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Manchester United have no easy path out of their current predicament

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Manchester United's optimism has already given way as it appears the rebuilding job is going to take a lot more time - and bravery - than previously thought.

Alex Livesey

It's almost as if pre-season games don't actually mean anything. The Premier League is a mere 90 minutes old, but already the optimism from having dispatched Real Madrid, Liverpool, and LA Galaxy has dissipated as Manchester United fans have settled back to their now-familiar fare of doom for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This time, it's a more intense flavour too, as there's no plainly inept manager to shoulder the blame, and with certain sections of support still bizarrely reticent in criticising the club's ownership, the fallout is spreading in all directions.

Van Gaal was supposed to arrive with a clear plan in mind. Perhaps he has one, but we'll never know. The club has so far wrapped up a grand total of two signings in Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw, both of whom were already scheduled to join before the season began. Herrera reinforces a desperately poor midfield, while Shaw, an unfit and inexperienced defender, is the sole left-back to be introduced to a club that has lost two over the summer. None of the two centre-backs who left have come close to being replaced so far. This is a side that is significantly weaker than it was last season, in a year that was supposed to see a spending spree to avert the results of years of austerity-enforced decline.

With Van Gaal reportedly becoming irritated at the lack of activity, and the inability to secure certain targets, there's no doubt that as usual, the largest proportion of blame at the club rests with the higher-ups in Ed Woodward and the Glazers. Van Gaal, instead, had to be tasked in the short-term with finding a way to circumvent those weaknesses and find a way for the team to succeed while it was being dealt with. It may only be one game, but it already seems that his current plan to do so is deeply flawed.

The 3-5-2 looked to be an ingenious solution to deal with an imbalanced squad, the only way to get Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata all playing in their preferred positions in the team. Van Persie sat out the encounter against Swansea, but in that game it also revealed the other problem with possessing those three players - that they all share similar weaknesses and all lack the same strengths.

A chronic lack of pace will not be fixed by the problem, requiring the addition of Danny Welbeck or Adnan Januzaj to the frontline. Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney have both shown in the past that they will not tolerate being routinely left off the teamsheet, while dropping Van Persie would seem highly counter-productive.

Van Gaal's 3-5-2 is a strange beast - it seems three-at-the-back in the most literal understanding of it, simply taking one player out of the midfield and hoping they function the same, playing wide players who are definitively attacking wingers rather than wing-backs. The sight of Ashley Young and Adnan Januzaj operating as the wide players on opposite flanks was a bizarre one, leading to perhaps one of the most imbalanced teams ever seen in the league, blessed with ludicrous attacking riches and guarded by three bad centre-backs and an exhausted-looking Darren Fletcher.

Of course, United were missing three very important players. Jonny Evans is the best centre-back at the club by a distance, Rafael would offer a far greater balance to the wide positions, and Robin van Persie has shown that he is an indispensable member of the squad. But despite that, it seems much of the same problems will persist. Even from wing-back, Januzaj looked comfortably the team's best player when he came on, just as he did last season. Leaving him out would simply be foolish.

In order to provide some more pace, Angel di Maria has been touted as a player capable of improving the side's fortunes. But, having already established that United's trio of Van Persie, Rooney and Mata must play, it's impossible to see where he fits in. He brings qualities United lack, but Mata was supposed to do the same when he arrived, addressing a lack of imagination and creativity. The addition of the Spanish playmaker to their ranks, however, made United no better as a team at all, and it's likely that Di Maria would do exactly the same.

United only really have two options going forward. The first, which seemed most likely, is that they can accept the limitations that their front three bring to the side for now, and instead work on improving the genuine weak spots in the team, at the back and in the middle. With United's rumoured transfer targets of Marcos Rojo, Mats Hummels and Arturo Vidal, this would point to it being Plan A.

The second option is far less likely to materialise, but has also been hinted by transfer targets, specifically Juan Cuadrado and di Maria. This involves an attempt to rebalance the team and gain an attacking unit that really functions together, but its impossible to see it lasting in the long-term unless one of Rooney, Van Persie or Mata leaves the club. It's becoming increasingly hard to deny that this seems the best option in the long-term, but even Van Gaal is unlikely to make such a drastic change so early in the season.

Van Gaal could have come in for other criticism during the Swansea game. Refusing to play the impressive Reece James seemed odd, particularly when Young remained at left-back even when the team reverted to a 4-3-3. It was left too late to move Januzaj into a position where he could be most dangerous. Rooney was left on the pitch despite giving a disgraceful performance in attack beside his goal. And there may be many reasons why "if Moyes did that" is set to become this season's most asinine recurring opinion, but it's hard to think of any more baffling substitution that Van Gaal's predecessor came up with than replacing Herrera with Marouane Fellaini while drawing 1-1 at home against Swansea.

Van Gaal is not blameless, but it's clear that he'll need a lot more help to push things through. The rebuilding job is going to take a lot more time than previously thought, but throwing money at it alone isn't going to solve it. Some serious, and very difficult decisions need to be made very soon.