Of all the unknown quantities in the Premier League this season, from a Luis-Suarez-less-Liverpool to a third-place Southampton, a free-falling Newcastle to a newly-promoted Leicester City, I find Manchester United by far the most intriguing.
An unprecedented £150million summer spending spree – the second most lucrative window of a single club in the history of the sport, only bettered by Real Madrid in 2009 – and the long-awaited arrival of the masterful, enigmatic Louis van Gaal, is juxtaposed by an inexperienced, chaotic defence and a number of disappointing results against lesser opposition, including Leicester City, MK Dons and most recently, West Bromwich Albion.
But does that even matter when you have Radamel Falcao, Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata, Angel Di Maria, Robin van Persie and Adnan Januzaj skulking around in the final third, possessing enough quality and firepower to turn even the slightest of chances – a slithered view of the net’s inner lining, half a yard of space outside the box – into a world-class goal? On their day, even against some of the top defences in Europe, the Red Devils’ attacking cast are capable of culminating a cricket score.
That’s the intoxicating danger at the crux of Manchester United this season – it’s hard to tell whether you’re looking at Premier League’s untamed dark horses, or simply it’s dog and pony show.
Well, the litmus test comes in the next few weeks, as United take on Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal in their next four Premier League fixtures – starting with the Blues at the weekend.
Van Gaal has already been bold enough to claim his side can still catch the league leaders, headed by former apprentice Jose Mourinho. And whilst Arsenal, Liverpool, Everton and Spurs – the Premier League’s resident battlers for places in the top six – continue to struggle for consistency in the early part of the season, the stage is certainly set for United to make themselves a significance in the title race for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
Despite a rather flattering public response to the 2-2 draw against the Baggies on Monday night, in quiet, van Gaal will unquestionably be more disappointed. Amid an inaugural utilisation of a 4-2-3-1 system, the Dutchman expected a more structured, methodical, and balanced performance, as a blueprint for the coming run of fixtures that will define United’s season.
But it took just eight minutes for West Brom, via a sensational strike from Stephane Sessegnon, to undo that game-plan and in truth, United’s hero of the evening was substitute Marouane Fellaini.
The Belgium international not only equalised just minutes after coming on at the interval, but also provided the height and physicality United’s engine room had lacked to their own demise throughout the first half. In classic Red Devils style, an 87th minute goal from Daley Blind saved a point and collective blushes.
It certainly doesn’t bode well for the clash against Chelsea on Sunday or the visit to the Etihad; far from the one-dimensional, possession-fearing Blues side we witnessed last season, they’re currently averaging 3.3 goals per game, whilst Manchester City aren’t far behind at 2.3. Comparatively, United concede on average 1.5 goals per match and have only kept clean sheets against QPR and Burnley this season – two of the three lowest scorers in the division.
Yet, the greatest weapon at van Gaal’s disposal remains the element of surprise. The record-breaking signings, the sensational attacking cast, the mixed bag of results, the indefinable power of United’s history, the fact they’re yet to face serious opposition and the notion that at some point, the Red Devils will inevitably click into gear, amalgamates into a feeling of perplexing ambiguity.
After all, what are Jose Mourinho, Manuel Pellegrini and Arsene Wenger actually preparing for? The old, rugged, determined, winning United? The new Red Devils, fuelled by Dutch tactical theory and some of the top attacking talents in world football? A dysfunctional United, struggling for balance and organisation? A United ready to pounce, after luring the other title contenders into a false sense of security?
If van Gaal can use that illusiveness to his advantage, if he can force philosophical and tactical doubts into the minds of his rival managers, United stand a good chance of getting something out of their coming fixtures. The tie against Arsenal bears particular significance – if United clean up against the Gunners, as most title contenders appear to nowadays, they’ll push themselves further towards a mini-league with City and Chelsea.
But that’s an undeniably optimistic perspective, largely dependent on other results and the assumption that United will be able to find a higher gear against more challenging opposition. The Red Devils have more than enough potential to impact this season’s title race, but whether their style lacks the required substance will become evident between now and the end of November.