There’s no doubt that Manchester United are a team in progress, but it is as much the lack of progress in the transfer market as on the pitch which has been frustrating United fans.
In United’s 1-1 draw with Sunderland at the Stadium of Light today, Louis van Gaal’s side were clumsy and heavy-footed in possession, Juan Mata the only creative spark in a poor side bereft of cunning. Driven on by solid pre-season performances, fans were talking up United’s title and top four chances, but on the early evidence over their first two games, and before significant reinforcements have been brought in, any improvement on last year’s seventh place finish looks like it will be hard won.
That Sunderland will have been truly disappointed to only get a point out of the game tells you all you need to know about United since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson. Ferguson’s United teams had an arrogance and air of assumed invincibility that was worth so much in the minds of their players, the opposition, officials and fans alike. Robbed of the fear factor, the results of years of under-investment and mis-investment in the playing squad have come to show their effects.
Manchester United missed new signings Herrera and Shaw through injury while Carrick’s injury meant that Tom Cleverley and Darren Fletcher formed the base of their midfield. Blackett, Smalling (off injured just before half-time, another worry for van Gaal) and Jones formed the back three. None of the three yet look comfortable playing in van Gaal’s 5-3-2 system, and there is no small irony in the fact that the best defender on the day, and perhaps the most suited to the new manager’s system was Wes Brown, playing for Sunderland but a Manchester United product.
Having let Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra leave this summer, United look a team bereft of leaders – that Wayne Rooney has been named club captain speaks volumes to the paucity of leadership at Old Trafford. For now, United don’t display any real chemistry or togetherness in their ranks and this was evident in the meekness displayed in the closing minutes of today’s game and during the defeat to Swansea. Neither result is satisfactory for a team like Manchester United, and in previous years you would see them swarm forward in collective urgency and determination to get the win.
United will take time to grow into van Gaal’s system but with little over a week to go in the transfer window, they must reinforce their midfield and defence. Their Dutch master made much of taking his time to size up his playing squad, but it will perhaps be only now, after seeing them twice in proper competitive action, that the size of the task he and his team face will be apparent.
Two games into the season is of course too soon to see any genuine improvement in a team that was almost entirely composed of last season’s squad, playing in an unfamiliar system. The good news is that unlike David Moyes, Louis van Gaal looks to all the world like a man capable at least of forming a cohesive plan, and implementing it properly. United fans will be hoping that Ed Woodward too can come up with the goods in the coming days.