Cautious optimism for United vs. Swans
Swansea City are again Manchester United's first opponents of the season, a fixture which last season heralded the falsest of dawns. A 4-1 victory then, with two goals apiece from Danny Welbeck and Robin van Persie -- two of them glorious -- reassured many who feared a plummet in performances following the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson the previous summer. Of course, unfortunately for David Moyes, that would come later.
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This season's opener arrives with a far more grounded optimism than that which accompanied Moyes' first Premier League match in charge. The strengths and weaknesses of Manchester United's squad are evident to many, and the only concern is the apparent sluggishness, following an encouraging start to the summer transfer window, with which the latter have been addressed.
Since Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw joined a few weeks ago, there have been no new arrivals. Van Gaal clearly feels that there is room for improvement, evidenced by the club's apparent pursuit of two stars of this summer's World Cup, Argentina's Marcos Rojo and Colombia's Juan Cuadrado. Of the pair, Cuadrado is the more intriguing target. Antonio Valencia was handed a three-year contract only recently, the first hint, in retrospect, that Van Gaal was seeking to adopt a wing-back system; the conventional wisdom was that Valencia would be Rafael's understudy. Yet Cuadrado, an elite talent, would likely expect to be the first choice if he came to Old Trafford; which means that Rafael's future at the club, somewhat remarkably given his fine form of 2011-12, would be in some doubt. Valencia's absence through injury on Saturday will give the Brazilian a chance to impress.
Should Luke Shaw also miss out against Swansea, with the England left-back carrying an injury of his own, then Ashley Young is likely to replace him. The romantics among United's support might like to see a start for the man Van Gaal referred to as "our friend Reece James," an abundantly gifted graduate from the club's youth system. Yet Young's surprising embrace of his new left wing-back role, resulting in four preseason strikes and a substantially improved delivery from set pieces and open play, presents a compelling case for his inclusion.
Of course, with the players currently at his disposal, Van Gaal will be expected to beat Swansea City, and by a margin of a couple of goals. The visitors, managed by Garry Monk, lost both a left-back and goalkeeper this summer, with Ben Davies and Michel Vorm both moving to Tottenham Hotspur. They also had to deal with the departure of Michu on loan to Napoli, but this may not be so great a loss; the Spanish playmaker was far less effective last season than he had been in his spectacular first year at the Liberty Stadium.
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Swansea's danger this weekend will come from Wilfried Bony, who scored against both Manchester clubs last season, and who will be accompanied by Bafetimbi Gomis, who joined this summer from Lyon. The France international will present a formidable aerial threat alongside Bony, who is also excellent in the air, and the pace of these two players may cause United's centre-backs some discomfort. Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Tyler Blackett -- who will presumably stand in for the injured Jonny Evans -- may be in for an uncomfortably watchful afternoon.
The presence of Gomis and Bony will again place a sharp focus on United's defensive midfield spot, with the move for Juventus' Arturo Vidal apparently trapped in amber. Darren Fletcher, who was extremely impressive in preseason and has just been named the club's vice-captain, is likely to occupy this role, with Ander Herrera and Juan Mata operating ahead of him. Indeed, Fletcher's form has been so good that, when Michael Carrick does return from injury, he is unlikely to return immediately to the starting lineup.
The Scotland international, with his ability to shield his defensive and also to play cleanly and directly through the lines to his midfield partners and forwards, will arguably be United's most crucial player this year. With the team's wealth of attacking talent, it will be especially crucial to manage the swift transition from defence to attack, and this is a task at which Fletcher has previously proven masterful. Remarkably, given all that he has achieved and endured at the club, he is still several months short of his 31st birthday, and his chemistry with Herrera is one that United's midfield has not seen for some time. Should things continue in this positive fashion, then the clamour for new additions may fade considerably over the weeks to come.
Ahead of Fletcher, Wayne Rooney -- confirmed as the club's captain -- and Mata look set to continue their newly fruitful partnership and should probably be accompanied by Danny Welbeck, whose fluid movement and fine technique ought to create ample room for the two to thrive. The afternoon will hopefully also see an outing for Adnan Januzaj, the player most likely to evolve into an all-action, goal-scoring forward, but who was probably thrown into the fray far more often under Moyes than he should have been. Ideally, though, the Belgian should be introduced not to save the game but to confirm its result; which, given recent indications, should be a victory achieved with a small measure of comfort.