A new era began at Old Trafford, but it was a familiar story for Manchester United as Louis van Gaal’s reign began with a home defeat to Swansea City. Seven Premier League losses at the once fortress Theatre of Dreams had blighted David Moyes’ disastrous tenure and contributed to a seventh place finish. Optimism has been renewed in preseason, but Van Gaal found that it will take more than his obvious tactical brilliance to turn around the fortunes of England’s most successful club.
Having ditched the 3-4-1-2 formation after a first 45 minutes in which United had been listless and Swansea had taken a lead through a smart Ki Sung-yeung strike, it appeared that there would be early vindication for both new manager and new captain. A switch in system quickly led to an equalizer for the man wearing the armband, Wayne Rooney, and a grasping of the momentum. But rather than the Dutch master, it was a man nearly 30 years his junior, starting his first full season as manager, who had the last word. Having pulled them away from the relegation battle last season, Garry Monk provided early indications that he and his overhauled squad can prevent similar danger this campaign. His decision to bring on new signing Jefferson Montero paid almost immediate dividends with 18 minutes remaining. The Ecuadorean winger befuddled Chris Smalling and put in a fine cross that ended up with another new arrival Gylfi Sigurdsson getting enough on a shot to beat David de Gea.
Van Gaal could have no complaints. As under Moyes, United’s summer has been disappointing, and the lack of options, not helped by a series of injuries, was in full evidence. Youngsters Tyler Blackett and Jesse Lingard made their Premier League debuts, while Ashley Young toiled as a wing-back. There were other problems besides. One of the only two new signings -- the other, Luke Shaw was injured -- Ander Herrera struggled to influence proceedings, again leaving United’s midfield hugely underwhelming. His unique style and intense demands mean Van Gaal has never been a manager to hit the ground running, but the early evidence is that it will take more than time for the former Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich to continue his record of winning a league title with every one of his clubs.
There were teething problems visible to Van Gaal’s system early on when Wayne Routledge ran in between a large gap between center-back Phil Jones and wing-back Lingard. United were lucky not to be punished. The issues continued when United were in possession. With Swansea doing a good job of preventing United’s two best passers, Herrera, who suggested he will take some time to adjust to the Premier League pace and physicality, and Juan Mata, there was onus on someone in the back three to take responsibility on the ball. Neither Jones, Blackett nor Chris Smalling were up to the task. Not helped by a lack of thrust down the flanks and a general ponderous tempo to the team’s play, Rooney and a disappointing Javier Hernández were able to get into the game.
Swansea’s confidence grew, and in the 28th minute they capitalized on their opponents’ uncertainty to take the lead. Both Manchester United’s defense and midfield were dragged across to the play on the left, leaving a chasm for Ki to run onto Sigurdsson’s square pass on the edge of the box and beat De Gea with a perfectly directed shot into the bottom corner of the net.
By that point, Lingard’s debut had been cut short by injury, with Adnan Januzaj his replacement. United now had two inverted and uncomfortable wing-backs. There was no surprise that, as he did regularly during the World Cup with the Netherlands, Van Gaal switched formations. Hernández was hooked, further calling into question his future, and Nani was brought in to play ahead of Young on the left in a 4-2-3-1.
The early indications were that once again Van Gaal would continue to have the Midas touch. Manchester United were now getting much better possession higher up the pitch. Eight minutes into the second half they were level. Mata’s corner was helped on by the back of Jones at the near post and Rooney showed fine reactions to hook the ball over his shoulder and into the net from inside the six-yard box.
The new skipper, who was given the armband over the still unavailable and sorely missed Robin van Persie, soon came desperately close to giving his new manager cause for celebration. The England forward curled a free-kick expertly around the wall, but, with Swansea’s new stopper Lukasz Fabianski struggling to get across, the ball crashed against the outside of the post.
Six minutes later, United had been hit by a sucker punch. Last season’s top scorer Wilfried Bony, who had cleverly held off Jones in the buildup for the first goal, again showed his ingenuity with a quickly taken free-kick. The ball came to Montero, and, after a hint at his deep bag of tricks, Young was caught underneath a cross to the back post, allowing Routledge to help the ball back across. Sigurdsson was on hand in the middle of the box to make it a memorable second debut for the Welsh club and provide a reality check for many about the work still needed to return the intimidation factor to the Premier League’s biggest arena.