As a die-hard Manchester City fan it pains me to say this, but with new players in and a squad attuned to van Gaal’s philosophy, I think Manchester United are back.
Throughout Manchester United’s long and soul-sapping era of invincibility all that got me through at times was the sure knowledge they would struggle once Alex Ferguson retired. On occasion I’d seek blessed solace imagining the doomed patsy brought in to replace him, the inevitable exodus of talent, and, most pertinently of all, the gradual lessening of their famed ‘fear factor’.
Sergio Aguero’s 93rd minute bolt from the blue scuzzed up the timeline but once the big bad bully hung up his stopwatch sure enough the unravelling began. Yet it would have been utterly inconceivable to me even in my darkest hours following yet another title win or Champion’s League triumph that I would soon get to enjoy quite so much schadenfreude and belly-laughs courtesy of a club I once considered an evil empire.
From being a death star firing at will on my little Alderaan of hope they became Comedy Gold Trafford. I drank it all in.
The brief and wonderful Moyes era was naturally my favourite sketch followed closely by the more nuanced skit of witnessing Phil Jones take a corner or two last season. Spunking vast fortunes on an unfit striker and a fallen Angel were two other notable highlights while seeing them flounder their way to seventh in 2013/14 didn’t so much raise a giggle as prompt several fist-pumps of delight. They were on the ropes and, all-too-briefly, to an extent beyond my wildest dreams.
Now it gives me zip, zero and zilch joy to suggest that those days are over and the laughter has been quietened by an eerie sense of foreboding.
Louis Van Gaal, that unnerving concoction of supreme arrogance and Dutch waccy-baccy-ness, was the man responsible for bringing in Falcao despite the Colombian hitman having the sharpness of Joey Essex; it was he who spent £153M last summer yet relied on a defensive rota of Smalling, Evans, Rojo, Blackett and McNair; it was he who stumbled fortnightly from system to system yet claimed it was all part of a uniform ‘philosophy’; and of course it was he who instructed Phil Jones to take in-swingers from set pieces.
Yet it would be churlish in the extreme not to acknowledge that this summer he has evidently taken stock of the glaring deficiencies and chaos of a club in danger of reeling further into a cycle of superstar bidding and played something of a blinder. He is fast getting United’s house in order and, more worrying still, set about doing so right from the get-go.
The man whose middle name is Maria – yes really, and if you hate United you’d best get acquainted with these trivial snippets of bantz ammunition if things go as I predict to at least give you something to fire back with – prised open the transfer window nice and early recruiting Memphis Depay from PSV, reportedly pipping Liverpool into the bargain. Just 21, used to Van Gaal’s methods from international duty, and full of blistering promise Depay was a shrewd opening statement of intent.
Off-loading Falcao was a no-brainer but the speed in which this expensive flop was palmed onto Chelsea afforded United the guarantee of his extravagant wages being available for funding. Nani and Robin van Persie too have gone and with Hernandez, Rafael and Evans lingering by the exit door it’s hard to find fault with Van Gaal’s choice of deadwood and under-performers.
Next up came Matteo Darmian, a full-back who has impressed for Italy and made his name bossing his opposing winger first and foremost before seeking out damage further afield. He will presumably take time to settle but undeniably strengthens a long-term problem position while arriving for a relative pittance to boot.
But what of their central midfield, an area bafflingly left to stagnate into the perfectly ordinary in recent seasons? Last week’s dual capture of Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin stiffened and significantly upgraded their engine room at a stroke and all – as the media delighted in telling us –for ten million less than City splurged on Sterling.
It is not just proofreaders who need be concerned about these two coming in; United’s urgent need to revamp their midfield has been their main undoing for many a season and now they have finally done so. Impressively too.
Schweignsteiger brings a wealth of experience and a palpable aura of teutonic superiority while Schneiderlin…oh Morgan why?
He was the one, Schneiderlin. He was the one I feared going there the most. A highly accomplished, classy bit-of-everything, the Frenchman who qualifies as homegrown is the type of player who often goes unnoticed in games until in hindsight you realise he was the game.
They are not there yet of course. It is imperative they retain De Gea or at least bring in a keeper of only slightly inferior standing such as Lloris. Nicolas Otamendi must be secured too to partner an ever-improving Smalling which then leaves the path clear to concentrate their search on a top level striker.
If the above is achieved – in the same efficient manner the rest of their business has so far been conducted – then god help us they’re back.
It has been a highly encouraging summer thus far for Manchester United. It should be a worrying one for the rest of us.