he wasn't hesitating to take a goal-bound shot, he was trying to chip Lukas Fabianski with the goalkeeper firmly on his feet. Wayne would get to repeat the former tick in the last few minutes by hesitating long enough to yet again allow Ashley Williams a chance to make a recovery tackle.
Yes, the system has its flaws but it assumes much more of the player leading the line than he really is. Wayne, bless him, might yet break the club's all time goalscoring record but should start getting to terms with the burn-out that is affecting his game. There is no doubt that the Rooney of old wouldn't have thought one bit about bringing the ball under control with only a goalkeeper in his way. Indeed, at this level, you are never going to get as much time as two touches in the penalty box to get a shot a
way. It's 4 games in and the tally is now three times Wayne has been caught in a time-warp inside the box waiting for calm and composure to finish what would ordinarily be bread and butter for him. Now there's a yardstick for his confidence levels!
In a system that dictates that United will fashion one chance every ten to fifteen minutes means that the striker needs to be as sharp as
On The Sub-Plots
Chris Smalling and Daley Blind have been an exceptional unit as a defence so far, but it was always going to take a big man in their midst to render them all over the place. They've been shielded so far by an otherwise excellent midfield but their ultimate test was always going to be when a big man stood right in their midst. As it were, they came up horribly short with Gomis enjoying probably one of his more successful days up top.
The worry for United is that in the absence of a new central defender to bolster options, teams will now look at that and develop a template to cause uncertainty in the heart of United's defence. Whether Marcos Rojo would fair any better remains debatable as the Argentine also suffered from similar treatment last season.
Defensive problems on the day were exacerbated by the confidence levels or lack of that Sergio Romero exhibited. His goal-kick remains as suspect as his positioning. Louis van Gaal rightly protected him from the media inquest that followed but it will not do his cause any good that he got beat at his near post for the winner. Besides catching a ball (not saving a shot) and passing it out from the back, there seems little else he is competent to do. The goalkeeping situation largely hinges on the last 24 hours of the window. Keep De Gea for another season and its sorted for now, lose the Spaniard and United will need to score more goals to compensate for the ones they'll inevitably lose as the Argentine is built up into a decent keeper.
Memphis Depay yet again failed to rise beyond the irritation of premier league attention. Whereas he remains the most exciting player in the squad, he is not being as direct as his talent demands. His job description should include to get into the box more frequently than he is doing at the moment. One feels though, that in the absence of an attack that can complement his abilities and thought process, he will remain blunted for the most part.
On the flip side, I thought Luke Shaw was our most accomplished player on the park. The strides he has made since last season are testament to how attitude and determination are often the difference between success and failure.
On The Bottom Line
A third straight 2-1 defeat to Swansea might be somewhat misleading in terms of evaluating Louis van Gaal's first 50 games in charge. On the surface, it reads zero progress. A closer look however suggests that United have grown from all over the place to needing just a couple of signings to complete the turn-around. Popular opinion remains that another striker and a defender/goalkeeper would elevate United to title winners. However Louis van Gaal's Minority Report indicates that he can make it work even without the much vaunted additions. What's for certain is that en route to proving us wrong, LVG will have to answer some uncomfortable questions.
7 points from 4 games is not the worst start to a league season but now, more than before, the pressure is on to respond to two games without a win after the International break. That the next fixture is a North-West derby against Liverpool builds it up as some sort of Judgement Day for both Louis van Gaal and Brendan Rogers. Just when both thought it was all going North, it could easily go South for either of them on that day. Intriguingly, there is only one unwanted ticket for the South train on September 12th.