Despite Louis van Gaal's intervention, Manchester United maintains woes
The only real shock of the opening weekend of the Premier League -- if you even want to call it that much of a surprise -- was Louis van Gaal losing his Manchester United debut at home to a revamped Swansea.
Van Gaal's mid-summer appointment and United's continued slowness in the summer transfer market means the evolution from Sir Alex Ferguson's legendary reign remains very much a work in progress in Year 2 A.F. Simply put, one match does not a season make, especially when you're stuck starting a 20-year-old center back who decides to give the ball right to the opposition on a free kick to help them start the counterattack that ultimately beats you.
Really, though, the unfamiliar depths where United spent last season and where it begins this one is a tribute to Ferguson, and not necessarily in an entirely positive way. The macro view of Ferguson's run at Old Trafford is that it's the best managerial job in soccer history. In his 21 seasons from the formation of the Premier League in 1992-93, he won the league 13 times and never finished worse than third place. In his final eight seasons, he never finished worse than second, and his job with the 2012-13 team – really a pedestrian roster by United's historic standards – was a fitting way to send him off into retirement.
To win the league that season was somewhat surprising; to win it by 11 points was simply astonishing. Caught up in all that late-career winning though was the ongoing impact of the Glazers' debt-fueled ownership of the club combined with SAF's win-now mentality that didn't offer as much opportunity for young players to develop to help bridge the gap from one championship era to another.
In a weird way, winning the title in 2012-13 may have been very damaging for United in the longer run. It didn't force the club to take full inventory of a flawed roster until the world's greatest manager stepped down and all of the flaws became much more pronounced. Then the club handed control to guys who weren't ready for that pressure, and last season unfolded.
You can say whatever you want about David Moyes' stewardship, but three main facts remain unassailable in August 2014:
1. United's roster remains uneven and far less talented than several teams they are chasing
2. At least two of those teams have ownerships with effectively limitless money (FFP restraints aside)
3. In terms of big-player prestige and opportunity, United is not even the most attractive team in its own city right now.
This isn't totally dissimilar to the Lakers/Clippers scenario currently unfolding in Los Angeles, except Manchester City already has won two championships in the past three seasons to go with the owners with huge money. They are a very, very real concern to any potential United resurgence, even with United's ongoing position as the world's most popular and valuable club, and the longer United goes without making Champions League, the harder things will get in terms of their UEFA coefficient and the club’s treatment in the public stock exchanges.
So, there's a reason Van Gaal immediately is insisting that he needs better players ASAP, that United is reportedly desperate to sign a center back like Mehdi Benatia, that reports are being floated that they hope to vastly overpay for Angel di Maria with an $85 million transfer fee and a $340,000-a-week salary. The import of Ander Herrera and others aside, United probably needs to bring in three or four more very good players to make finishing in the top four this year a reasonable goal, and more than that to even think about a run at the league title.
The other byproduct of Ferguson's departure was a reorganization of the player procurement structure, with executive Ed Woodward being tasked with the responsibility to close transfer deals. Woodward didn't bathe himself in glory last season and, so far this summer, isn't showing any signs of improvement. Even if Van Gaal identifies the right players, there's a huge question as to whether Woodward and United can actually close on them. And if he can't, will Van Gaal even bother sticking around?
Evaluated through the lens all of that churn and pressure, losing a solitary soccer match to a competent side isn't exactly shocking. It may be an initial indicator, though, that United's return to the English elite may be a lengthier process than many imagined. For years, Sir Alex and United benefited from "Fergie Time" at the end of matches to salvage crucial results, but Ferguson's savvy timing of his own departure may have triggered an unexpected and extended downturn.
Given everything that's happened in the last year, this is very unlikely to be a quick fix.