May 12th 2013 feels like light years ago. On that rainy afternoon in Manchester I waved a teary goodbye from high up in the North stand to a man who had made my childhood significantly more enjoyable through his managerial knowhow. The atmosphere that day represented a huge amount of pride and elation; title number 20 had come with more expertise and comfort than ever. The only way for this hungry and competitive team was up, more European success was invariably round the corner and domestic dominance would continue in similar fashion.
Or so we thought. The departure of Sir Alex Ferguson was far more cataclysmic for Manchester United than anybody could have imagined. The prominent figure of this fiery Scot had been replaced by the sheepish and shell-shocked figure in the form of David Moyes. Under the leadership of somebody with no proven track record of winning trophies or making big signings the team suffered. The club was simply too big and scary for ‘Dithering Dave’ and his time in the hottest seat football management has to offer came to its involuntary conclusion 4 games shy of the end of the season.
The trauma of last season must be forgotten. The hottest seat in football is occupied by a man who ticks all the relevant boxes; proven record of winning major trophies? Check. Proven track record of making massive signings? Check. Does he have the ability to deal with big egos? Check. Can he boast significant high profile successes in more than one league? Check.
Louis van Gaal already has far more support than his predecessor ever did. His philosophy revolves around hard work, evaluation and improvement. The players who seem to capably follow and respect his system are the ones that Louis van Gaal selects. Big names do not exist for him; everyone is subordinate to the team and system, his system.
The ‘Iron Tulip’ has reinstalled a feeling of confidence and togetherness in the Manchester United team. The 100% record in pre-season which included wins over LA Galaxy, Roma, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, Liverpool and Valencia merited 18 goals (3 goals a game on average) and only resulted in 5 being conceded. The free flowing, incisive and forward thinking football has left supporters with a feeling of unbridled optimism, even the bookies are impressed with Louis van Gaal, a team that finished 7th last year is 5/1 to win the title according to some betting agencies.
Manchester United are expected to stroll past a team who they beat comfortably home and away last season in the Premier league. Michael Carrick is the only player who will certainly miss the season opener; the midfielder is still recovering from an ankle operation, which is set to keep him on the sidelines until the home game against West Ham. Evans, Welbeck, Valencia and Rafael should all be able to return from minor knocks to be available for selection against Swansea. Luke Shaw has been ruled out with a hamstring injury for a month.
Swansea will be looking to improve on a somewhat disappointing campaign last season. The Welsh club finished 12th on 42 points last term, only 10 points from safety. They were 3 places and 4 points worse off in comparison to the 2012/13 season, which saw them win the League cup and finish 9th. Although the days of playing gorgeous passing football under Michael Laudrup are behind them, they provide a fierce test under to guidance of homegrown hero Gary Monk. What Swansea may now lack in footballing enticement they more than make up for in courage and hard work.
Swansea will most likely line up in a 4-2-3-1 under Gary Monk, which can turn into a 2-4-3-1 when they are on the offensive, the two fullbacks can push up alongside Jonathan De Guzman and Leon Britton. The likes of Wayne Routeledge, Pablo Hernandez, Nathan Dyer and Wilfried Bony can provide a serious attacking threat with their pace and movement. With the recent recruitment of Bafétimbi Gomis from Lyon and Jefferson Montero the Swansea manager isn’t short of capable attacking options.
They have suffered some setbacks in the transfer window. The loss of Ben Davies, Michel Vorm and Chico Flores has somewhat weakened Swansea’s back line. Gary Monk’s lack of replacements for these big names is a cause for concern amongst the Swansea City supporters. The potential absence of Leon Britton due to a knee problem is another significant blow to the side, if you watch Swansea play you’ll notice how vital a player Britton can be. Not only is he an excellent controller of the ball, he allows other players to go forward and influence games whilst he keeps a lid on things just in front of the back four. Should he not be on the team sheet come Saturday the likelihood of spaces opening up is increased.
Swansea had a mixed pre season; they won 3 games, drew 1 and lost 2, which included convincing wins over Plymouth and Reading but also a rather conclusive 0-3 loss at the hands of Villarreal.
Gary Monk’s team are clear underdogs for this encounter, meaning that they will go to Old Trafford with the absence of a ‘must win game’ attitude. That mindset could result in a display of free flowing attacking football but could also end up in the opposition team overwhelming them with their commitment and up-leveled energy due to the immense expectation placed on their shoulders. I do think that the latter will happen.
This is a must win game for Manchester United, not only must the result be positive but the performance must be convincing. A home game against Swansea is an ideal opportunity for Louis van Gaal to establish his intent at the helm of Manchester United.
Prediction: Manchester United 3-0 Swansea