Louis van Gaal loves three things above all else: Wings Chinese restaurant, the 4-3-3, and a fight. His career is littered with trophies, but also with the bruised and bloodied egos of players who have for one reason or another fallen foul of his favour. This is the manager who exiled Juan Román Riquelme and Rivaldo out to the wings, who Franck Ribéry called a "bad man", who Lúcio claimed "hurt me more than anyone else in football."
Nothing wrong with a bit of feistiness, of course. Brian Clough once decked Roy Keane and lived to tell the tale. But as Van Gaal's second season at United comes closer, it's slightly concerning that he hasn't really had a proper row yet. Only Victor Valdés has really had the treatment, and not only was he barely a part of the squad, but the two men were an ocean and a continent apart at the time.
Two predictions, then. One, if Manchester United start the season badly, then the dressing room is going to be bloody murder within a couple of months. And two, even if they start well, Van Gaal's still going to explode in somebody's direction. But whose? We take a look at the candidates ...
Even though Van Gaal eventually saw sense and started picking Ander Herrera, the suspicion throughout last season was that the manager, for whatever reason, just doesn't fancy the clean-cut, scuttling Basque. Does he give the ball away in awkward areas? Is he a little over-ambitious in his passing? Or are we just dealing with the fact that Van Gaal has specific requirements that are beyond the ken of we mere mortals?
Hopefully, his consistently good-, good-to-excellent showings towards the end of last season have established him firmly in the first-team reckoning. And hopefully a decent European campaign will mean football for everybody. But with proper midfield competition arriving in the shape of Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger, and with Van Gaal apparently considering playing one of his attackers — maybe Memphis Depay, as seen in preseason — behind a striker, those central spaces are going to be hotly contested.
We're not saying that we think Ander Herrera's going to go into full toy-chucking mode: he seems far too adorable for that. But we can certainly see Van Gaal leaving him out, being really weird about why he's leaving him out, then flogging him back to Spain at the earliest opportunity. Oh, and apparently the manager has irritated most of United's hispanophones by throwing Victor Valdés' luggage out onto the street. So it begins ...
Manchester United plc
Last season, as the club struggled with its post-Moyes hangover, Van Gaal was able strut into the club and start throwing his weight around. Such was his horror at the effect of United's 2014 pre-season jaunt around America that he was able, this time around, to cut the whole thing right down. A mere four games. Tiny stadiums. Lower temperatures. Far fewer frequent flyer miles.
This season, though, things aren't going to be as easy. First of all, Van Gaal has to demonstrate that this approach works: in short, United need to start the season in far better shape than last time around. Secondly, the fact remains that Adidas, Aon, Aperol Spritz and all the rest haven't paid what they've paid to see United ... well, not to see United at all. Early reports suggest that a lengthy tour of China is in the works. Intuition suggests this may not go down well. Speculation that Ed Woodward's head is decorating a spike outside Carrington is, we understand, not true. Yet.
Over the summer, United have moved from a position of definitely buying the best centre back they possibly could, to probably buying Sergio Ramos, to actually not needing to buy anybody, thank you very much indeed. Which makes perfect sense in terms of numbers — United currently have four senior central defenders — but less in terms of characters. Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo, Jonny Evans. Sergio Aguero will not be trembling in his boots.
The obvious solution is for Marcos Rojo to play alongside Chris Smalling. It seems to have everything anybody could want from a defence: he completes the right-left combination, he isn't Phil Jones, and not only can he stride forward with the ball, he can actually pass the thing too. Also, he is Van Gaal's signing, brought to Manchester after the then-Netherlands manager was "enchanted" during the World Cup. He may not be the Hummels/Ramos/Otamendi that the rumour mill was threatening, but at times last season he looked decent and committed enough in a make-do-and-mend defence, and he certainly deserves the chance to prove himself.
So what's going to go wrong? We're predicting an early (slightly silly, slightly harsh) red card leading to an astoundingly scathing press conference. Then some sniping back from Rojo about the mismanagement and sale of Ángel di Maria. Then a training-ground argument involving somebody — Marouane Fellaini, possibly — having to restrain the furious, tearful Rojo. Then the inexplicable elevation of Daley Blind and misery, misery unbounded.
The big one. Like him or lump him, Rooney is now Manchester United's senior professional. Captain and figurehead. Leading appearance maker, leading goalscorer. And now, apparently, leading striker, elevated back to the tip of the team in the absence of anybody else grown-up or trustworthy enough to do the job.
Which means, in short, that he's the one player that Van Gaal can't really afford to alienate. Yet surely, at some point, the manager's going to notice that his main man has the first touch of a hollow point bullet. And he's going to mention this, either to Rooney or to the press. And then Rooney will finally be forced to confront the ego-shattering fact that his talent has been nearly entirely consumed by time's relentless thirst, will at last brought face to face with his own mortality. So he'll do what all proper grown-ups do in such a situation. He'll hand in one last transfer request for the road.
"And I realised, all this time, all that anger, all those fights that I'd been picking ... it was nothing to do with Luca Toni, or Lúcio, or Ryan Giggs' persistently bestubbled cheek. The person that I was really angry with, was myself. I was simply externalising my inner turmoil, looking around for somebody, anybody to blame. I'd been lashing out at the world so that I could ignore the pain within.
"And so I have called myself a prick, kicked myself out of my own office, and will no longer allow myself to take first-team training."