For Manchester United fans it has been a summer which began with unbridled optimism, as Louis Van Gaal was recruited as manager and then the club promptly acquired two of its long term targets, Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw. Pre-season has been an unqualified success, wins against LA Galaxy, Roma, Inter (on penalties), Real Madrid, Liverpool and Valencia giving the new manager and his team, playing a totally new 5-2-1-2 or 3-4-1-2 formation, an impressive clean sweep. The football has not always been pretty, but the team have defended well as a unit and attacked with real purpose and quality. Van Gaal has had a galvanising effect on the whole club, a true leader who appears to be both tactically astute and very lucky. Lucky in the same sense as Sir Alex, good fortune occurring so regularly that it could not possibly be by chance. The best make their own luck. But off the pitch, as the team blazed a trail across the United States, things have not progressed nearly as well as the fans and surely the club had hoped.
From the moment that Van Gaal walked in the door it was clear that United were perilously short of both numbers and quality in defence and lacking in top-level ability in midfield. With Patrice Evra deciding to leave for Juventus, the club had in a few weeks lost their three most experienced defenders, Vidic and Ferdinand (LVG’s choice) having already departed to Inter and QPR respectively. This loss of bodies left a squad containing only three senior centre backs and (including Shaw) only two specialist full backs. With the new manager favouring a five man defence that essentially meant that the only backup for these players, four of whom have consistently had problems remaining fit, were wingers playing out of position at full-back and midfielders or u-21 defenders covering at centre back. The most impressive youth product taken on tour was Tyler Blackett, a physically imposing talent whose career had stalled after early promise. Last season he was loaned to both Blackpool and Birmingham City, failing to stand out at either club. In pre-season he looked calm and composed, a competent, solid, but not yet outstanding centre-back. Also tried in the same position was Michael Keane, who has had successful loans in the Championship at Leicester City, Derby County and Blackburn Rovers. In contrast to Blackett, Keane struggled in the US and it has been reported that he may soon be allowed to leave on loan to Cardiff City. Finally, at left back, Reece James, previously released by Preston but a regular in the Under-21s, filled in as an alternative to Luke Shaw and Ashley Young. His two goals against LA Galaxy contrasted with his struggles, both defensively and offensively, against Valencia. Neither he nor Keane look ready for the Manchester United first team squad. Blackett has earned a shot at the big time, ideally as back up to the first team incumbents, a player who could be slowly developed in matches of his manager’s choosing.
But nearly three months after Van Gaal signed on the dotted line, a period during which the need for reinforcements has been obvious to all, the manager does not have the option of slowly introducing any of his young defenders. Despite media links to a plethora of players, both defenders and midfielders, the club Vice President has succeeded in signing precisely no one and it appears that at least one, if not two of those youngsters will be required to start against Swansea simply because there is no one else. The only solid link was with the Belgian defender Thomas Vermaelen, with whom United flirted all summer before standing, impotent, as the player moved to Barcelona. Despite Ed Woodward’s hyperbolic MUTV interview, in which he assured fans that the club could break existing transfer records, sign the world’s best players and that fans should ‘watch this space’, the man with the golden touch where marketing is concerned appears, as things stand, to be heading inexorably towards another summer of abject failure. There are still two weeks to go and he may still surprise and delight us all, but it cannot have been the plan for United to start the season so farcically light on numbers and quality. In the transfer market the club look listless and without a coherent strategy. Van Gaal will surely have been given assurances about the funding and the delivering of new signings. It appears that, thus far, the suits have failed him. The reality, that a world-class manager will start the new season without a single signing to call his own, is quite extraordinary. Injuries to Rafael, Luke Shaw and Jonny Evans leave him facing his first competitive game in English football with two fit senior defenders.
Woodward sells United as the biggest club in the world, a financial juggernaut who can and will buy the best. That is how the European giants behave, as Real, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea and even Arsenal have demonstrated this summer. United, on the other hand have been ineffective and listless for months. It is inconceivable that those other great clubs would enter a new season so farcically short. All have identified their targets and stumped up what was required to get them, providing depth to most areas of their squads. Woodward did so with Shaw and Herrera, but it is notable that he had as long as a year to put those deals together. He has now signed four players at great expense. One was the panic purchase of the now cut adrift Marouane Fellaini, one (Herrera) did not require negotiations with the selling club and one (Mata) was brokered by a third party. It is not unreasonable to wonder whether he has the competence for the job. This week reports emerged of a bid to sign Sporting Lisbon defender Marcos Rojo, but the approach has descended into a total mess as the Portuguese club’s President and the investment fund who own 75% of the player bicker about a sale. The next two and a half weeks will tell us all we need to know. If two or three high class players are signed then we can shelve our concerns and relax in the knowledge that Woodward has grown into his job. If not then his position as principle transfer negotiator must surely be untenable.
Without additions, even with the genius of Van Gaal, there is simply no way that this squad can win the Premier League title, with Chelsea, City and Arsenal having already strengthened squads which finished some distance ahead of United last season. Indeed, a place in the top four and vital Champions League qualification cannot be taken for granted. The squad with which Van Gaal starts the season is arguably weaker than that which finished seventh last term. It is utterly astonishing. The next fortnight goes to the heart of where this United is in the grand scheme of world football. If Woodward fails to deliver then we must start to question whether our club still has the ambition, competence and finance to justify a place amongst the elite. The summer’s travails in the transfer market since that early brace of signings are more Arsenal circa 2011 than Real or Barca. Are the club’s vast revenues really available for player acquisition and wages this summer, or have we been lied to again? The new commercial deals with Adidas and Chevrolet should mean that money is not an issue, but the spectre of the club’s debt still looms large, even if the annual interest payments are now much reduced. Is a place in the top four now our ultimate goal? One thing is for sure, without some serious business being done before the 1st of September, Manchester United can no longer keep up the pretence that it is the biggest club in the world, or even one of the immediate elite, despite it’s history, fan-base and previous success, a point reinforced by Van Gaal in his first press conference. It will be an ailing giant no longer playing in the big boys’ playground. Woodward has just over a fortnight to demonstrate that he is up to the task and to show the world that United are still a world class force. The early fixtures have been kind and the genius of Van Gaal should see United through the opening weeks of the season, but as the days grow shorter and opponents become harder it is the talent at the manager’s disposal which will determine how far he can take us. He will oversee a significant improvement in fortunes, but if United’s ambitions are as high as Ed Woodward maintains he will need some significant help from his boss.