Three games, three wins. So far, so good, although it has been far from classic Manchester United this season. Whatever the performances there can be few complaints about the results achieved by Louis van Gaal’s side. In securing a 3-1 victory over Club Brugge last Tuesday the Reds stepped closer to the promised land of the Champions League. Six points from six domestically could become nine as Van Gaal’s side takes on Newcastle United at Old Trafford this Saturday. It is good reward for a pre-season shaped to help United achieved a strong start to the new campaign.
Still, with 10 days to go until the transfer window closes the nation’s back pages remain filled by players acquired, or otherwise. Despite the results Van Gaal’s reliance on a declining Wayne Rooney in attack, and midfielder Daley Blind at the back, is a strong argument for further investment. As, perhaps, is David de Gea’s continued absence from the Dutchman’s team pending a transfer to Real Madrid that Van Gaal insists will not happen.
Van Gaal’s focus remains tightly on the football. Transfers, says the Dutchman, are “not any pressure,” with Van Gaal enjoying a squad touching on 28 professionals. He has some reason for optimism. After all, in the week when Pedro Rodriguez moved from Barcelona to Chelsea, and the gossip columns focused on an apparent United bid to acquire Neymar, Van Gaal’s new star Memphis Depay scored a stunning double at Old Trafford.
Sometimes the answer is closer to home.
Van Gaal insists that he is comfortable with the squad he now holds; one that the he believes can only be improved with top quality reinforcements. And not, according to the Dutchman, with the addition of Pedro.
“When Manchester United wants a player he shall come, except when the club is not selling,” said the 64-year-old.
“If we’d have wanted Pedro, it wouldn’t have been a problem. There was a clause in his contract so it was a very easy transfer. We want to improve, but at our way, not at the way that people are saying. When we buy it has to be a contribution to our selection and not against any price.
“I have said already that we now have a better selection. You can see my selection and you can see for every position we have a double. We don’t have to change, but when we can improve we shall do that.”
While Blind has impressed, Rooney’s form is worse than at any point over the past decade. The Scouser remains Van Gaal’s most pressing problem. The club captain is yet to score this season and not in the past nine competitive matches, stretching back to United’s victory over Aston Villa in April. Rooney has netted just six goals in 2015; against Preston North End, Sunderland, Arsenal, Tottenham and Villa.
Rooney was again largely anonymous as United eased past Brugge in midweek – following up what many believe to be the former Evertonian’s worst performance in a United shirt as the Reds secured three points at Villa Park last weekend. So poor was the 29-year-old striker in the Midlands that Rooney was forced to publicly defend his form, while admitting that it has been a difficult start to the new campaign. Van Gaal remains supportive, while the club continues to brief that a new striker is not on the radar.
“I think that’s fantastic that a player admits that and it’s also, for me, unbelievable because he is one of the few players who is saying such things,” said Van Gaal of his captain’s admission.
“He is very confident that he shall make the goals that we expect from him. And I have that confidence also. It starts with the player himself. He has to admit that he was bad and then he can improve. When you don’t admit, you cannot improve.”
Meanwhile, Van Gaal continues to seek the attacking balance to go with what has become a highly functional defence this season. Memphis’ high-quality double against Brugge coincided with another outing on the left side of United’s attack. Through the middle Van Gaal persists with Adnan Januzaj, the Belgian youngster who is only just returning into the first team picture after spending much of last season on the bench.
Januzaj offers the side pace through the middle even if Van Gaal accused the Belgian of “unnecessary ball losses” in United’s win at Villa. Still, Januzaj’s resurgence adds some credence to Van Gaal’s position on Pedro.
“I’m working hard on the pitch and off the pitch as well as in the gym,” he told MUTV this week. “I have started to get back to my fitness but I still need more rhythm. The Villa goal was important to me. And a winning goal. I want to improve and that’s why I’m training hard. My objective this season is to score more and give more assists.”
United might well need it with Rooney misfiring.
Meanwhile, in the opposition dugout, Steve McClaren faces his fifth tie against Van Gaal in a third country. The two clashed when AZ Alkmaar met FC Twente in 2008 and when Wolfsburg played Bayern Munich in 2010. McLaren is yet to enjoy a win an with Newcastle having lost eight away games in a row the odds remain stacked against the former United assistant manager improving that record.
McClared was sacked by Derby Country last May after failing to reach the Championship play-offs with the Rams. He signed a three-year contract in the north east in June, with an option to extend the deal by a further five years.
“We were both trainer-coaches in the Dutch Eredivisie. For my last season as trainer-coach of AZ Alkmaar, it was Steve’s first season in Dutch football with FC Twente. Alkmaar were crowned champions. FC Twente finished second and went on to win the league the next season – a great achievement for them and Steve.
“Our paths also crossed in the German Bundesliga while I was at Bayern Munich and Steve managed the Wolfsburg team. The matches between Bayern and Wolfsburg were very close and both matches had very late goals – Bastian Schweinsteiger scored for us in injury time to win the first match.”
Team news and line-ups
United subs from: Johnstone, Evans, McNair, Rojo, Carrick, Herrera, Pereira, Fellaini, Valencia, Young, Hernández, Wilson
Newcastle subs from: Elliot, Dummett, Lascelles, Williamson, Aarons, Abeid, Anita, Bigirimana, De Jong, Gouffran, Thauvin, Mitrovic, Perez
Van Gaal is without Phil Jones who continues to recover from a case of mild thrombosis. The Englishman is training and could be available next weekend. Marcos Rojo is short of match fitness having missed pre-season, while midweek goalscorer Marouane Fellaini serves the final match of a domestic suspension.
The Dutchman could start Bastian Schweinsteiger for the first time, although United’s manager is keeping the decision close to his chest. Schweinsteiger has featured as a second half substitute in each of United’s games this season and may replace Michael Carrick.
“It’s a matter of time. Maybe it shall happen tomorrow. You never know,” said Van Gaal of the £6.3 million capture from Bayern Munich.
Elsewhere, Van Gaal is unlikely to make any major changes, with Januzaj retained in a central supporting role alongside Memphis and Juan Mata.
McClaren could offer a debut to new winger Florian Thauvin, although defender Daryl Janmaat is suspended after being sent off at Swansea City last weekend. Moussa Sissoko is a minor injury doubt with a groin injury.
Referee: Craig Pawson
Assistants: L Betts, S Burt
Fourth Official: K Friend
United 2-0 Newcastle
£1 bet club
Memphis to score twice @ 9/2
Match graphic by @cole007