Swansea City away in the everybody’s least favourite tournament, on a cold, probably wet, Tuesday night in the pretty shitty city is nobody’s description of a must win game. Must win it is though after José Mourinho’s plans threatened to turn south over the past week. Manchester United’s dispiriting draw at Anfield, narrow win at Benfica, and gutless defeat to Huddersfield Town, have tongues wagging at Old Trafford. Mourinho will ring the changes for the League Cup tie at Swansea, but anything other than a comfortable victory will create added pressure ahead of Tottenham Hotspur’s visit to Old Trafford at the weekend.
It is a little under three years since Swansea City arrived at Old Trafford and embarrassed Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United side in the Dutchman’s first competitive fixture in charge . It wouldn’t be the last time the Dutchman was humiliated while at United, but it is a result that remains lodged in the memory, as if to underline the mediocrity that has engulfed the club since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. It is almost 12 months since the Iron Tulip’s tenure at United came to end, and there are plenty of reasons to believe progress is being made. Signs that it hasn’t come fast enough as well.
No one said it would be easy. But no one said it’d be this hard. As José Mourinho’s side fumbled its way through another disappointing night in Europe, the few remaining onlookers who thought everything would be back to normal this time around suffered a rude awakening. There is, apparently, no quick fix to the problems facing Manchester United, the self-proclaimed “biggest club in the world.”
“We are improving every week and we will be better in 2015, just watch” – Louis van Gaal’s words in December 2014, just after his Manchester United side had ended the year with a draw at Tottenham Hotspur. Although the veteran couldn’t know it, he could not have been further from the truth. Despite finishing fourth back in May, Van Gaal’s side has offered supporters little over the past year other than disappointment. Having not won for eight games the Reds look to start the New Year in positive fashion with victory over struggling Swansea City on Saturday. Read More
Manchester United’s emphatic victory over Club Brugge on Wednesday should be the game that sets the tone for a season to come. After all, this was a fixture in which United, for once, threw caution to the wind, Wayne Rooney started scoring again and Ander Herrera impressed in the central midfield role many believe is his right. For one night only the pieces clicked into place: here was a United side in attacking flow, with Herrera dictating play, Juan Mata drifting unpredictably into dangerous positions, and the predatory Rooney on the shoulder the last defender.
The suspicion remains that the manner of United’s victory in Belgium is just an illusion though. Not that the Reds will fail to win games this season – Louis van Gaal’s side will do that more almost any – but that the balance of the Dutchman’s team tends toward pragmatic conservatism. It is the philosophy that has defined Van Gaal’s first 15 months in Manchester; one that is more likely to return with United traveling to an in-form Swansea City on Sunday.
It is the small decisions that make the greater whole of Van Gaal’s philosophy whatever the over-arching principals. Never more so than at the Liberty Stadium, where Van Gaal could build on a flowing attacking performance in Belgium. Or seek the control of a low tempo, high possession, defensive base. It is in the minutiae that the answers are found: one defensive midfielder or two; Mata with the freedom to roam or limited by defensive responsibility; the dancing feet of Herrera unleashed or the brute force of Marouane Fellaini unbound?
Those decisions come into sharper relief against the backdrop of recent results against the Welsh side. Swansea beat United at Old Trafford in Van Gaal’s first game in charge of the club and then again in his 31st. Forty-nine games down, Van Gaal’s task is to find a result against the Swans where he has failed to do so before. It is, of course, also a chance to capitalise on results going against both Chelsea and Liverpool this weekend.
The over-riding sentiment remains cautious though, and Van Gaal’s instinct still tends to self-preservation. The cock-sure confidence of Friday morning press conferences is too often betrayed by the limits placed on his team on the pitch. Far from the swagger in the Jan Breydel Stadium last Wednesday, the evidence points to a sense of circumspection in south Wales on Sunday afternoon. One that may be proven correct by a United victory, but that will limit the visitors’ inventiveness nonetheless.
“I don’t want to lose again,” admitted van Gaal on Friday. “It’s the only club we could not beat or gain one point against. It’s a difficult team against us and before my period it was also difficult for United so I hope we can improve and that we can show that we are better than last year. I hope we can show our fans that we have improved. I hope we can show that.”
“Swansea are a very good team, they play a positional game like we do. They want to build up and have a good attack with speed and creativity. They proved they are a good team this season in the draw against Chelsea and against Newcastle and when I see the individual players I see that they have quality.”
Swansea, meanwhile, continue to flourish under Gary Monk, albeit this is a team that has secured just five league points this season. There was disappointment that the Swans could not beat Sunderland in the north-east last weekend, although a fine victory over Newcastle United followed a draw at Stamford Bridge. Whatever else, Swansea – with a fraction of United’s budget – will push far larger clubs for a place in the top echelons of the Premier League this season.
Indeed, in Bafétimbi Gomis the Swans boast a goalscorer of rare pedigree, while Jefferson Montero has started the campaign in outstanding form on the left-wing. The pair cost a combined fee of just £3.5 million. In times of abundance a rare steal.
That sense of momentum has inevitably brought higher expectations. Swansea’s progress under Brendan Rodgers, Roberto Martinez, Michael Laudrup and now Monk is based on a sound financial platform and sensible executive management. These are also traits that can be warped when a club ‘chases the dream’ of perpetual growth.
For the moment, however, Monk is relishing his success; one built on a sense of confidence and place.
“We showed against Chelsea we can compete against the bigger teams and really show what we can do,” said the 36-year-old. “We are at home, in front of our crowd and we need to make this a fortress, and if we are ready and focused we will give anyone a game here.
“It’s important to keep raising the expectation levels, but we have to be realistic as well and manage those expectations in a good way. This is Manchester United we are talking about. The squad they have, the money and power they have – they have to be favourites.”
Indeed, the visitors are. The question remains: does Van Gaal also know it?
Team news and line-ups
Van Gaal must choose whether to stick or twist with Herrera in south Wales. The Spaniard was deployed as one of two central midfielders against Brugge, although the suspicion remains that Herrera will only be used at number 10 or not at all on Sunday. Fellaini could come into the side in support of the lone striker Rooney, with Adnan Januzaj injured – an observation backed by Van Gaal’s assertion that Herrera is a “controlling” midfielder not the “second striker” he seeks.
Elsewhere, Van Gaal could buttress central midfield, where all three of Morgan Schneiderlin, Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger will only start if Fellaini does not. Marcos Rojo is fit and should make the bench, although Phil Jones is still unavailable and Jonny Evans is set to join West Bromwich Albion.
The home side welcomes midfielder Ki Sung-yeung back into the starting line-up, with the Korean having played more than 80 minutes in the League Cup last week. Monk enjoys an almost fully fit squad and is likely to make few changes from the side that drew with Sunderland last Saturday.
Swansea subs from: Nordfeldt, Britton, Routledge, Éder, Rangel, Tabanou, Bartley, Amat, Fulton, Emnes, Grimes, Dyer
United subs from: Johnstone, McNair, Rojo, Carrick, Herrera, Pereira, Valencia, Young, Hernández, Wilson
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistants: M Mullarkey, P Kirkup
Fourth Official: R East
Swansea 0-0 United
£1 bet club
a player to be sent off @ 11/4
Match graphic by @cole007
Strange season this. Back in August Louis van Gaal declared his players’ confidence “shattered” after Swansea City won at Old Trafford on the opening day. The Welsh side deserved victory against a pensive Manchester United that had been fluent during the summer tour of the United States. If the pattern was not often repeated during the late summer to autumn, then three defeats by October left Van Gaal’s side in 10th with no obvious path back to the top. More than 20 matches later and the Dutchman is now emboldened – calling his side the “best in the Premier League” this week.
Yet, there is also a strange phenomenon brewing; United’s run of one defeat in the past 19 games – at home to Southampton – is impressive, albeit one that includes eight draws. The performances have been far from slick though. Indeed, the veteran Dutch coach has come under fire for United’s style in recent weeks – West Ham United manager Sam Allardyce dubbed Van Gaal’s team “Long Ball United,” while former player Paul Scholes said that he was “struggling to watch” the side.
United’s direct, often painfully slow, style has alienated some despite that good run of results. After all, it has been rare since United’s 5-3 defeat at Leicester City in September that the Reds have thrilled. Few supporters expected Van Gaal to bring a brand of ultra-pragmatism to the club; this is the manager that built a vibrant Ajax side in the mid-1990s and the pre-cursor in the early 2000s to Barcelona’s tika-taka kings.
While the critique is mitigated by United’s results, former Red-turned-pundit Gary Neville’s says that supporters should now “let go” of the past and embrace the manager’s less-than-attractive style of play. Results, says Neville, justify the means – a “play-style” that has taken the Reds to third in the Premier League and into an FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal.
And while the path to success is not always obvious, with deficiencies in almost all sectors of the team, more than 80 per cent of United’s supporters understand Van Gaal’s direction, according to a recent poll in the Manchester Evening News. Credit, apparently, where it is due, although the Dutchman says that it is his players whose praise he seeks the most.
“The credit I get is from the players, the highest credit what I can get,” said Van Gaal on Friday. “That is the most important thing: that my players, my staff and myself can work together at the way we work now and that gives the spirit.
“Now I think every player knows the philosophy. Everyone wants to follow that philosophy and you can see that in the team spirit of the team. But that doesn’t say anything about the match because you have to play that match and we have seen that against Swansea City in the first match. I think only the difference is now the players know and have experience of playing in the system with my philosophy.”
United’s trip to Swansea this weekend is a reminder of the difficult days past – and possibly of those to come. Gary Monk’s side will comfortably avoid relegation this season even if mixed results keep the Swans in mid-table. The game also recalls the transition under Van Gaal – six of United’s 10 outfield players who featured in the 1-2 defeat at Old Trafford in August are no longer at the club or regularly playing. Four of seven substitutes have also left.
The uptick in results has been largely due to United’s sound home record; 13 Premier League victories have come at Old Trafford with just three on the road. Style can wait, says the Dutchman, until he finds the “balance” that has become a season’s cliché.
“We can play much better. I am looking for the balance and I can see a team who are also looking for the balance,” adds Van Gaal. “It is never good enough – not for me, not for the players, not for the fans. We have to improve and we are in the process. We haven’t won so much away, but when you draw, you are very close to the victory. It’s not so far away that we can win away matches regularly also.”
The Dutchman has few excuses now with only Michael Carrick on the sidelines. Phil Jones and Robin van Persie are fit to play and could both feature this weekend. Carrick trained this week, although he is not expected to start at the Liberty Stadium. Whether Van Persie partners a labouring Radamal Falcao in attack is open to question, although United’s manager is seemingly reluctant to drop the Colombian striker despite a desperate run of form that has brought only four goals this season.
Van Gaal will also persist with the largely failed experiment of deploying Rooney in midfield, while Ander Herrera drops to the bench despite an impressive showing against Preston North End in the FA Cup.
Meanwhile, Swansea manager Monk welcomes back creative fulcrum Gylfi Sigurdsson, who returns from a three-match suspension. Defender Kyle Bartley is out with a knee problem, but Monk has a predominantly fit squad with which to work.
Swansea has suffered mixed results in recent weeks – losing at West Bromwich Albion last weekend, while securing victory at Southampton last month. There was also a chastening 5-0 loss at Chelsea together with defeat in the FA Cup to Championship side Blackburn Rovers. A reminder, perhaps, that it has been a diverging path for both clubs since that opening day fixture.
“That feels like a long time ago,” admitted Monk this week. “But it was a fantastic day and the pleasing thing for me is that we won the game on merit. We put in a great performance and it was a superb start to the season for us. But they have changed a lot since then. They have climbed the table and are in a good position. They have world-class players and can mix it up and change their style of play accordingly. It is a massive challenge for us.”
A challenge too for Van Gaal. To keep securing positive results – and to progress United’s performances.
United (4-1-3-2): De Gea; Valencia, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Blind; Fellaini, Rooney, Di Maria; Van Persie, Falcao
Swansea (4-5-1): Fabianski; Naughton, Williams, Fernandez, Taylor; Dyer, Ki, Sigurdsson, Carroll, Montero; Gomis
Swansea: Cornell, Tremmel, Amat, Rangel, Tiendalli, Britton, Cork, Fulton, Grimes, Routledge, Sheehan, Shelvey, Barrow, Emnes, Oliveira
United: Valdes, Evans, Rafael, James, Smalling, Blackett, McNair, Januzaj, Young, Herrera, Pereira, Wilson
Swansea 8 – Draw 5 – United 11
Referee: Neil Swarbrick
Assistants: S Ledger, M Perry
Fourth Official: L Probert
Swansea 0-1 United
£1 bet club
Marianne Fellaini to score in 0-1 win @ 35/1
Running total: £2.50 up!
First game of the season, first injury crisis to overcome. New campaign, new manager, same old problems. Is it something in the Carrington water? Louis van Gaal has been in the top job barely two months, but he takes Manchester United into the season’s opener against Swansea City with nine players out of action. Given the paucity of options available, it is a headache for which the Dutchman has few remedies. This was supposed to be the bright new dawn.
Injuries mean that Antonio Valencia, Luke Shaw, Jonny Evans, Danny Welbeck, Anderson and Sam Johnstone sit out the Swans’ visit to Old Trafford on Saturday. Robin van Persie, Adnan Januzaj and Marouane Fellaini remain in a fitness-building phase after this summer’s World Cup. It means that van Gaal will hand a début to at least one promising youngster, perhaps two, in Tyler Blackett and Reece James. So much for the promised summer of transfer market activity.
Still, six victories in as many matches during pre-season has drilled confidence into the Dutchman’s squad. It was badly needed after United’s worst campaign in a quarter century under David Moyes. The Scot’s sacking brought to an end one of the most incredulous appointments of United’s rich history. van Gaal’s should be the beginning of something so much better.
Yet, logic – and limited resources – dictates that United’s climb back to the top is one of slow progress. Or at least one in which supporters may have to be realistic about the challenges ahead this season. Not least with executive vice chairman Ed Woodward having failed to secure the players that his perpetual briefing suggests will flow through Old Trafford’s doors.
van Gaal remains realistic though, at one in believing that his squad is “below top quality” and yet prepared to proffer his players an opportunity to impress.
“I cannot change everything, I have to adapt to the culture,” said van Gaal in his first pre-match press conference at Carrington on Friday.
“It’s a process and we have to make steps. Sometimes you fall and you have to make another big step. That’s the process but you are not champion in October. You are champion in May. I have another philosophy. I have another way of dealing with players to normal coaches. I’m not concerned where we might be and I’ve said that in my meetings with Woodward and the Glazers. I am very confident. I am not nervous.”
On the pitch van Gaal will employ a makeshift defence in his now preferred 3-4-1-2 formation. With Evans on the sidelines, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and debutant Blackett will form an unlikely back three, with two from Rafael da Silva, Ashley Young and James on the flanks.
Elsewhere the Dutchman’s preferred team is yet to fully take shape, although Ander Herrera will make a competitive début for the club, presumably alongside Darren Fletcher in central midfield. Captain Wayne Rooney should partner Javier Hernandez up front, with Juan Mata in his preferred role at number 10.
“Sam Johnstone – the goalkeeper. Antonio Valencia, Shaw and Evans – three defenders. Welbeck. I believe that is it,” said van Gaal of his injury list.
“We have analysed Shaw and it is difficult to lay a finger on it. It is difficult to look for the solution but there are a lot of reasons. After the World Cup, all the players are coming back at different moments and it is very difficult to train. We have the travel, jet-lag and a lot of matches in 14 days. Another reason is the amount of training sessions but we are doing half of what I have done with the other clubs so I cannot assume we have done that wrong.
“I am very confident and I am not nervous. We have players injured and I am not nervous. We have beaten them all until now but tomorrow is the match that counts.”
van Gaal has time, of course, and the Dutchman begins the season with a significant bank of credit, earned for the positive way in which United approached pre-season games in the United States. Possession football, an attacking philosophy and victories buy time even if United plays out the season looking up to rivals from Manchester and the capital.
Not that old hands tend towards that circumspect narrative. This is, after all, United, where trophies abound and negativity, in part, drove Moyes out of a job.
“We’re out to win the league,” claims vice captain Fletcher.
“You start every season at Manchester United with the aim of winning the league. I don’t think this club should ever fall into the trap of being satisfied with finishing in the top four. That’s not the Manchester United I know. You play football to win trophies at this club. It’s a dangerous mindset to be getting into if you start thinking you’d be happy to get into the top four and everybody around the squad is thinking about winning the league.”
Even Rooney, one of Moyes’ favoured sons, has quickly readjusted to the United way. Success may well be qualification for Europe, but it is a truth that gains only tacit acceptance in van Gaal’s camp. In public United’s confidence has been restored.
“It has to be better,” said the 28-year-old. “There are no two ways about it. We have to improve a lot on last year. We know that as a team and we have been working hard to make sure we’re going to get the right results. We are not a club who will settle for finishing in Europe. We’re a club that wants to win trophies and for us it’s only a good season if you do that.”
The Swans arrive after a traumatic 2013/14 campaign in which Michael Laudrup was dismissed to leave rookie Garry Monk in charge. The 35-year-old former central defender spent a decade at the club, much of it in the lower reaches of the Football League, before the Dane’s sacking brought a first coaching job. The role has been made permanent following an interim spell last season.
Swansea lost to Moyes’ United 4-1 on the opening day last season, but seek a stronger start to the new campaign, albeit one in which expectation is set at survival. After all there has been considerable loss of talent over the summer, with Ben Davies and Michel Vorm moving to Tottenham Hotspur, Chico and Pablo Hernandez to Qatar, and Michu to Napoli, albeit on loan.
Still, Monk has secured the signatures of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Jefferson Montero, Lukasz Fabianski and the exciting forward Bafetimbi Gomis. The latter may yet be a replacement for in-demand Wilfried Bony.
Whatever the challenges, Monk talks a good game. His team may need the confidence despite United’s lengthy injury list.
“All of the focus is on them and that suits us fine,” he said. “Whenever you go there you know it is going to be tough because of the quality they have. They have had a very positive pre-season, but we have had a very good week’s training and we’ll be positive.
“Everyone is beatable in this league. On any given day, if things drop right and you’re on the top of your game, we can beat the big clubs and we’ve proved that already. We know it will be difficult but we don’t fear them – we see it as a challenge.”
It is a challenge for van Gaal too. Just one in which half a term remains on the sidelines.
United (3-4-1-2): de Gea; Smalling, Jones, Blackett; Young, Herrera, Fletcher, James; Mata; Rooney, Hernández.
Swansea (4-3-3): Fabianski; Rangel, Bartley, Williams, Taylor; Sigurdsson, Shelvey, Montero; Routledge, Bony, Gomis
United: Amos, Lindegaard, Evans, Januzaj, Nani, Powell, Zaha, Cleverley, Kagawa, Fellaini, Da Silva, Keane, Thorpe, Petrucci, Varela.
Swansea: Cornell, Tremmel, Amat, Tate, Tiendalli, Cañas, Obeng, Richards, King
United 11- Draw 5 – Swansea 7
Referee: Mike Dean
Assistants: S Bennett, D England
Fourth Official: M Oliver
United 3 – 1 Swansea
£1 bet club
Wayne Rooney & 3-1 @ 25/1
It takes a little gallows humour to find mirth in the ‘records’ achieved by David Moyes this season. They include, among others, a first defeat to Everton at Old Trafford since 1992, the first reverse to Newcastle United in Manchester for 41 years, and the first defeat to Swansea City at home, ever. West Bromwich Albion hadn’t won at Old Trafford since 1978, while Sunderland secured a first win against the Reds in 20 matches. Add to that list a trio of losses in as many games this calendar year, which is the first time that has happened since 1932. Meanwhile, United hasn’t lost three games in January for 40 years, nor three games inside a week for 22.
Rant isn’t sure whether any side has ever beaten United twice at Old Trafford in the same week, but should Swansea City do so on Saturday afternoon, it will probably be another record of some kind or another. You get the picture; such has been life under the former Everton manager this season.
It can’t go on though. If ever a United match lives up to the clichéd ‘must win’ then it is surely Saturday evening’s game. Yet, lying seventh in the Premier League, some 11 points behind leaders Arsenal, there is some irony that United’s fixture against the Swans supersedes mere league position. After all, the title is already gone; Moyes credibility might just go with it should United lose a fourth match in succession – the first time that will have happened since 1961.
Still, the wheels haven’t quite fallen off United’s campaign yet. The Reds do have a Champions League Round of 16 fixture with Olympiakos in February, while many will back Moyes’ side to knock Sunderland out of the Capital One Cup when the return leg comes round in 10 day’s time. Still, the odds on United securing silverware this season are long and some fans’ patience is wearing thing.
And in all of this perhaps the most galling aspect is not United’s downturn, for no club has a divine right to win forever, nor even the turgid style with which Moyes has his men play, but the Scot’s excuses for failure. It is not bad luck, nor poor officialdom that has brought the side to its knees, but abject performances. Beginning with, it seems, the manager.
It is not an analysis with which Moyes’ concurs though. The 50-year-old, perhaps protecting his players – covering himself certainly – believes that luck, referees and poor finishing are at the core of United’s decline. It is, says the Scot, just another challenge in a career that has seen plenty of difficult periods.
“A lot of the performances have been fine but things have gone against us, decisions have gone against us,” said Moyes on Friday.
“They haven’t helped but I think we’ve played pretty well. We just need to be a bit more clinical in the final third and make things count more. All the things you look for in terms of stats have been pretty good but the only thing that matters is goals and we’ve not been scoring enough recently.
“Obviously not winning can affect your confidence, it plays a big part in football but prior to that we’d won six games in a row and we were not talking about confidence in the game after that. It can happen – you lose games in football – but we need to try to get back to winning ways and get those three points.
“I’ve had equally challenging times at other times in my career. It’s all the same – losing games makes it difficult. Overall, there is a lot of attention but it was to be expected.”
On the pitch Moyes is hardly aided by a rash of injuries this season, although not all in the game believe it to be bad luck, with the Scot’s ‘hard-running’ training regime branded “Jurassic Park” by one prominent commentator. Indeed, injuries to Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie persist. Each was laid low after being rushed back from injury this season. Neither will feature against the Swans, with Rooney instead jetting off to warm-weather training in the Middle East.
“With Wayne we’ve sent him away on a hot-weather break,” said Moyes.
“His groin isn’t quite recovered yet so we’ve sent the fitness coach with him and he’s away with his family. It will give Wayne a bit of break. We always hoped to be able to do it at some time in the season and the groin is not as good as we’d hoped. Hopefully we can get him fit for Chelsea but we’ll see how he is.
“Robin is going to be a little while. We’ll do everything we can to get him back quickly. It’s a thigh strain similar to the one he had at Arsenal so we are having to manage it correctly.
“He has been to Holland to work with the guy he knows over there and we are doing everything we can. There are some injuries you can play with but not the thigh.”
Meanwhile, Jonny Evans could miss the game after coming off in United’s defeat to Sunderland with a back injury. With Rio Ferdinand and Phil Jones also sidelined, Chris Smalling and Nemanja Vidić may play in the centre of defence.
Up front Danny Welbeck should continue to lead the line, while Adnan Januzaj, Shinji Kagawa and Javier Hernández may compete for two attacking spots.
Swansea manager Michael Laudrup is without wingers Pablo Hernandez and Roland Lamah due to injury, while goalkeeper Michael Vorm is still out with a knee problem. This week Jonathan de Guzman and Dwight Tiendalli joined long-term absentees Michu and Nathan Dyer on a potentially crippling injury list.
Indeed, Swansea’s league form is such that the Welsh side remains just four points above the relegation zone, having seen a paper-thin squad stretched during the Europa League campaign. It is perhaps little wonder Laudrup has chosen to downplay Swansea’s visit north for the second time in a week.
“It will certainly be more difficult to win this weekend than it was last weekend,” claimed the Dane.
“I expect them to come out and have a right go at us. Let’s face it, they have to win this game so we must be ready for what they throw at us. They will be desperate to show they are better than the things that are being written and said about them.
“I don’t think the United players like what they are reading and what they are hearing at the moment about these negative records so I know this will be a very tough game for us. But football can change in a very short space of time. If they beat us, win their next game then beat Sunderland 1-0 in their second leg, suddenly they’re back near the top four in the league and in a final at Wembley.”
Laudrup’s is a positive spin in a very difficult week for United, although the reality of the Reds’ form is that it will probably require other teams to fail in the coming months if Moyes’ side is to make next season’s Champions League. A sobering thought indeed, another record Moyes doesn’t want.
Manchester United v Swansea City, Premier League, Old Trafford, 5.30pm, 11 January 2014
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Smalling, Vidić, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Cleverley, Kagawa; Januzaj; Welbeck. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Buttner, Carrick, Fletcher, Zaha, Anderson, Giggs, Hernández
Swansea (4-3-3): Tremmel; Rangel, Chico Flores, Williams, Davies; De Guzmán, Cañas, Shelvey; Routledge, Bony, Pozuelo. Subs from: Amat, Taylor, Britton, Cornell, Alvaro, Vazquez, Zabret
United 10 Draw 5 Swansea 7
Referee: Chris Foy
Assistants: P Kirkup, J Flynn
Fourth Official: R Madley
It has been a decade in the waiting, but the FA Cup might just be important to Manchester United once again – for the season at least. The club last secured the famous old trophy on 22 May 2004 when Sir Alex Ferguson’s side beat Millwall at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. In the intervening years the Reds have made just two further cup finals, losing in 2005 to Arsenal and then Chelsea in 2007. It has, in truth, been a pitiful decade in the cup.
What then of United’s approach to a third round tie with Swansea City this weekend? Manager David Moyes is keen both to freshen up his side ahead of a lengthy January fixture schedule and secure his first trophy as United’s manager. Indeed, his first trophy at any club, anywhere. The two may not align.
But while the cup might normally be low of the list of United’s priorities it has taken on new meaning in a season where Moyes’ side has already lost on six occasions in the Premier League. With Europe’s finest – Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid – favourites to take the Champions League in May, the FA Cup might just represent United’s best chance of silverware this season.
It hasn’t always been that way; Ferguson didn’t always take the cup seriously. Not even close. In truth, the world’s oldest football tournament has normally pitched up third in the list of Ferguson’s goals, while it lies somewhere behind securing new sponsors in far off lands in a very long list of club priorities.
That pattern may not initially change under Moyes, especially if a Champions League spot remains in the balance, although the Scot at least talked a good game this week. Moyes claims that not only is the FA Cup a priority, but that United is focused on winning the tournament for the first time in a decade.
“The cup is important to me, it always has been,” said the Scot on Friday.
“I’m sure it’s important to every club. The longer you stay in the competition the more important it becomes. For most of the Premier League clubs, this is just the start of it. At this moment in time, a lot of Premier League games have been played and it’s a difficult time.
“I’m sure there is because if you’re a club like Manchester United you want to be involved in all the trophy-winning opportunities, and to not win the FA Cup for 10 years is something that’s a bit of a surprise. But it’s something we’ll try to do – we’re trying to win all the competitions. As far as I am concerned, we’ll do everything we possibly can to try to get through.”
Still, United will rotate for the Sunday afternoon clash, with Moyes keen to freshen up a side that suffered demoralising defeat to Spurs on New Year’s Day, and with a Capital One Cup semi-final with Sunderland to come next Tuesday.
Changes also come with the squad still carrying a number of injuries. Wayne Rooney is sidelined having featured against Spurs, while Robin van Persie is unlikely to be fully fit before next weekend’s Premier League match with Swansea. Rooney missed United’s victory at Norwich with a groin problem, returning early – too early it seems – for the New Year’s Day loss to Tottenham. It is not the first time Moyes has taken that risk this season.
Meanwhile, winger Ashley Young is out with a shoulder problem suffered in last week’s controversial clash with Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
“We’ve got a few injuries and one is [from] the challenge the keeper made on Ashley Young,” claimed Moyes.
“It’s a shoulder injury and we’re not sure exactly how long he’s going to be out yet. We’ve got some other injuries as well that we’ll just need to look at and see how they are over the next few days. Wayne has got a groin injury and won’t be available on Sunday. Robin’s coming on but we’ll let you know when he’s ready.
“We definitely will [rotate] because of the two games. It’s the same for both clubs so there can’t be many complaints but I don’t think it’s right to be asking footballers to play on Sunday and then Tuesday. They did it over Christmas and I totally understand that and the reasons why. But it’s a bit harder to accept at such short notice here.”
The visitors arrive in Manchester with Pablo Hernandez out after the winger sustained a hamstring injury last weekend, while Leon Britton, Michu, Michel Vorm and Nathan Dyer remain on the sidelines.
Injuries are the last thing manager Michael Laudrup needs in an increasingly difficult season for the Swans, although the Dane is still likely to make changes at Old Trafford with the priority remaining Premier League survival.
Swansea lie just three points ahead of the relegation zone having previously impressed in two seasons in the Premier League since promotion in 2011. The cup is both a distraction and a potential route to further glory for the side that won last season’s Capital One Cup.
“We are playing at Old Trafford against Man United, so we want to do as well as we can, even though it will be very difficult,” said Laudrup.
“Yes, we may make changes, especially now because we have 18 players – some of which have played a lot of games. But just because we make changes, doesn’t mean we don’t care about the competition. I think I already proved that last year.”
“For me, the cups are always something special, but I have also always said that the Premier League is like the daily bread – the most important thing – and of course that is our first priority. It has always been that way, not just this year. It was last year, the year before that and it will be next year.”
It is a similar question facing Laudrup’s opposite number of course: to field a strong side and aim for Wembley in May, or rotate to focus on other concerns. After all, while Moyes will use his full squad this season it is not because the Reds are realistically chasing silverware on four fronts. For once, the domestic cups might just be a priority.
Manchester United v Swansea City, FA Cup, Old Trafford, 4.30pm, 5 January 2014
United (4-4-2): De Gea; Smalling, Evans, Ferdinand, Buttner; Valencia, Fletcher, Cleverley, Kagawa; Hernández, Welbeck. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Evra, Vidić, Carrick, Zaha, Anderson, Giggs, Januzaj
Swansea (4-3-3): Tremmel; Rangel, Chico Flores, Williams, Davies; Cañas, Shelvey, Lamah; Routledge, Bony, De Guzmán. Subs from: Amat, Taylor, Tiendalli, Britton, Pozuelo, Cornell, Alvaro, Vazquez, Zabret
United 10 Draw 5 Swansea 6
Officials (all Serbian)
Referee: Michael Dean
Assistant Referees: Darren Cann and Stuart Burt
Fourth Official: Jonathan Moss
The insouciant shrug of the shoulders, a look of frustration, a sharp word with the referee; a new season, same old Wayne Rooney. Except that the striker’s moments of petulance on Saturday came in duplicate, following each of the goals that he helped to create, as Manchester United scored victory on the opening day of the new campaign.
Rooney’s return was in extract the essence of David Moyes’ dilemma this summer: retain Rooney, whatever the player’s mental breach, or dispatch a player who can create with such devastating effect.
Yet, there remains something unseemly about Rooney’s presence in Red; a player no longer in love with the club, if ever he was, and quite possibly in decline.
Perhaps it is the memory of George Best’s final days in Manchester, perhaps more ephemeral than that, but Rooney barely looked fit – an unkempt beard adding to the appearance of a player whose finest moments are now well in the past.
With barely a game in aggregate over the pre-season period Rooney’s limited match sharpness is forgivable; the lack of application certainly isn’t.
And yet, whatever the Scouser’s dramas this summer, the 27-year-old still managed a hand in two goals at the Liberty Stadium, first for Robin van Persie and then Danny Welbeck. The talent is probably undiminished even if the physical prowess is degenerating fast.
If Rooney’s presence was a distraction then it is perhaps fortunate that United’s four goals in south Wales will focus supporters’ minds on those whose star is in the ascendancy at Old Trafford: van Persie and Welbeck.
Indeed, the pair scored three stunning strikes against Michael Laudrup’s outfit despite United spending large portions of the match on the back foot. Swansea, superbly neat in possession, will retain the ball against many teams this season, but it was United’s high-quality finishing that secured victory in Moyes’ first Premier League match in charge.
van Persie’s first was a microcosm of the Dutchman’s year at United. Dragging Ryan Giggs’ lofted pass out of the air, van Persie turned and gleefully smashed a right-footed volley into the top corner of the Swan’s net to put United ahead.
Welbeck added a second from short-range, before the Dutchman’s second – a smart turn from right to left and a quite stunning strike into Michel Vorm’s top corner. Class: the Dutchman has bags of it.
But Welbeck held back the best to last, with the England international taking Rooney’s slide-rule pass and beating Vorm with a delicately lofted finish. There was more than a touch of Eric Cantona in the goal’s majestic simplicity – an observation that mocks both Welbeck’s many detractors and the player’s record of just one goal in the Premier League last season.
“Danny’s got a bigger total already,” said Moyes in the aftermath.
“Unfortunately, I think his goal against Scotland might have helped lift his confidence. I was more pleased with his first goal here because I think if you’re a centre-forward you’ve got to get tap-ins.”
“I thought we were incisive, our finishing was fantastic. It was a brilliant performance against a Swansea team who I believe will do very well this season.”
Welbeck will surely improve on that goalscoring record in the months ahead, although Moyes’ decision to deploy the 22-year-old in a deeper role against both Swansea on Saturday and Wigan Athletic in the Community Shield is counter-intuitive to the forecast.
Yet, Moyes’ choice affords Welbeck far more opportunities to drift late into scoring areas than Sir Alex Ferguson’s deployment of the striker to the left wing. Joy, then, when Welbeck sealed United’s victory; for both player and travelling supporters drenched in the south Wales downpour.
By contrast any joy at Rooney’s 30 minute cameo was forced. True, Rooney had a significant impact, finding passes for both van Persie’s second and Welbeck’s final flourish. Yet, the former Evertonian cut a lonely presence, ignoring his teammates’ celebrations – mirroring every former frustrated fading star.
United supporters remain on the fence – yet to publicly voice the inner anger many have expressed in media away from the stadium. The player, warming up before a second-half appearance, was even greeted with a burst of song from a group of United’s supporters, although the Rooney’s entrance brought mixed warmth.
Still, Moyes remained fulsome in praise for the striker, whom he insists will not leave before the transfer window closes in around a fortnight’s time.
“Wayne did well when he came on, he made a great run which opened up the chance for Robin to go on to his left foot for our third goal, and also the ball he slipped through for Welbeck’s second was weighted lovely, so he helped the team and played a part in getting the result,” said Moyes.
“The supporters recognise good players at Manchester United and I think they recognised that when Wayne came on. He got quite a bad kick down the back of his achilles, he’s still lacking match fitness, but another 30 minutes today will bring him on. I thought when he went on he was incredibly committed.”
The question of whether Rooney is deployed from the start against Chelsea next weekend is likely to garner more headlines in the coming week. After all, Rooney’s prospective employers in west London have failed with three official bids for a player who is seemingly desperate to secure the move south.
Conflict of interest? Not half.
For the moment, though, the glory is all van Persie’s. And Welbeck’s. And a little bit Moyes’.
After all, the Dutchman has embraced United in a manner to which Rooney is seemingly incapable. Welbeck, a United player for more than a decade, is as desperate to succeed as the supporters are for him to achieve that dream.
More pragmatically van Persie’s goals, Welbeck’s growing excellence and potentially Shinji Kagawa’s talent may negate any damage from Rooney’s physical decline. That remains true whether the errant forward stays in Manchester or not.