Manchester United 2 Swansea 1: Louis van Gaal taking the pragmatic path to redemption

The Manchester United manager saw his team pick up their first win in seven league games against Swansea

Click to follow
The Independent Football

There were two halves of football. One contained three very good goals, the sight of André Ayew driving his header against David De Gea’s post and climaxed with the intense drama of the Swansea keeper, Lukasz Fabianski, heading inches wide.

The other was entirely nondescript. Louis van Gaal preferred the opening 45 minutes with the system of three central defenders which had seen him take Holland to a World Cup semi-final.

To Van Gaal, football is not a drama but a science from which risk can be eliminated and what impressed him about Manchester United’s first-half display was that Swansea did not create a chance. By that standard he is the polar opposite of Sir Alex Ferguson, the man who could bellow: “football, bloody hell” after Manchester United had snatched a European Cup final they had not remotely been part of for 85 minutes. 

Had Van Gaal been managing Bayern Munich that night in Barcelona, he would not possibly have begun to comprehend what had happened.

Nevertheless, he does know how a dressing room works and this narrow victory, sealed by what was only Wayne Rooney’s third League goal of the season, was payback for his constant backing of the England captain. 

Rooney surpassed Denis Law’s Manchester United goalscoring tally with a flick that carried echoes of Law’s most famous goal – the back-heel for City that beat United on the day in 1974 they were relegated. 

One of the reasons Van Gaal made Rooney captain was an instinctive understanding that he needed to gain the trust of the dressing room as quickly as possible and giving Rooney responsibility was the swiftest way to achieve it. 

In turn, just after Van Gaal (right) had walked out of his pre-match press conference – a disastrous misjudgement from a man hired to withstand this kind of pressure – Rooney went on television to back a manager who was to drop him for the Boxing Day defeat at Stoke. If Rooney is key to the dressing room, it still appears to be behind Van Gaal. 

Manchester United’s currency of glory, goals and silverware has now been so devalued since Ferguson’s departure that four points at home against Chelsea and Swansea can be fiercely clung to.

This was Manchester United’s first win at Old Trafford since West Bromwich Albion were beaten in early November. That victory, secured by goals from Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard, seemed to mark a turning point. Instead, the path continued ever more steeply downhill. Whether this is an end to the crisis or merely a corner on the road to perdition is more difficult to say. 

When a new member of Manchester United’s press pack went over to introduce himself to the manager, Ferguson congratulated him while whispering: “Don’t read too much into the handshake, son.” Van Gaal might need to be told the same. As he made his way to the tunnel, he gave the thumbs up to those applauding him from the Stretford End. However, in football applause does not linger. 

In March 2014, David Moyes oversaw what seemed a defining result of his United career, the overturning of a two-goal deficit against Olympiakos that secured a place in the Champions League quarter-finals. He appeared to have ridden out the storm and discovered some of the drama and romance that made the Ferguson years shine. He was gone within a month.