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Manchester United

Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
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50-50 Challenge: United vs. Liverpool

50-50 Challenge
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Mark Payne Manchester Utd  By Mark Payne

Angel Di Maria starts but Manchester United still need miracle

Manchester United are definitely a work in progress, even if it is hard to see exactly where that progress is being made at the moment. A goalless draw at Burnley was forgettable for the football on show and the 20-time English champions have still not turned the corner. A game where Scott Arfield is named man of the match and United's fans spend 90 minutes imploring their players to attack can hardly be considered a success.

United's starting XI cost upwards of 200 million pounds and has the feel of an identikit team at the moment with little coherence in the play. The players are unfamiliar with the tactics and with each other too. Presently, they are a hotchpotch of veterans, youth players, new signings and men playing out their final minutes in a United shirt.

It is fair to say that the foundations of the team are still taking shape and, as such, the impressive turrets at the side's summit are yet to be seen in all their glory. But we know they are there, and there were flashes of what is to come at Turf Moor.

As a 60 million-pound player should be, Angel Di Maria is clearly a classy addition. He wasn't able to fully impose himself on this fixture and he looked tired when substituted after 70 minutes. It was only his fifth day in the country but some of his interplay with Juan Mata suggested there is an exquisite future for Manchester United's build-up play.

Angel Di Maria made his debut but could not inspire United to victory.

The present is less delectable. News broke before the game that Daley Blind is close to arriving from Ajax and it is not hard to see how he could improve the side. Darren Fletcher has earned the enduring love of United fans for his service and fortitude. Nonetheless, as the central midfielder at Turf Moor, the game largely passed him by.

Blind can play in central midfield and defence and, at 24, still has his best years ahead of him. Fletcher is cherished in these parts, but he is part of the playing staff labelled "upgrade needed" and his time is coming.

BurnleyBurnley
Manchester UnitedManchester United
0
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FT
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In some ways, losing 4-0 to MK Dons might have been the best thing to happen to United. It was the point when the board realised they had to act in the transfer market. The speed with which United are now operating in that arena is long overdue. More cynical observers might suspect Van Gaal had sent out his side on Tuesday night to nudge the club in that direction. If so, he may prove a genius by season's end.

While it would be easy to bemoan United's display here, bear in mind that the side still has Herrera, Blind, Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw, Carrick and Rafael to come into it. Not only that but, given a few more hours on the coaching field, Van Gaal will have them playing the way he wants as well.

"I am a manager for the long-term," Van Gaal at Friday's news conference. That 45 minutes was the finest performance from a United man this week and the Dutchman sounds like a Manchester United manager where his predecessor never did.

- Three Points: Burnley vs. Man United
- Van Gaal blames attack
- Van Gaal defends Shaw fitness

It is impossible to underestimate the importance of charisma and self-confidence in leadership. Van Gaal has truckloads of both. He might be forgiven for losing some confidence in his captain though. Rooney's first touch was poor at Turf Moor and it was an undistinguished performance from him. After a similarly muted showing last week, Van Gaal would be entitled to ask for more from his captain.

By the half-time interval United had played 15 long balls and this seems to have roused the purists amongst United's fan base. It is a classic example of a hugely misleading statistic. Considering all of the reasons outlined above, it is of little surprise United indulged in the odd hoof. Even Matisse went through a few sketchbooks before the masterpieces came.

In the meantime, Van Gaal has 16 days to prepare for his next fixture against Queens Park Rangers at Old Trafford. If there isn't a significant improvement in performance by that point, the questions really will start coming. It won't matter how good Van Gaal sounds then, the football will have to do the talking. Manchester United should have beaten Burnley and they didn't. In fact, it looked like they settled for a point.

United don't just lack players at the moment. They lack purpose, confidence and cohesion. It is a lot to turn around and Van Gaal had better be as good as he thinks he is.

Mark Payne

Mark Payne has been ESPN's Manchester United correspondent since 2008 and writes about football for a variety of media outlets. He is the author of "Fergie's Last Stand," now available in paperback. You can follow him on Twitter @Markjpayne.

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