David Moyes won his first league game 4-1 against Swansea and Manchester United’s new manager must hope his 2-1 loss is as meaningless but the display does not augur well
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? Perhaps a little harsh after one match, but to paraphrase Pete Townshend the Manchester United faithful are in no mood to get fooled again, especially as David Moyes supervised a highly impressive 4-1 victory at Swansea in his first game as United manager a year ago.
The only solace for United supporters, apart from the fact that the chequebook may come out between now and the end of the month, is that first impressions can be deceptive. United’s handsome win at the Liberty Stadium did not presage a successful season after all, and there is no reason to suppose Louis van Gaal’s team will be as bad as this in the coming months. They do have key players injured and things may improve as soon as players such as Robin van Persie and Michael Carrick return, though this was much too reminiscent of the struggles of last season for comfort.
At least Van Gaal and the rest of the United setup will be under no illusions now about the size of the task ahead. Remarkably, only one outfield player in the home ranks survived from the starting lineup at Swansea 12 months ago. Back then Phil Jones was surrounded by experience in the form of Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Ryan Giggs and several others. Here he was part of a new-look back three given scant protection by the wing-backs Ashley Young and, briefly, Jesse Lingard. Jones was probably United’s best player, certainly their best defender and, wholehearted competitor that he is, that speaks volumes about the supposedly creative players ahead of him.
The home side created almost nothing. Ander Herrera, pursued for so long and finally bought for £24m, was a huge disappointment in midfield. The Spaniard provided no drive or attacking invention and even some of his routine short passes went astray.
What many had been hoping would be an authoritative home debut ended meekly when Herrera was hauled off in favour of (the equally ineffective) Marouane Fellaini. Juan Mata fared little better. Given a chance to play in his preferred position in the central role behind two strikers, the former Chelsea player failed to make a convincing case, frequently being forced too deep in search of the ball and rarely finding himself able to play in Wayne Rooney or Javier Hernández.
Even Van Gaal’s much-trumpeted new three at the back formation did not survive going a goal down before the interval, when Swansea played the ball behind Young far too easily and United stood and watched as Gylfi Sigurdsson played Ki Sung-yueng into an embarrassing amount of open space in which to line up a shot.
United switched to a more conventional back four before pulling a goal back, then for a few minutes played with the crisp attacking tempo they had lacked in the first half, but Swansea weathered that mini-revival comfortably enough then strode forward again to deservedly take the points with a classic counterattack. Wilfried Bony’s quick-thinking at a free-kick was enough to catch United out, Jefferson Montero providing a cross that Fellaini and Young failed to cut out to allow Wayne Routledge to set up the excellent Sigurdsson for a side‑foot winner.
“We never played as a team, that was our error,” Van Gaal said, a little vaguely. The Dutchman’s misfortune was to come up against opponents who definitely did. With Ashley Williams setting a fine example at the back and Bony and Sigurdsson interacting intelligently up front, Swansea looked like a team who knew exactly what they wanted to do and had sufficient confidence in themselves to put plans into action. They gave Van Gaal’s side an object lesson in ball retention and economy of movement. Swansea passed briskly and accurately, just as United would have liked to do. The home side looked ragged by comparison, which was perhaps to be expected of such a hurriedly changed team trying out a new formation, and until Adnan Januzaj arrived they were almost unrecognisably short of pace and penetration.
Only Jones looked at home. But for a subtle and barely legal block by Bony he might have prevented the first goal, and when Bafétimbi Gomis came on late in the game it was a Jones tackle that prevented the substitute scoring a third for Swansea after a promising individual run. Like Swansea as a whole, Gomis took a little while to evaluate the opposition then decided, correctly, that United had a defence worth running at.
Without Vidic and Ferdinand to come back and restore confidence, that could easily turn into the story of United’s season. Van Gaal will be happier when Jonny Evans, Luke Shaw and Rafael are available for selection, but the realist in him was probably happy that Swansea won by the odd goal. The brutal truth is that had Gomis gone on to add a third, Garry Monk’s efficient and organised visitors would not have been flattered by a 3-1 scoreline.