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 By James Dall
Aug 15, 2014

Van Gaal offers United some hope

The ESPN FC panel preview the upcoming Premier League season and note what they're looking forward to.

Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.

Weekend fixtures

Saturday
Manchester United vs. Swansea
Leicester vs. Everton
QPR vs. Hull
Stoke vs. Aston Villa
West Brom vs. Sunderland
West Ham vs. Tottenham
Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace

Sunday
Liverpool vs. Southampton
Newcastle vs. Manchester City

Monday
Burnley vs. Chelsea


Weekend battle: Van Gaal vs. Swansea

Nice to meet your acquaintance again, football, and the renewed hope you bring each year -- especially for Manchester United after they were forced to endure the unfamiliar and unwelcome feeling of being on the other side of the gloating last season.

Things are different now, because it isn't David Moyes; it is Louis van Gaal with his autocratic and confident haircut. And quite nicely indeed, as the Moyes-maligned fixture generator would have it, there's a symmetry to Van Gaal's debut competitive match in charge and the Scot's last year: the opponents are Swansea.

In August 2013, Moyes' United won 4-1 in Wales, suggesting that a seamless transition from Scottish coach to Scottish coach beckoned. Oh, how we laughed at how incorrect that turned out to be. Moyes, his eyes two big panic buttons, often appeared to be a man with a phobia of football itself, yet in Van Gaal the club have a serial winner, a fellow who appears to have an unwavering belief in his beliefs, whether they be right or wrong, and a fear of nothing.

Was Louis van Gaal right to make Wayne Rooney Manchester United's new captain?

The trouble for Van Gaal is that the United squad he -- like Moyes -- has inherited is not of the standard required to swiftly bring back the unrelenting glory of the Sir Alex Ferguson years. Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward et al. have so far not fully delivered on the recruitment drive demanded. Indeed, Tom Cleverley remains dangerously close to a regular spot in central midfield while, for a team that intends to play three central defenders in a 3-5-2, they are short on numbers and experience in this area.

Regardless, there's a feeling Van Gaal has the nous to muddle them through until more signings to follow Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw arrive. He's made Wayne Rooney captain -- which is quite the turnaround for the striker, from transfer request to new contract to armband-wearer -- and he'll continue to do things his own hypnotic way, which is just fine for the entertainment-hungry neutral.

PREMIER LEAGUE PREVIEW

- Dall: Premier League Spotlight
- Premier League team news
- Showdown: Predict the scores
- Fantasy Focus: Team of the Month
- Fantasy game: Sign up now
- PickCenter: Choose your bets


Under pressure: Jose Mourinho

Imagine Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger addressing the media in May 2015, pursing his lips, spitting in the direction of West London and then branding Chelsea's Mourinho an "authority on defeatism" as now three years have passed since the Portuguese did that thing where he gets a winners' medal around his neck but then immediately looks nonplussed about it.

Managers at Stamford Bridge have been dismissed for less than a trophyless campaign, and thus silverware really is a prerequisite for Mourinho in 2014-15. He made his excuses last season: something about a horse, an apparently young team, having no proper striker. But it's been a good summer for Jose, perhaps as a result of his complaining. The signings have been excellent and ergo the excuses now flimsy. Heck, he won't have to deal with this as first choice ... 

Thirty-two million-pound signing Diego Costa will terrify defenders, Cesc Fabregas will slickly supply the attack in place of creaky Frank Lampard, Nemanja Matic will tower over opponents and bellow, Filipe Luis will buccaneer down the left flank and Thibaut Courtois will nonchalantly pat away shots with his hands like shovels. Mourinho should, and possibly must, be glorious -- a runner-up at the very minimum. The Blues begin at Burnley on Monday, by the way. Good luck, Burnley.


Jack Wilshere has work to do this season.

Finding form: Jack Wilshere

Pick Arsenal's best starting XI, each player in his natural position. Is there a place for Jack Wilshere? Potentially add a proper defensive midfielder to the squad, and what about Jack now? There's a possibility that the England international will spend more time on the Arsenal bench in the new season than on the field. Form, with niggling injuries to blame, has too often deserted him, and now he finds himself playing catch-up to Aaron Ramsey's dramatic and continuing improvement.

So patchy has the midfielder's development been that it is now unclear just how good he can go on to be, having demonstrated genuine brilliance but also jarring it by carelessly hanging onto the ball too long and also spending far too much time lying on the turf than running on it. At 22 years of age, this is not exactly a "make-or-break" season for Wilshere, but it is important. A footballer's career is short, and six years after making his Arsenal debut, it's uncertain even what Wilshere's best position is. Form, Jack -- you need to find it.

PREMIER LEAGUE PREVIEWS

As we count down to kickoff on Aug. 16, ESPN FC previews all 20 teams in this season's competition. Can Burnley, QPR and Leicester stay up? Will the new signings of Alexis Sanchez, Diego Costa and Adam Lallana help usurp Man City's crown? Will Manchester United get back on track under Louis van Gaal?


Statistically speaking (@ESPNStatsInfo)

* Chelsea have the longest active unbeaten streak in Premier League openers, going undefeated in 15 straight (13 wins, 2 draws) since losing to Coventry City in 1998.

* Defending champions Manchester City take on Monday at Newcastle. In each of their Premier League title seasons, City won their opener 4-0, including last season against Newcastle.

* Arsenal are winless in four straight league openers -- tied for the longest active streak with Stoke City and Sunderland.

* Wayne Rooney has 173 Premier League goals, two shy of tying Thierry Henry for third-most all-time. On Saturday, the new Man Utd captain faces Swansea City, the only British club he's played three times without scoring while with the Red Devils.

* In the 22 Premier League seasons, only three times have the champions lost their opener, and it was Manchester United all three times (1992-93, 1995-96, 2012-13).


Any other business: Liverpool

The scars will still be raw after last year's face-plant off the top of the Premier League cliff, while they've also sold their talisman Luis Suarez to Barcelona. The alleged solution? To buy three of Southampton's players after the Saints had a good campaign. And as fate would have it, the Reds face their "feeder" club on Sunday. With the heart and head of the South Coast side ripped from them, the Saints, now under Ronald Koeman, are in theory ripe for three easy points at Anfield.

But it remains to be seen how psychologically fragile Liverpool are at present, and in particular their captain Steven Gerrard off the back of "The Slip" and a rotten World Cup with England. Their manager Brendan Rodgers, a massager of words, has a task on his hands not only in picking up the players who endured last campaign's near-success but also in integrating seven new faces while compensating for the absence of a bitey, but brilliantly talented, star.

James Dall

James Dall is an associate editor at ESPN FC. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesDallESPN.

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