After earning widespread praise since taking charge at Old Trafford, Louis van Gaal knows he will be judged on results from the moment Manchester United begin their Premier League campaign against Swansea City on Saturday. In contrast to predecessor David Moyes, who appeared like a contest winner plucked from obscurity during his short and ill-fated spell in charge of one of the biggest clubs in the world, Van Gaal immediately oozed a sense of assurance and authority since arriving. His forthrightness has left no one second guessing and the results in preseason, all victories (if you count a shootout win over Inter Milan), have bred optimism.
Even those Manchester United supporters who stoically, or more critically you would say naively, stuck behind Moyes until the hammer finally came down would concede that the club is now in better hands. A disastrous seventh placed finish surely won’t be repeated and there is reason to believe that Van Gaal’s nous and strong demeanor will at least mean that the team does not perform to less than the sum of its parts.
However, Van Gaal will be the first to admit that not all is rosy ahead of the opener at Old Trafford. The only two additions to the squad so far this summer have been Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw, two players identified during the Moyes era and that Van Gaal only signed off on once being appointed. His lamenting of an unbalanced squad has yet to yield any further arrivals before the Premier League’s opening day and with just over two weeks remaining of the transfer window.
Injuries added to a lack of depth means the situation is particularly troubling concerning the players available to fill the center-back and wing-back roles in Van Gaal’s chosen 3-4-1-2 formation. Jonny Evans is ruled out meaning that, one of youngsters Tyler Blackett and Michael Keane will line up alongside Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, while, although Rafael is fit again, Shaw will miss up to a month with a hamstring problem and fellow wide man Antonio Valencia is likewise unavailable. Van Gaal will also have to do without Robin van Persie, who has yet to get up to speed following the World Cup.
"Sam Johnstone -- the goalkeeper. Antonio Valencia, Shaw and Evans -- three defenders. [Danny] Welbeck. I believe that is it,” Van Gaal said as he listed those players on the sidelines, according to Manchester United’s official website. “Van Persie? No. He has to train. I've said that before.
"We have analyzed Shaw and it is difficult to lay a finger on it. It is difficult to look for the solution but there are a lot of reasons. After the World Cup, all the players are coming back at different moments and it is very difficult to train. We have the travel, jet-lag and a lot of matches in 14 days. Another reason is the amount of training sessions but we are doing half of what I have done with the other clubs so I cannot assume we have done that wrong.”
But Van Gaal stressed that he feels the squad can cope against Swansea. “We have played in the U.S. with Reece James and Ashley Young in that position, so it is very well covered,” he explained. “I am very confident and I am not nervous. We have players injured and I am not nervous. We have beaten them all until now but tomorrow is the match that counts.”
Swansea will also have a different man in charge than when the two sides met at the Liberty Stadium on the first day of last season. After a decline last campaign that led to fears of relegation and the sacking of Michael Laudrup, Garry Monk stepped up from his playing role to guide the Welsh club to safety before being handed the manager’s job on a permanent basis.
Predictably, it has been a summer of significant upheaval. Much of the previously strong Spanish contingent, in the form of Michu, Chico Flores and Pablo Hernandez, have departed and former Tottenham midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson, Ecuadorian winger Jefferson Montero and France international striker Bafétimbi Gomis have arrived.
“The players mean business, and they know I do too,” Monk said, reports Swansea City’s official website. “But there are no guarantees in this league. “If we do it right, and with the quality we have, we’ll be more than fine. “I’ll approach each game as it comes and we’ll make sure we are right in every game.”
Prediction: Van Gaal will certainly have wanted to have at least a couple more signings over the line by this stage. The defense is a particular worry and Swansea’s best player last season, Wilfried Bony could take advantage. But Darren Fletcher has looked good in preseason alongside Herrera in midfield and, with Wayne Rooney also in good form, United should have enough to get an opening win.
Manchester United 2-1 Swansea
Kickoff time: 7.45 a.m. ET
TV Channel: NBCSN
Live Stream: NBC Sports Live Extra (now available on Time Warner Cable and Bright House)