Van Gaal looking to restore aura
Old Trafford was the theatre of anxiety last season. There came a point, shortly after West Bromwich Albion humbled United early in the campaign, when the fans realised that their team could lose to anybody. With Sir Alex Ferguson's swagger and aura gone, all opponents came to the door with the smell of blood in their nostrils and a knife and fork in hand.
It says much for the expectations around new manager Louis van Gaal that United are joint-third favourites for the league title, despite finishing seventh last year. An enormous improvement is expected and it was hoped this home debut against Valencia would provide a sneak preview. It didn't, but there were positive signs to build on in the providential 2-1 victory.
The fervent hope is that Van Gaal can restore not just some of the old pride, but that classic Mancunian swagger too. Results against Liverpool and Real Madrid in the United States were impressive, but Old Trafford must become a fortress once more.
Van Gaal opted for the crested club suit and tie for his home debut, but it was his composure and team selection that established him in the role. With two youth teamers in the starting XI, Tyler Blackett and Reese James, the Dutchman has identified himself as a man comfortable in his new surrounds and aware of the club's traditions. It also shows that he is a pragmatist.
The accepted wisdom is that United need at least three more signings before the end of the transfer window if they are to challenge. Fourth is their best hope if they don't make those acquisitions, and the squad is looking thin before the season has even started. "We have a lot of injuries and that is not good," deadpanned the manager before kickoff.
In Valencia, United were facing a team also under the tutelage of a new manager who had similarly led them to victory in their preseason tournament, the Emirates Cup. Valencia also have a new owner, something the United faithful might in fact be jealous of.
There was a distinct preseason feel to the game and perhaps the manager had sent out the players to take it easy, mindful of not getting any more injuries before the big show starts on Saturday.
With 25 minutes gone, the atmosphere was fairly muted. Neither side looked particularly phenomenal and, while United enjoyed more possession, the home side looked disjointed and cumbersome at times.
Van Gaal will enjoy a lengthy honeymoon simply for being "not David Moyes," but results will be expected, and results with style too. This was an exercise in patience for those in attendance. One hopes it is a work in progress. In fact, millions do.
Those in the stands were woken from their slumber by Darren Fletcher's fortuitous strike in the 50th minute. Since he was afflicted by a virus that should have confined him to bed for the rest of his life, the sentiment is that anything Fletcher does on a football field is fortuitous nowadays. However, it was straight downhill for United after the goal though.
United at times last season were a difficult team to follow. The match-going fans were rightly heralded for their vociferous support when the chips were down, but the football was not of the sort you enjoy. That predictable and lacklustre side is hopefully a thing of the past; however, there was some turgidity still in evidence during this friendly.
While a muscular victory on his home debut was desirable, Van Gaal seemed to settle for a run out and no further additions to the injured list. With Robin van Persie still to return and new blood expected, United can improve further. They will need to.
In his program notes, Van Gaal spoke of his pride at being United manager but stressed that the real task begins on Saturday against Swansea. With the last kick of the game, beleaguered Marouane Fellaini gave United and Van Gaal a victory that they scarcely deserved. Maybe some of that aura is on the way back after all, as Van Gaal is still unbeaten.
On this evidence, though, United are not going to stroll back to the top of the league. It is going to be a battle.
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