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The silver lining of Manchester United's loss to Swansea

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United's defeat on opening day was a poor performance. But it wasn't, or at least it shouldn't have been, too much of a surprise.

Alex Livesey

It was, if we're being honest, a lovely thought. It was a thought that took root upon the news of Louis van Gaal's appointment, flourished as the Dutch made their way to third place in the World Cup, then grew unchecked as the pre-season wins racked up. The notion that Louis van Gaal, simply by being Louis van Gaal, could magically turn Manchester United back into Manchester United, was entirely pleasing.

It's not a thought that was confined to Manchester United fans, either (and tBB isn't about to start pretending it hasn't been indulging itself just a little). The club began the season as third or fourth favourites for the title with some bookmakers; this, a club that finished 22 points off the top last season, in a league featuring some significantly more functional teams. Tangible and real improvement is likely, but the notion that he might bring about the immediate restoration of all that was once Manchester United lasted contact with reality for about two hours.

It turns out that Van Gaal being Van Gaal doesn't change the fact that of the fourteen players that took the field against Swansea City, as many as nine or ten, for a variety of reasons, have little to no business being anywhere near Manchester United's first-team. It doesn't make Jesse Lingard and Tyler Blackett seasoned professionals. It doesn't make Ashley Young or Adnan Januzaj wing-backs. It doesn't make Ander Herrera two midfielders, it doesn't instantly restore Javier Hernandez's vim, vigour and first touch, it doesn't suddenly turn Darren Fletcher-as-is into Darren Fletcher-as-was. It doesn't suddenly make the International Champions Cup any kind of bellwether.

It has been mooted that this loss might amount to a blessing in disguise; that the result was a stark, public warning to those in charge of spending the money that spending some of that money is going to be needed. Perhaps, though the tone of Van Gaal's subsequent comments -- that confidence has been "smashed" -- suggests that he'd quite like to have won the game. Presumably he backs himself to be able to make the requirements clear behind the scenes.

Ultimately, if the people in charge of Manchester United needed an 2-1 home defeat by Swansea to alert them to the fact that things aren't quite right -- "I'm not convinced by Arturo Vidal ... wait, hang on, Gylfi Sigurdsson has added a second goal? Get me Turin, stat!" -- then they're even stupider than they appear and everybody just needs to wait for them to accidentally sell the club to a passing merchant in exchange for a tin of baked beans. No, if there's a silver lining to be had from that opening day defeat, and the particulars of the performance, then it has to do with the manager.

Recently, Dutch magazine De Correspondent published a piece entitled "6 secret traits that make Louis van Gaal the humble genius he is". Humble isn't a word that often gets attached to United's manager, but the author, Michel de Hoog, argues that his humility is evidenced in a quote from 2001, offered at the point of his (first) resignation from the Dutch national side:

My greatest ability is that I can get an extra 10 percent out of a player. But [I can do this] only if everyone subscribes to the same idea.

De Hoog cites a Dutch economist as comparing their influence to "that of prime ministers on the economy: probably no other single individual has more influence, but it's still marginal" and concludes that Van Gaal's humility lies in his recognition that the effectiveness of the manager is limited to that ten percent. "Van Gaal fully appreciates that his maximal theoretical influence as a manager is limited and so does everything to maximise it".

Or, to expand the idea a little further, he recognises precisely what he is and so, by extension, what he is not. That not includes being a magician; it also includes making an immediate impact. United's opening day defeat to Swansea might not have been the result he expected and certainly wasn't the one he wanted, but it's worth remembering that there was one very important voice missing from the chorus that was hyping his transformative powers as instantaneous: his own.

Every club where I have been, I have struggled for the first three months. After that, they know what I want, how I am as a human being and also a manager, because I am very direct. [...] The way I train and coach is in the brains and not the legs. [...] A lot of players are playing intuitively and I want them to think and know why they do something. That's a process that is difficult at first and in the first three months. It takes time. When we survive the first three months, it will be the same as for me at Bayern.

In his first season in Germany, Van Gaal's Bayern side took two points from the opening three games and were seventh in the table after two and a half months. At the end of that season, they won the title and the German Cup, and reached the final of the Champions League. And that was a team in considerably better shape when he took over than United are now. He may be thunderingly arrogant when it comes to those things that he can do, but equally, he knows what he does and how he does it, and what he won't be able to do.

None of this is to excuse Van Gaal from his share of the blame for Saturday's defeat -- those were some powerfully odd substitutions -- or to exculpate the players, several of whom were pretty abject. But United can at least take heart that Van Gaal was correct. If he'd predicted a thousand-mile-an-hour start, then Saturday would have been deeply troubling; as it is, it was just a poor performance.

Those happen. And it doesn't seem likely that Van Gaal said anything different to the Glazers when he took the job. So while United's cackhanded blunderings n the transfer window deserve all the spite that can be mustered, one or two predicted poor performances on the field shouldn't be too troubling in the grand scheme of things. After all, it would be an act of extreme folly to get too angry after somebody turns up and says a job will need time, simply because it would be nicer for him to have been wrong.