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John Brewin profile picture Posted by John Brewin
Aug 16, 2014

Van Gaal needs reinforcements

Former Chelsea man and Scottish international Craig Burley assesses the intricacies behind the 3-5-2 formation.

MANCHESTER, England -- Over to you, Ed Woodward. Time is slipping away; there are 16 days left of the transfer window. Manchester United's opening defeat to Swansea City offered almost indelible proof that the club no longer has the personnel to compete to win the Premier League.

Louis van Gaal had warned that these things will take time. David Moyes, watching in a Doha TV studio, ought to have allowed himself some schadenfreude towards the executive vice-chairman who sacked him in April. Indeed, the former Old Trafford boss urged time for his successor.

Perhaps Moyes' biggest mistake was to beat Swansea 4-1 a year ago. It gave an incorrect impression that all in United's garden could continue to be rosy. The club sat on laurels and only added one player. The same cannot be allowed to happen under Van Gaal, or else United's slide below the top four might become terminal.

"We have built up a lot of confidence," said Van Gaal afterwards. "But it will be smashed down by this result."

Having given such a bleak verdict, he refused the chance to state how many players he will need to solve matters. "I don't discuss this with you," he told journalists at his news conference, but he had already signalled his need for more and better.

"I know on what positions we need better players," he said. "But you have to buy only when the player can fulfil the way of playing that I ask. We will have to wait and see.

"You cannot say because of one game that we lost, and all the others we won, that it is the defence. It's the team. We never played as a team, I think, and that's our error, and also we don't reach the required level and maybe because of that we haven't played like a team."

Wayne Rooney's goal was the lone bright spot on a dull day for United.

Bodies are needed, and badly. With injuries wracking a squad that is recovering from a lengthy money-making tour of the United States, Van Gaal was forced to select a team low on quality, speed and experience. Jesse Lingard and Tyler Blackett, for example, were thrown into a match far beyond their capabilities at this time in their careers.

Van Gaal prefers youngsters, in that they will listen more carefully to his dictatorial instructions, yet Old Trafford is not currently being graced by a generation in the same galaxy as the "Class of '92" with which Alex Ferguson conquered Europe. From the bench, Ryan Giggs, that group's godhead and now assistant manager, was a frequent visitor to the sidelines as Swansea's greater organisation took the game away from United.

"We limited Manchester United in free play to very few chances," said Swansea manager Garry Monk, before delivering a more damning verdict. "We can get better than that."

Old Trafford sighed in resignation when referee Mike Dean blew the final whistle. Van Gaal does not, after all, have a magic wand. Instead, hard cash will need to be spent, far and beyond the 100 million-plus pounds already lavished on Woodward's watch.

Juan Mata, the player whose 37 million-pound capture from Chelsea was grandstanded by Woodward in January, was an anonymous shadow of his Stamford Bridge self, just as he has been throughout his painful United career. Ander Herrera, who cost 29 million, while at least looking to create, showed that he may take time to adjust to English football.

Luke Shaw sat in the stands with a hamstring injury, while Marouane Fellaini was brought on as a last throw of the dice by Van Gaal and looked just as luckless as he did under Moyes. Four expensive signings, and none yet productive.

"I have seen a lot of players very nervous and making the wrong choices," said the United manager. "These players have to be used to this expectation because this is Manchester United. You have to cope with the pressure."

United are badly short of players used to coping with such pressure. Against Swansea, they paid the price of letting senior defenders -- Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra -- leave the club and replacing them with a single, non-playing 19-year-old in Shaw.

Ashley Young's error allowed Wayne Routledge to set up Gylfi Sigurdsson's winner. It was the type of mistake that Evra might make, but the Frenchman would surely have been far more aware of such danger. Instead, Young, a 29-year-old convert to an unfamiliar position, made the type of error that was always likely to happen.

It might have been Young's fault, but blame goes far deeper. Is someone in the wrong job? Such an accusation is now frequently made against Woodward, the Glazer family representative who is a prolific collector of sponsorships for the club's commercial wing but unable to land the players his manager needs to make sure the club stays in the successful position to remain so attractive to sponsors.

Woodward is lucky that Van Gaal, for all his firebrand reputation and inability to sugarcoat matters, has far stopped short of laying blame at his paymasters' inability to recruit footballers to make his team work better. On this bleak evidence, he requires at least two more defenders, a player of pace who can add electricity to a team that badly lacks zip, and a midfielder who can add far more energy than Darren Fletcher was able to inject.

The names of such players are well known to United fans. Now Woodward must get the deals done.

John Brewin

Based in London, from where he covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. He reported from the 2010 and 2014 World Cups and was formerly a senior editor of ESPNsoccernet.

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