August for Manchester United didn’t go as expected considering the ridiculously easy set of opening fixtures and associated betting odds – but then it sort of went exactly as expected, in the back of our minds, at least since David Moyes made it his mission to make us all a little more humble. It turns out that, yes, there would be no quick fix. Even the manager says it’ll take three months before it finally starts to click. But the sight of Europe’s elite carved open by Ashley Young at left-wing back, under the guidance of the man that gave Tim Krul special powers, and many couldn’t help but believe.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons not to lose faith. The most obvious one is that this is just the start, the start of the start, and still some way from the end of the start, with the starts and ends of the middle and end still to come. That United will struggle again is not exactly an unrealistic suggestion, but neither is it that they’ll have some success. That should come as a comfort for a team that has failed to win in four, and who could count themselves lucky, when not humiliated, to emerge from a game merely frustrated.
It’s also worth considering the man in charge. With a brain that’s worked in Amsterdam, Barcelona and Munich located in an interestingly sized head, he’s hard to miss. Louis van Gaal’s track record is not quite perfect, but his past doesn’t require probing the kind his predecessor would have been familiar with. It appears a better fit this time, and, having not yet reached the point where we know just how true that is, there’s conviction in the things he says and the way he carries himself to trust him for now. (Though we should always leave room to question him when appropriate … coming shortly).
Patience cannot be stressed more. It’s probably not normal to have the number of players injured enter double figures at any time in the season, but it’s good for argument’s sake that it coincides with bad form at the very start. Nobody could really deny that United, in this new 3-5-2 formation, would be better off with Rafael or Luke Shaw providing the width. Rafael was below-par last season, but it’s noteworthy any time United have looked creative down that flank in recent times that he was there playing. Even Michael Carrick, who followed a genuinely great season with an unfathomably terrible one, could have been of use in the Reds’ midfield void. And 270 minutes of Premier League football for Ander Herrera, rather than just the hour against Swansea (where they notably tailed off after his substitution), might have made for a slightly less rueful August. “We have this many injuries!” isn’t supposed to sound like an excuse, though naturally it is, but a reason why things should look better very soon.
A lot of that is based on expectation. What we’ve actually seen has not been good. Of the seven goals United have conceded, including all four against MK Dons, six of them were preventable. And those six (excluding Sunderland’s Jack Rodwell’s goal from the corner), it’s sad to say, had something to do with the formation. For example, Swansea’s first goal via Ki came from too much space in front of an exposed defence. Others, like in the cup game, came from defenders putting each other under pressure because of the positions they picked the ball up in and the lack of options they had anyway. Everyone’s looked a little uncomfortable in the system. Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling are much better than this. Darren Fletcher can’t influence a game even a little. Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and a rusty Robin van Persie have generally been woeful up front. And here’s another thing we’ve seen too often: David de Gea receives an awkward pass from a defender with little choice, delays his kick and goes deeper in an attempt to gain control, then hits it out of play.
Van Gaal reminds us that it’ll take time to get used to the formation, and we trust him, but is it really worth the wait? In those instances where the Dutchman has recovered from a stuttering start, were those leagues as ridiculously competitive as this year’s Premier League? Going to four at the back, which he says he could easily do, might well be what United need to move forward quickly. (Just a little suggestion Van Gaal, mate. The “philosophy”, at this moment, remains worth believing in.)
In fairness, problems are being addressed. Marcos Rojo has not yet made an appearance because his work permit issue seems to have evolved into a Sopranos subplot, but he’s a defensive addition. An established centre-back before the deadline, though now unlikely, would help. Daley Blind has been signed as a holding midfielder, as United – finally! – seek protection in front of a defence that should be given every opportunity not to fail. And then there’s the story of the month, possibly the biggest signing of the summer, with the British-record capture of Angel di Maria. A decent performance against Burnley from the left of midfield gives United much to build on, with a potential three of Blind, Herrera and Di Maria considerably more exciting than anything that was there before. Van Gaal hasn’t been brave enough to do so yet, but, all fit, big names should drop out for the good of the team.
It’s a shame, though, that the promise of what’s to come has dominated a review of United’s month – it was that bad, pleasantly surprising Di Maria signing aside. They were knocked out of the league cup by the most objectionable team in the Football League (including United), are yet to get used their new formation and yet to win: two points from three winnable games is just not good enough.
Player (…) of the Month: Phil Jones. Which is perhaps surprising given everything said about the defence, but he’s pretty good at cleaning up for others. Which means he was busy.
Elsewhere: In the same month as a Champions League draw that Manchester United were not involved in, David Moyes had this to say about his year at the club: “In the end, I don’t feel I was given the time to succeed or fail.” Interesting point of view. Meanwhile, Chelsea are going to win the league.
Ten years ago: August 2004 (’04/05): United were 9th by the end of the month – something we can only dream of. It started with defeat to Arsenal in the Charity Shield, followed by another (0-1) to Chelsea in Jose Mourinho’s first league game. That one apparently spelled the end for Diego Forlan’s United career. “Ferguson wanted me to play with long studs,” Forlan said in 2009. “The interchangeable ones that suit wet pitches, but I feel more comfortable in short ones. I agreed to change but I didn’t and, against Chelsea, I slipped in front of goal and wasted a chance. Afterwards, I rushed to the dressing room to change boots but Ferguson caught me. He grabbed the boots and threw them. That was my last game for United.”
Alan Smith and David Bellion helped beat Norwich 2-1 a week later, but then came draws to Blackburn and Everton. There was, at least, a comfortable 5-1 aggregate win over Dinamo Bucharest in the Champions League qualifiers. United had a habit of starting slowly, and who was surprised, really, with some of the players that were in that squad? Here was the starting line up at Stamford Bridge: Howard, Neville, Silvestre, O’Shea, Fortune; Miller, Keane, Scholes, Djemba-Djemba, Giggs; Smith.
Reasons to be cheerful: No Moyes.