Burnley can take advantage at Turf Moor
30 August ~ Some weeks back, when the Premier League's computer spat out the fixtures for the new campaign, it looked as if Louis van Gaal's introduction to English football was destined to be the smoothest of glides and the softest of landings. Swansea, Sunderland, Burnley, Leicester, QPR, West Ham: the way looked tantalisingly clear for Manchester United and their much-garlanded new manager to immediately put the horrors of 2013-14 behind them and build on their impressive performances during pre-season.
That was the theory. The reality has fallen lamentably short. Three weeks into the campaign, United sit a miserable 13th in the table with one point gained and two goals scored in three hours of football – to say nothing of last Tuesday night's League Cup hiding handed out by, of all teams, Milton Keynes.
If anything, the displays have been even less impressive than the results. Van Gaal began his tenure as United manager by emphasising that it would take time for the players to become familiarised with his methods, but even allowing for an adjustment process their performance levels have been pathetic. So bad was the first half at home to Swansea that Van Gaal abandoned his much-trumpeted 3-5-2 system at the interval.
United appear not to have advanced one inch from last season: a mediocre team sprinkled with big names turning in small performances, and otherwise stuffed with ordinary players whose collective confidence is in shreds. The performance against Sunderland last Sunday, in particular, was as dreadful as anything witnessed during David Moyes's doomed ten months in charge.
It spoke volumes that Antonio Valencia was still, on balance, United's best outfield player despite being directly responsible for the concession of Jack Rodwell's headed equaliser. The subsequent League Cup thrashing can be partly explained away by the presence of numerous youth-teamers, but the line-up still cost almost £60 million and included six full internationals.
Since Tuesday night, Van Gaal's desire drastically to overhaul his squad has mutated into barely concealed desperation. Tom Cleverley (to Aston Villa), Shinji Kagawa (to Borussia Dortmund) and Danny Welbeck (to half a dozen Premier League clubs) were all edging towards the exit at the time of writing, while the pursuit of Arturo Vidal and Daley Blind continues apace until Monday at least. Ángel Di María, the £60m man, is likely to make his United debut at Turf Moor, but it's unclear how sharp he will be after a draining World Cup with Argentina over the summer.
All of which is great news for Burnley, who won this fixture 1-0 five years ago in the early weeks of their maiden season in the Premier League. Like numerous other teams over the past 12 months, they will sniff the scent of blood coming off a weakened, injury-afflicted and demoralised United. One broadsheet football reporter excitably proclaimed during the week that, after the League Cup fiasco, Van Gaal "dare not lose again" but, even disregarding that sort of silly hyperbole, the Dutchman will know that a wobbly start doesn't take too long to turn into a chronic malaise. Jonathan O'Brien