Swansea looked anything but ready for the start of the season -- much less a trip to Manchester United -- during Saturday's 3-0 friendly defeat to Villarreal. Swans fans shouldn't worry, though. There were good reasons for a bad performance.
With Wayne Routledge, Marvin Emnes and Nathan Dyer unavailable for various reasons, manager Garry Monk was left with only one winger. Similarly, injuries to Leon Britton and Jay Fulton left only Jonjo Shelvey and Ki Sung-yueng to play in midfield, all of which made 4-4-2 the most easily assumed formation -- and even then Gylfi Sigurdsson was asked to play out of position at right midfield.
It didn't work. Four men in the midfield rarely triumph over a five-man midfield. Monk could have used the same fluid system he used against Reading by ushering right-back Angel Rangel forward and having Sigurdsson cut inside behind the strikers to make a temporary 3-2-3-2 in attack, but perhaps he was reluctant, owing to Villarreal's talent on the flanks. Ultimately, Swansea looked tired, stretched and devoid of inspiration.
All these factors might prove decisive during Swansea's season opener away to United. Monk has Dyer and Routledge back, so he will hopefully ditch 4-4-2 in favour of 4-2-3-1, but will still be without Emnes, Britton and Fulton.
Louis van Gaal will likely play a 3-5-2. In practice, this will give United a strong advantage through the centre and Swansea the better share of the flanks.
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This probably means we will see a defensive stance from Swansea, which will look to spring quick counters on the flanks in behind United's advanced wing-backs. The big battle will be in the centre of the park -- or more precisely, in the middle portion of Swansea's defensive third. Neither Shelvey nor Ki is adept at playing the destroyer role, and centre-backs Ash Williams and Jordi Amat will be too busy with Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney to help keep Juan Mata in check.
This is assuming each manager plays with those formations and personnel, but I'm sure Monk would feel a little more secure had he been able to sign that elusive defensive midfielder before now.
Looking at positives for Swansea, any combination of Jefferson Montero, Dyer and Routledge will provide pace and skill on the flanks, and with the entire Swansea back line capable of firing accurate long passes, goals from the break are a real possibility.
United have played four at the back since the day before forever, and it seems reasonable to suggest the transition to a back three will come with at least some teething problems. Both Wilfried Bony and Bafetimbi Gomis are hard to play against physically and know how to outmanoeuvre a defence, which suggests Swansea's best chances will come by having their wingers pull that back three out of shape to create holes for Bony or Gomis to exploit.
On the one hand, a trip to a revitalised Manchester United is not the best start to a season. The obvious narrative is that Swansea have been selected by the fixture computer to be the ceremonial bottle of champagne with which to christen the relaunch of the Good Ship United, recently repaired and with a new celebrity Dutchman at the helm. The Swans are expected to capitulate gracefully so football can celebrate the reinstatement of the Premier League's primary superpower after a forgettable season of strife.
On the other hand, Swansea have their own story to construct, and if Van Gaal's United are ever going to be vulnerable, it's going to be in their first league game. United aren't the only team enjoying a rejuvenation either. This re-energised Swansea side will not be playing along to anyone's script but its own come Saturday, and Monk's Swans have plenty to prove.