This has been a thoroughly odd summer and season’s beginning for Manchester United. In have come five jolly marvellous footballers who have greatly strengthened the problem midfield and right back positions and, in the case of Memphis Depay, added a soupçon of swagger to a team short of the sort of arrogance required to win titles. So for all of that, and Ed trotting around on his horse it’s a big yay. Yay. But despite bringing in five players already the team that started against Spurs still has glaring weaknesses and unanswered questions, like why in the name of the sweet baby Jesus haven’t Louis and Ed got their heads together and identified the flaming obvious cavernous hole at centre back. Daley Blind, to his credit, performed reasonably well on Saturday, but I can tell you now that a weak, slow midget, more used to playing at left back and in midfield, is not going to work out medium term. With Phil Jones out for three weeks with a thrombosis, an ‘injury’ only he could sustain, and likely to be missing longer term with leprosy or scurvy or, most likely, cholera, that leaves only the adequate Marcos Rojo, a man still in Louis’ bad books after failing to renew his passport and thus missing all of pre-season. He had one job. D’uh. So we don’t have many options, and whilst Chris Smalling performed admirably after a comedy first fifteen minutes, without a top class partner his efforts will ultimately be in vain. With United seemingly pinning their hopes on the long-shot of Sergio Ramos there, as yet, seems to be no plan B. There should be a plan B, because plan C, sticking with what we have, is w**k. After spending £700 trillion we really shouldn’t be having to make do with w**k.
On top of the defensive issues there is of course the De Gea shambles. He wants to go, for perfectly valid reasons, but United are clearly intent on showing that they won’t be pushed around by Real. Which is good. But not playing him against Spurs when the player has remained professional throughout was a huge risk, as is excluding him until he’s either finally been repatriated or the transfer window closes. The result is sticking an erratic loon in goal, behind the hooky central defence. The erratic loon actually did ok against Spurs, but continuing to exclude one of the best goalkeepers in the world, even one who might like to be somewhere else is a huge gamble. United neither benefit from the player’s extravagant talents or those of a replacement. Arf. With the Spaniard sat in the directors’ box on Saturday, next to two other out of favour keepers, one of whom couldn’t even be arsed to wear club attire, the uncertainty over the position can only be destabilising.
And then there is the striker issue. I love our Wayne and think he will score twenty goals this season, but when he’s s***e, as he was at the weekend, he’s really s***e and the only alternative is Javier Hernandez, who the manager thinks is a bit toss. It’s all a bit odd. So what we find ourselves with is gross uncertainty about three of the four positions which make up the spine of the team, and even I know that that’s not good juju. And yet, despite these glaring issues, Van Gaal’s United beat Spurs 1-0, a win which they just about deserved, despite experiencing a collective seizure for the first fifteen minutes, in which time Tottenham could have scored three or four were they not Tottenham, as flaky and powder-puff as ever. The manager did his best to baffle, by leaving out Herrera when he possesses the tools to comfortably excel in his supposedly favoured 4-3-3 system. Depay again played out of position behind Wayne Rooney and stayed there until his early substitution, despite Ashley Young struggling against Kyle Walker. Struggling against Kyle Walker should be punishable by being burned at the stake, but Young was reprieved. When United needed bodies in midfield, Van Gaal withdrew Carrick for Schweinsteiger, the Aryan demigod replacing him in the system like for like, rather than as an extra body. Matteo Darmian, who was utterly amazeballs, went off, apparently with cramp, Antonio Valencia’s introduction immediately causing havoc where there had been none. We had to deal with said havoc last season. Valencia’s havoc is not welcome here.
Speaking of right backs, this week has seen the departure of Rafael to Lyon. I’m sad to see him go, a terrific little character with obvious talent who got what it meant to play for United. However, during his absence from the team in the minds of many his abilities have grown and his weaknesses diminished. Injuries have blighted his last two years and his defensive contributions were often erratic. Wonderful one game then flaky and lacking in concentration in the next. He’s a fine player, but a right back often unavailable and lacking in tactical discipline was always going to be marginalised by a manager who demands consistency and defensive solidity in his full backs. It’s a shame he’s gone and United fans will always have fond memories of his contributions, not least him squaring up to Carlos Tevez and the stunners he scored at Anfield and Loftus Road. Good luck wee man.
For fans excited by the new arrivals and optimistic about United’s chances this year, the Spurs game may have been an unwelcome dose of reality. It was really quite boring. The most important thing, though, was to win, particularly given that Arsenal peaked again as a parody of themselves and Chelsea collectively brain-farted at home to Swansea. There were promising performances from Darmian, Smalling, Shaw and Morgan Schneiderlin, who contributed to the collective pressing without the ball which was top class throughout. United’s big problem came with it. Possession was often laborious and chances to counter were not taken. The goal came from the one instance where Spurs lost the ball with men committed forward and were punished by a lightning break. A goal up LVG fell back on his innate conservatism and attacking intent was limited. One shot on target all game tells its own story. This team is still very much a work in progress. The touted arrival of Pedro as a replacement for the thoroughly spineless Angel Di Maria would add more trickery, pace and guile, but the issues with the spine of the team would remain. This was a good start against a tricky opponent, but one who has done less to address their most glaring inadequacies this summer than United. Improvements will be needed, both in terms of existing players and potential new ones.
Louis Van Gaal knows that he needs to deliver this season. His honeymoon is over. The Champions League qualifying draw has been kind to him. Club Brugge are a side United should beat in their sleep. He will no doubt have total faith in himself and his team, as you would if you considered yourself to be the world’s greatest human being. Which he does. Which is fair enough. But being the world’s greatest human being won’t keep him in a job or excuse another season of laborious, average tat. Saturday was a start, a beginning in which the win was more important than performance, but performances as stale as that won’t do for a whole season again. The team look the mutt’s nuts in the new Adidas kit, a throwback to the garb of my youth, but on the pitch they must do better. The first part of the job has been done. Now the real work begins, both in the dugout and in the boardroom, where Ed’s horse has been idle, tethered to a chair for too long. There is a suspicion that frugality is holding up the Pedro deal, a player for whom €30m would be a snip. A centre back and winger are the bare minimum this team needs to win the title. Add a striker too and things would start to look very promising indeed. I’m not entirely convinced that two of those things are likely to happen, which would be a shame.