MANCHESTER: Louis Van Gaal has now started ‘for real’ as manager of Manchester United.
The 4-0 win at home to promoted Queens Park Rangers – who should always have been easy victims – was the first match since the Dutchman accomplished the biggest summer spending spree in the history of British football. It was also his first win as United manager.
Hence Marcos Rojo was now available to shore up defence, Daley Blind in midfield, Luke Shaw fit at last to start at leftback and Radamel Falcao a substitute up in the centre of attack, supported of course by British record signing Angel Di Maria.
Until yesterday Van Gaal had been fiddling with the “broken” squad – as he described it – that he found on his arrival at Old Trafford. Any criticism of his approach thus far was irrelevant. Only now can the serious, critical assessment begin, judged against the expectation of the Glazer family – as stated in the club’s latest accounts – that United will finish at least third this season.
Falcao has signed on loan for a season with the prospect of a permanent £44m deal at the season’s end, if he proves to have recovered from his knee ligament injury. The arrival of Falcao allowed United to release Danny Welbeck who joined the exodos headed by Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Shinji Kagawa plus Tom Cleverley, Nani and Javier Hernández (all loans).
Van Gaal has insisted that instilling his “philosophy” may take a year but United cannot afford to wait any longer, partly because of the weight of the wages bill. United are paying Falcao £12m-a-year, the same as Robin Van Persie and Ángel di María and all second only to Wayne Rooney’s £16m.
The challenge for Van Gaal was the team shape and whether to sacrifice his stated faith in a three-man defence for a line of four as a more solid foundation in a Premier League which places great faith in using wings and the full width of a pitch. He acknowledged before the QPR game that defence remained a weakness and this was exacerbated when injury sidelined Phil Jones for a month.
Ironically then, Rio Ferdinand – who spent 12 trophy-laden seasons at Old Trafford – was back to lead the resistance for QPR after his free transfer during the summer.
In fact, that resistance lasted only 24 minutes before Di Maria marked his home debut with his first goal in English football from a free kick which defender Clint Hill could not clear. The World Cup forward thus became the 31st Argentinian to score in the Premier League.
Di Maria’s threat was not confined only to his sooting. He arrowed in a cross which Van Persie headed over the bar before he ran 50m to feed Rooney. When United captain’s shot was blocked there was Ander Herrera to score No2.
Rooney himself grabbed a third goal just before half-time when England defender Steven Caulker was too slow to close him down.
United’s four-man defence was given few testing moments by QPR whose sloppy defending was evident yet again when Di Maria scuffed the ball across goal and Juan Mata scored from close range. Nine minutes later and QPR had the frightening sight of Falcao making his United debut.
United could easily have scored more goals even after the substitution of man of the match Di Maria. Falcao might have scored once himself and very nearly created another for Adnan Januzaj. This was better. Different players, different team, different outlook now for the months ahead.