Opposition Report: Manchester United by Jonathan Glover

Photo: Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

Manchester United supporter Jonathan Glover is here to disclose the goings on with Louis van Gaal’s rebuilding project …

Last December marked the 20th anniversary of Second Coming, the Stone Roses’ ill-fated follow-up to their eponymous 1989 debut. Coinciding with that initial, landmark release was the midpoint of a football season in which Sir Alex Ferguson would finally strike silver with Manchester United by winning the 1990 FA Cup the following May; the first of 38 trophies that we would win for the club over the course of his 26-year reign.

Although the huge success of Ian Brown and Co.’s first full-length record may not have granted them a similarly long-standing hold over their own sphere of popular music, for a time in the early 1990s it did establish them as one of the biggest bands in the world. The problem came when trying to follow such a seminal chapter of sheer, unrepeatable genius. While the timescales may differ between the most successful period of Manchester’s most decorated club, and the peak of one of the city’s most celebrated bands, they have shared similar problems in trying to bottle the magic they once conjured.

The Roses were held back by legal disputes, delays and other shenanigans as they waited five-and-a-half years to produce their next record, which ultimately flopped; United, by their own apparent hubris and naivety in appointing David Moyes as manager and the overly green Ed Woodward as Chief Executive in the same summer.

Now, over two decades on from Fergie’s maiden triumph, his latest successor — Louis van Gaal — heads into the start of a new campaign in which he must deliver clear progress, if not silverware, if he to prove he is a genuine second coming, rather than another disappointment.

A lot has changed in that time besides the identity of the manager in-charge at Old Trafford too. The city is now strutting to the hubbub of Media City rather than the thrills, spills and bellyaches of the Madchester scene. An influx of money, business, investment and other new opportunities have driven the 21st century regeneration of Manchester, and nearby Salford, rather than the kind of grassroots, bootstrapped momentum of Factory Records or even the Class of ‘92.

Just as the BBC’s move up North may have brought new talent, funding, possibilities to Manchester, various multinational brands, well-endowed “partners” and the ever-rising influx of TV revenue cash has also fed a large-scale rebuilding process within United’s squad.

Van Gaal has reportedly spent around £200 million since taking charge last summer and could well dip into the transfer market again before the season starts, with a deal for Pedro thought to be in the works, as well as a search for an attacker of real, stand-out quality.

Yet this window has also seen some unwanted former (or failed) figureheads such as Nani, Robin van Persie and Angel Di Maria shifted out of the squad and off the wage bill. In their place — especially that of the erratic Argentinian — the first-team still look short of an individual who can both buy into the manager and team’s much discussed “philosophy” while also be able to break free and augment their collective efforts with moments of solo brilliance. United ultimately need to find their own Eden Hazard; a task easier said than done in any transfer window.

Their business otherwise has looked rather more astute than their past few summers, during which Moyes’ incoherent, trial-and-error approach and Van Gaal’s hurried, post-World Cup shopping spree only further complicated a squad in need of obvious, specific renovations. Ferguson’s failure to rebuild the squad’s midfield during his final years in charge bordered on an act of negligence, but fans can now look upon Van Gaal’s new-look roster with confidence.

Recent talk of turning Manchester into the heart of a so-called “Northern Powerhouse”, established to help wean the country off its over-focus on London, has lead to hopes of a shift in the centre of economic gravity in England, away from the capital. The capture of World Cup and treble-winner Basitan Schweinsteiger from Bayern Munich has stirred up plenty of excitement amongst fans who hope that he will be a signing that helps to tip the balance back towards United as a Premier League powerhouse; away from the previously unnegotiable German champions in Europe, away from the current title-holders in London and away from the burgeoning, rival empire in sky blue that is still rising over on the other side of town.

It’s been a while since United have had a real midfield general to rally around, and while his recent injury record doesn’t make for happy reading, Schweinsteiger’s mere presence in the squad feels like a coup of sort. Alongside him too comes Morgan Schneiderlin, who will likely become the fated successor to the ageing Michael Carrick, whose own week-in, week-out fitness can no longer be taken for granted.

At the back, the squad still looks short of a central defender, especially given how many injuries were suffered by Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, Marcos Rojo, Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett last year. Daley Blind is apparently set to start the season in the heart of defence, to sate his manager’s desire for a ball-playing, left-footer on the left of the two; a move that for now sounds more theoretically sound than tactically smart. Out wide, Luke Shaw and recent arrival Matteo Darmian look set to man the full-back positions, with Blind and Antonio Valencia on hand to rotate in and out on left and right, respectively.

Up front, captain Wayne Rooney now stands as the only senior striker and the de facto frontman, with Memphis Depay — another canny signing who should fill the left-winger-shaped gap that has been all-too-clear within the side over the past few years — and Juan Mata or Pedro supporting him by coming inside from wide areas to try and score. The creativity of Ander Herrera, who many fans hope will retain his place as the most assertive and incisive midfielder in the starting line-up next to Scweinsteiger, and ahead of Carrick or Schneiderlin, will also be key. With Van Gaal’s system stuck in beta mode last season, chances and shots on goal were few and far between. The expectations for the campaign to come are that after a foundation year, the “philosophy” will now click — as it did to spectacular effect against Spurs, Liverpool and City — on a more regular, reliable basis. Herrera’s crowd-pleasing hustle and eye for a through ball could play a big part to adding some edge to the collective mechanisms demanded by his coach.

It wasn’t just the lost time in-between records that killed Second Coming. The Stone Roses also had to face up to the momentous expectations set by their first album, the years of hype-generating wait and the emergence of Britpop to muddy the waters they sought to return to: United too have to be aware of their changed circumstances. “This Is The One”, one of the best-loved tracks from The Stone Roses’ self-titled debut, can still be heard reverberating around Old Trafford come match day, but out on the pitch, United look like they may need to change their tune, or at least turn up the volume. With Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City all looking strong, and Liverpool spending big if in a rather disjointed fashion, there is no longer a comfort zone in the top four.

Should they manage to get in a big-name replacement for Di Maria, who can utilise his individual quality as per Van Gaal’s instructions rather than on his own terms, United could yet become a problem for Jose Mourinho in the title race. Without such a player however, they may end up looking out-gunned up-front and a bit too porous at the back compared to Chelsea, though given Diego Costa’s worryingly fragile hamstrings, Rooney may end up snatching an individual advantage there, at least.

Much too will depend on the future of David De Gea, whose on-off move to Real Madrid may not even resolve itself one way or the other until deadline day. If they keep the Spaniard and sign a suitable maverick, United may be able to thrown down a fascinating yet flawed title challenge to Chelsea. Otherwise, third and a run on the cups seems like a more achievable ambition for May.


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