Old Trafford. It is a name that conjures many memories, most of which, given over two decades of unparalleled success, are happy ones. It is also a name that, during the last quarter of a century, has struck fear into the hearts of those who have visited it, for it had become a fortress; more often than not, the ‘Home of the Champions.’
Now, after yet another dismal defeat within its walls, that fortress lies in ruins. Now, the likes of Swansea City can not just win for a second time in eight months there, but do so while giving Manchester United a lesson in the art of playing football. Now, this great stadium reverberates with the sound of the wailing and gnashing of teeth of supporters frantic in the face of their beloved clubs shocking decline where, not so long ago, it reverberated with the roar of victory and celebration.
Opposition players no longer dread this place. Indeed, it appears they now relish the opportunity to make off with English football’s biggest scalp while their own fans’ chants of derision drown out the weary groans and nervous murmurings of the home crowd.
Invincibility has been replaced with vulnerability; joy with despair.
At times, last season, it almost felt as though Sir Alex Ferguson’s empire could be heard crumbling around the hapless David Moyes. Now it is the job of Louis van Gaal to rebuild it, brick by brick. The scale of the job was laid bare against Swansea, when United’s players performed as if Moyes, not Van Gaal, was still stood on the side-line.
The new manager spoke of nerves, after the match, suggesting that the players’ confidence had been ‘smashed.’ This was a telling and troubling remark and it was difficult not to sense the echoes of last season within them. The still-raw scars of Moyes’ tenure had been reopened at the first sign of difficulty. Players who, little over a year ago, had been crowned champions of England were no longer able to deal with the slightest hint of adversity.
It will be fascinating to see how the team performs away from Old Trafford. Even under Moyes, United’s record on the road was fairly impressive. The football may still have left a lot to be desired, but United managed to grind out results, at least against the Premier League’s lesser lights.
Sunday’s trip to Sunderland will test Van Gaal’s ability to pick the players up after the bleak result against Swansea. Confidence, that most crucial of ingredients in any football team, needs to be quickly restored, and it may just be that a couple of weeks playing away from the brutal glare of Old Trafford is just what the doctor ordered. Should United return to the Theatre of Dreams for their September 14th clash with Queens Park Rangers having secured six points, particularly if they have done so by playing the kind of football we all saw on their US tour, hopefully with a few more new recruits to freshen up the dressing room, the mood around the club could feel drastically different.
The matter of more new signings is a crucial one. Van Gaal must have experienced a severe sinking feeling as he watched his first competitive game in charge. The lack of dynamism was stark, as were the defensive frailties. United fans have been tearing their hair out all summer over the club’s failure to address the gaping holes within the squad, made all the more frustrating when set in the context of European and domestic rivals continuing to recruit talent early and from a position of strength. It is impossible not to feel that a chasm is opening up between United and the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea, not to mention European powerhouses such as Bayern Munich and Real Madrid.
It is difficult not to have got sucked into the vortex of doom and gloom that has, once again, engulfed the club since Saturday’s defeat. It is, however, worth bearing in mind that one poor result does not need to become a disaster from which it is impossible to recover. Indeed, the impoverished performance may have served to focus some minds within the United hierarchy.
Furthermore, despite Saturday’s performance being worryingly Moyesian, United have a different manager at the helm now; a manager with a proven record of success at the very highest level. It will take all of Louis van Gaal’s considerable talents to restore Manchester United to the upper echelons of English and European football but, provided he gets the backing he requires, United fans should have every confidence that he can do so.
His first job, and one that could make or break his time at the club, is to rebuild the ‘smashed’ confidence of his players and, somehow, restore Old Trafford into the fortress that it should be.