United's flaws wreck Van Gaal's debut
Louis van Gaal's Manchester United are now beaten after the new manager's competitive debut and their tactical identity remains in flux. Van Gaal tried almost every trick in the book but United were outplayed by an impressive Swansea at Old Trafford. This, simply, was not in the script.
There was optimism beforehand and some pleasingly Manchester United-esque elements to van Gaal's league bow. While Jesse Lingard and Tyler Blackett were handed debuts, it was largely due to necessity more than choice, but supporters in these parts never tire of seeing local youngsters enter the fray.
There was desperately bad luck for Lingard, who limped off just 20 minutes into his debut to be replaced by last season's young hero Adnan Januzaj. The current guardian of the fabled No. 11 shirt has bulked up somewhat over the summer and was instantly United's most dynamic player. Except he couldn't influence the opening blows enough.
Swansea made the early running but United's passing machine showed signs of coming together. Darren Fletcher, placing his foot on the ball and looking up, showed the seniority in midfield the men in red desperately needed -- but he did tire as the game went on.
Garry Monk had set out his Swansea side to test United's defence, and the home side looked far from imperious when balls were played over the top. The back three were badly exposed as Swansea broke down the right and Ki Sung-Yueng slotted home an obliging chance as Chris Smalling and Blackett were pulled out of position.
Van Gaal was simply disgusted at the simplicity of the goal and knew that changes were necessary. He obviously didn't mince his words at half-time, either.
While his tactics are intelligently designed to draw the best from his squad's strengths, namely Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney in the final third, it cannot disguise their weaknesses. Swansea were only too aware of these flaws.
Despite their set-up and interplay, there were precious few clear-cut chances forged, and United were slow and clueless in the midfield. Javier Hernandez was replaced by Nani, but more importantly, United switched to a back four for the first time since the new manager had arrived. It was a gutsy shift for Van Gaal's first half-time intervention in a meaningful game.
It became clear in that moment that comparisons to David Moyes' reign are facile and misguided. United are a completely different prospect now and the willingness to change is in such contrast to the rigid regime of last season. The result, though, was distinctly reminiscent of Moyes' time in the dugout.
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The equaliser came shortly afterwards and new captain Rooney's classy finish from a corner had the crowd on their feet. But it wasn't enough. United were still unable to impose themselves on the match, with Swansea managing to keep the ball on the wings where they wanted it. When they took the lead again on 70 minutes, it was well deserved.
One of the owners, Avi Glazer, was in attendance in the directors' box, and he must surely know that new players are needed. All of the sponsorship money flowing in from various commercial partners must be reinvested in the squad immediately. United are a work in progress but relying on Ashley Young as a left-back is a recipe for defeat. Young will not be the only one ruminating this week. Smalling was exposed for both goals, Fletcher misplaced pass after pass and Nani plumbed new depths of uselessness in his 45 minutes. United's problems run deeper than imagined.
One competitive game is far too small a sample from which to draw decisive conclusions. Nonetheless, despite Van Gaal's protestations to the contrary in Friday's news conference, United have an incredibly thin squad right now. Without significant acquisitions soon, results like this will become the norm.