New season, new challenges, new expectations. Familiar opponents. Tottenham Hotspur’s visit to Old Trafford on Saturday kicks off the Premier League season – a campaign in which the pressure is firmly on Louis van Gaal to stimulate a strong Manchester United performance. After spending £230 million acquiring new players, since joining the club last July, Van Gaal has few excuses left.
United’s short pre-season tour of the USA was tightly micro-managed by the Dutch coach. Commercial arrangements shelved, fixtures moved and flying time greatly reduced. All in the name of a strong start this season.
Indeed, Van Gaal’s grip on the club is now strong and the hierarchy has responded with another influx of talent: five players that patch some of the more significant holes in United’s squad. At least three – Matteo Darmian, Morgan Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay – will start for Untied against Spurs at Old Trafford this weekend.
United comfortably won this fixture last season during a golden period in which Van Gaal’s side not only beat Spurs, but Liverpool and Manchester City with some flair and attacking verve. Still, that momentum fizzled out in the final month of the campaign and memories also remain fresh of Tottenham victories at Old Trafford in both 2012 and 2013. No longer can United simply turn up and expect a north London collapse in Manchester. Sir Alex Ferguson’s old rallying cry, “Lads, it’s Tottenham,” no longer applies.
Nor have too many in Van Gaal’s entourage forgotten United’s calamitous start to last season – home defeat to Swansea followed by just 13 points secured in the opening 10 games of the campaign. The Dutchman’s determination to start the season strongly prompted not only pre-season reorganisation, but early moves in the summer transfer market. Not least because United faces two winnable, but pivotal, fixtures against Club Brugge in the Champions League qualifier this month. After just four games on tour, United cannot afford to be undercooked heading into the opening fortnight of the new campaign.
Still, Van Gaal has more than one headache with which to contend. Goalkeeper David de Gea is reportedly not in the right frame of mind for Saturday’s fixture, with a mooted transfer to Real Madrid still not resolved. The Spanish club is yet to meet United’s asking price or offer Sergio Ramos as part of the deal. It is a saga that could go right up to the transfer deadline on 2 September, and with all sides at an impasse, there appears to be little momentum towards a speedy resolution.
It says little for United’s planning that one of the world’s finest goalkeepers will sit in the stands on the opening day of the new campaign with a freshman replacement facing the most daunting fixture of his nascent career. Van Gaal is seemingly not in the mood to offer de Gea any leeway.
“The player has to manage this situation,” Van Gaal said in his defence on Friday. “I think when it is September 1 then there is already a decision made, because then the transfer period is over and then we have to manage the new situation. That may be easier, but I don’t know, we have to see and wait, and observe. I am the victim, the fellow players are the victims, the club is the victim.
“We have observed and seen him in training sessions, we have seen him in matches and he is not the David de Gea of last year. This is the most important match, so I want players who can only focus on the match and he is not capable of doing that.”
Either way, de Gea’s situation will be resolved within the next three weeks. Meanwhile, Van Gaal is seeking to add two further players – a defender and an attacking player – to his squad. Pity, it would seem, that neither is in place before the campaign proper begins.
“The squad is still in process because we are living in a crazy football world,” he added. “The transfer period is still going on and the competition is starting. Di Maria, we have solved that problem, but it is a big loss because I want attackers with speed and creativity. He is one of those players. We have to look for that kind of player.”
Meanwhile, Spurs’ manager Mauricio Pochettino has augmented only his defensive options over the summer, acquiring Toby Alderweireld from under Southampton’s noses, Kevin Wimmer from 1. FC Köln and Kieran Trippier from relegated Burnley. It is, however, the retention of star striker Harry Kane that is Pochettino’s greatest coup. United’s interest in the Englishman is very real.
Pochettino’s side has enjoyed a muted pre-season in the USA and Germany, losing to an MLS All-Star XI and Real Madrid, before defeating AC Milan.
“We are feeling good after victory against Milan in the Audi Cup and I’m very excited,” said Pochettino. “But Manchester United have improved a lot, signed a lot of good players, and it is a tough game for us.”
Indeed, whatever Van Gaal’s challenges, it is a fixture that United should win.
Team news and line-ups
United subs from: Johnstone, Lindegaard, Blackett, Evans, Jones, McNair, Herrera, Januzaj, Pereira, Schweinsteiger, Valencia, Hernández, Wilson
Spurs subs from: Lloris, Davies, Fazio, Trippier, Wimmer, Yedlin, Carroll, Lamela, Lennon, Mason, Pritchard, Townsend, Soldado
With de Gea not considered for selection, Sergio Romero or youngster Sam Johnstone will come in for a club debut. Johnstone has been loaned out to Doncaster Rovers and Preston North End over the past two seasons and was expected to return to the Lancashire outfit for the coming campaign.
New signing Bastian Schweinsteiger is not yet match fit, but fellow recruits Morgan Schneiderlin and Matteo Darmian will start in midfield and at right-back respectively. Schneiderlin is likely to feature alongside Michael Carrick as two holding players in a 4-2-3-1 system.
In defence Van Gaal is set to pick Luke Shaw and Darmian at full-back, with Daley Blind continuing his experimental deployment in central defence. Chris Smalling could oust Phil Jones from the starting line-up, with the latter having suffer a poor summer tour of the USA. Marcos Rojo is not yet match fit after missing the pre-season tour.
Memphis, Juan Mata and Ashley Young are set to provide attacking support to lone striker Wayne Rooney, with the youngster James Wilson the only viable striking alternate. Javier Hernández is not yet match fit after suffering a fracture to his collarbone over the summer.
Meanwhile, Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochetino Tottenham could select goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who is fit again after suffering a fractured wrist in the summer, although the Frenchman has not factored in much of the pre-season programme. New signing Alderweireld will start in a back-four, with Wimmer and Trippier on the bench, but Ryan Mason, Roberto Soldado and Andros Townsend face fitness concerns.
Referee: Jonathan Moss
Assistants: J Brooks, E Smart
Fourth Official: A Marriner
United – 85
Draw – 49
Spurs – 48
United 3 – 0 Spurs
United 3-2 Spurs
£1 bet club
Rooney, Memphis and Kane to all score @ 16/1