MANCHESTER: New season, new manager, new tactics, new players . . . but old fears were aroused at Old Trafford as Manchester United lost 2-1 to Swansea on Louis Van Gaal’s managerial debut.
Swansea had taken a 19th-minute lead through Ki Sung-yueng but United’s new captain, Wayne Rooney, struck the equaliser with a close-range acrobatic effort early in the second half. Gylfi Sigurdsson then shot Swansea back ahead after confused defending in the 73rd minute.
United, having lost seven times at home last season, risk a similar fate without stepping up their game. Indeed, Van Gaal’s warning that United fans should not expect too much too soon was borne out perhaps more sharply than he would have expected.
This was the first time United had opened their league season with a home loss since 1972 – hence it had never happened in the Premier League era.
Van Gaal had not been afforded the cleanest of blank sheets on which to start writing the latest chapter in his high-profile managerial career in front of a 75,339 crowd.
Injuries and exits meant Van Gaal’s initial 3-4-1-2 line-up featured 20-year-old Tyler Blackett on the left of central defence in the enforced absence of Jonny Evans and 21-year-old Jesse Lingard as right wingback; Ashley Young was an intriguing choice at leftback with Luke Shaw injured.
Central midfield saw a debut for Spanish signing Ander Herrera while new captain Wayne Rooney was partnered up front by Javier Hernandez. The presence of the Mexican underscored one of the most significant reasons for Van Gaal choosing Rooney rather than fitness-fragile Robin Van Persie to wear the armband.
Swansea came to Old Trafford almost unnoticed among the Old Trafford fuss and with central defence and midfield packed solid and with Wilfried Bony on his own up front to contest counter-attacking opportunities against recast Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Blackett.
United’s team line-up indicated, already, the potentially significant lack of squad depth. That concern was enhanced when Lingard injured his rightknee stretching for a tackle in the 19th minute and had to be substituted. Belgian youth talent Adnan Januzaj joined the game.
The 26th minute brought the biggest initial cheer of the game as referee Mike Dean brought out the vanishing spray for the first time in the Premier League after Jones was felled attacking the penalty box. Minutes later Nathan Dyer colleccted the first yellow card, for bringing down Januzaj.
Worse was to come in the 27th minute when increasing United pressure was rebuffed, Swansea broke, Bony laid off the ball and Ki Sung-yueng shot low and hard past the diving David De Gea’s left hand to give the visitors the lead.
Van Gaal adjusted both personnel and tactics at half-time. Striker Hernandez was replaced by left winger Nani and Young edged deeper to leftback as United switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Rooney the lone striker.
The England striker repaid all Van Gaal’s confidence in the 53rd minute when Swansea left him unmarked to strike an acrobatic equaliser after Phil Jones flicked on a right-wing corner.
Rooney nearly had another goal in the 66th minute with a central free kick which clipped the left-hand angle of post and bar and flew wide.
That was the signal for Van Gaal to make his third and final substitution with Marouane Fellaini coming on in place of the less-than-impressive Herrera. But the only immediate consequence was that Swansea regained the lead.
Newly-arrived substitute Jefferson Montero floated a cross to the right, Wayne Routledge – with Young twisted inside out – scuffed it back into the edge of the goal area where Sigurdsson struck what proved the winning goal beyond De Gea.