Manchester United lost their opening fixture at Old Trafford for the first time in the Premier League era. Old Trafford fell silent as Gylfi Sigurdsson hit Swansea’s second and, ultimately, winning goal.
Fans hoping Louis van Gaal would deliver an instant remedy to a crushing 2013/14 campaign felt that familiar chill up their spine as it dawned on them that just because the manager had changed there was no promise of a return to past glories. The issue, however, is simple: Manchester United were trying too much too soon.
It was a combination of ambition and necessity that saw the Reds field an unfamiliar starting XI against Swansea. A list of absentees including Robin Van Persie, Michael Carrick and £27 million summer signing Luke Shaw left the manager forced to shuffle the deck. Even so, it came as a shock to see both Jesse Lingard and Tyler Blackett, who impressed in United’s pre-season tour, making their debuts in such an important fixture. Throw in Ander Herrera and that’s three players who have never played in the Premier League.
It takes time to adapt to a new team and even more to adapt to a new league. Manchester United played three new players and a new formation under a new manager. When Pep Guardiola played three at the back for Barcelona they were regimented, confident and experienced. United’s young back three started well, but as soon as Swansea threatened they looked vulnerable. If there was one certainty from this game, it was that United would struggle at the back.
Thore Haugstad summarised the problems of playing 3-5-2 with players that are unfamiliar with the formation in his recent piece for FourFourTwo:
With the wing-backs pushing up, space is left for wingers to exploit. Agile and tricky players can set up one-on-ones against outside centre-backs better suited to defending the penalty area.
While De Vrij and Martins Indi were well-drilled having using the system at Feyenoord, similar scenarios pose challenges for Jonny Evans and Phil Jones.
Van Gaal himself appears to have recognised this as a notable chink in the 3-5-2 system’s armour
So why make so many changes at once? The answer is partly down to the players available at the time and partly down to Van Gaal’s courageous self-belief. He is never scared to gamble if he believes he is right—and he always does. This was shown as recently as the World Cup, when he brought on goalkeeper Tim Krul minutes before the Netherlands' penalty shootout against Costa Rica, the Newcastle 'keeper making the saves that saw the Dutch progress to the next round. The Daily Mail’s Craig Hope said:
Louis van Gaal is a master, maverick and madman.
He is also a single-minded egotist—okay, the best managers often are—and is no stranger to fallouts, be that with his players, club hierarchy or the press.
With such an outlandish and bold personality Van Gaal would have shown little hesitation in putting his own reputation on the line to blood the youngsters against Swansea. After all, this is a man who gave Barcelona’s Carles Puyol, Xavi and Andres Iniesta their debuts. On this occasion, the gamble didn’t quite pay off.
Despite this, there were some positives to take from the 2-1 loss at Old Trafford. It is unusual to praise a defender as part of a back line that conceded two goals during his debut, but Tyler Blackett delivered a promising performance. He looked comfortable in possession and was far more interested in progressing the play than fellow centre-backs Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. He completed an impressive 82 passes with a 93% pass completion rate according to Squawka. Though he was dragged out of position for the first goal, overall, Van Gaal will be pleased with his performance.
In the coming months, Manchester United can expect a marked improvement. As reported in The Guardian, Van Gaal has already stated that he needs "better players" and one would expect the club to sign more than one player before the transfer window closes.
As the players become more accustomed to the formation, they will look more confident on and off the ball. With Van Gaal being the third permanent manager in as many seasons, the players will again have to alter their training methods and expectations. The key here is patience.
Louis van Gaal will be bitterly disappointed to get off to a losing start, but he will not let it deter him or dent his confidence in youngsters. With a new manager, new formation and new players, it is essential that the fans are patient during the implementation of the new system. Against Swansea, it was too much too soon. With time and perseverance, Van Gaal will succeed—as he has done at every club he’s ever managed.