Soccer

Jack: Van Gaal the story as new dawn sets on BPL

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Kristian Jack
8/12/2014 6:29:49 PM
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Twenty stadiums stand still.

So quiet you can hear the winds of summer echoing all around them.

Homes to some of the most recognizable football clubs on this earth lie empty, waiting for their time to shine.

For 31 days, their stadium cousins in Brazil captured the eyes of the world while they slept. Fans still visit to buy the new strip inside the club shop and as July nears an end, more and more people arrive home from their holidays and come to pay a visit. Some buy a ticket for a match, others buy one for 19.

Inside, groundskeepers are the summer conductors of the orchestra, bellowing out the sounds while thousands of empty seats sit still and wait.

Those who pay good money to sit on them read the newspapers every day, hoping each one might be the day their team signs a player that will excite them.

It is a fresh dawn, one that may yet prove to be a false one but the beauty of summer in England for a football fan is that as they read about their teams, while watching cricket, their minds allow for positive thoughts.

It is not a normal emotion for a fan. Gone are the scars of recent heartache suffered at the most recent match. It seems like forever since their team played a competitive game. May feels like it was in 2013 and as the sun shines, along with it comes a ray of hope that somehow this season will be better than last.

August arrives.

Twenty stadiums stand ready to burst. The grass has never looked more pristine and the excitement starts to build and build as pre-season games are completed. Dress rehearsals are fun but nothing prepares you for the real thing.

Needed improvements are completed, fresh advertising signs are up and more and more employees enter as the season gets closer and closer.

Twenty stadiums stand ready.

For the next 10 months, they will be the theatre's grand stages, seen around the globe by close to five billion people in approximately 650 million homes.

Games will be played out in the sun, hail, rain, and that's sometimes all in one day. They'll play at night under floodlights and points will be won and lost, as a 10-month gruelling marathon will take place. Only one stadium will crown a true champion, three others will see more tears than most and won't be back for the party next year.

For now, though, they stand together, ready to open up to over 13 million fans to watch 380 matches between now and May 24, 2015.

International Visitors

Many fresh new faces on the field will also enter their gates for the first time.

Seen as one of England's greatest exports, the Barclays Premier League has once again opened its doors to some wonderful overseas talent.

As George Orwell so poetically put it over seven decades ago, England is a country fascinated by all things foreign and the Premier League clubs who have spent considerable funds on non-English talent this summer have certainly brought smiles to the faces of their anxious fans.

Less than a year after stunning the football world with Mesut Ozil, Arsenal continued shopping at a level they require with the purchase of the wonderfully gifted Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean gives Arsene Wenger something he didn't have, a player who can make their attack more flexible, a legitimate difference maker who brings pace and guile whether he plays out wide or on the back of the defender's shoulders in a central spot.

The 2014 FA Cup winners retained Wenger, called a 'specialist in failure' by Jose Mourinho, who will know he must win the league this season to avoid such a description being turned back on him.

The additions of Spaniards Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa represent a fantastic summer for the Blues as they continue to build a spine necessary for them to get back to winning ways. Chelsea lacked the power that winners Man City had in key areas on the field last season and they have gone a long way to rectify that with Fabregas joining an outstanding, revamped central midfield alongside the impressive Nemanja Matic and Marco Van Ginkel.

Ander Herrera, Felipe Luis, Lazar Markovic, Eliaquim Mangala, Fernando, Remy Cabella, Jefferson Montero, Enner Valencia, Dusan Tadic and Didier Drogba (again) have all arrived for a collective 150 million pounds and many others have joined them but the biggest name of all to arrive on English shores is in Manchester where a wounded former giant badly needs a new leader.

Louis Van Gaal arrives at Manchester United where it was no longer just belonging to Sir Alex. The failure of David Moyes means the bridge between the old boss and the new boss is considerably longer than it was in April.

That is the first thing he has going for him. It is not the last. 

Van Gaal has arrived at Old Trafford where there is finally a feeling of a badly needed fresh start. Gone are Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra and if the 63-year-old is to complete a successful overhaul, players such as Anderson, Nani, Ashley Young, Tom Cleverley, Rafael and Javier Hernandez will likely follow over time.

Van Gaal has already stamped an identity on United in his short time, something badly missing under Moyes. The team looks set to play a 3-4-1-2 system against many opponents, one backed by senior members of the club who have been more than happy so far in pre-season.

All indications show that an improvement is coming but for a team that finished last season seventh on 64 points after eight successive years in the top two, just how much they need to improve could well be the biggest burning question in the entire league.

Van Gaal, unlike Moyes, is not inheriting a champion. Moyes inherited a flawed team but, when they under performed, the fingers pointed at the Scotsman. This season, the players have no such excuse and little expectations.

However, a squad featuring names such as Wayne Rooney, Robin Van Persie, Juan Mata, Luke Shaw, Adnan Januzaj, David De Gea, Michael Carrick and Herrera is clearly a team that is better than what they showed last season.

It is also the perfect team to illustrate how difficult it is to judge (or predict for that matter) any team at this time in the transfer window. Van Gaal knows he needs two central defenders, a wingback, and a midfielder before the start of September and he will likely get most of them. Until we know the names of such players, it is difficult to know what United will accomplish this season but what we do know is how they need to be better.

It would be inaccurate for history to tell us a tale of United's demise the moment Sir Alex walked away from the job. Yes, they won the Premier League in his final season but the warning signs were there to see while he was still in charge, particularly in the true big matches (against Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Man City, Tottenham and matches in Europe).

In the three seasons of 08/09, 09/10 and 10/11, United played 80 of these games, won 45, drew 18 and lost 17; a 58 per cent win percentage in big games.

In the three seasons following (two under Ferguson and one under Moyes), United played 70 of these games, won 28, drew 16 and lost 26; a 40 per cent win percentage.

In Ferguson's final season domestically, he gained 69pts from the 26 matches outside of the top seven (22W, 3D, 1L). He got 20pts (6W, 2D, 4L) from the 12 matches against the other six.

Last season under Moyes (including the four remaining games under caretaker boss Ryan Giggs), United got 58pts from the 26 matches outside of the top seven (18W, 4D, 4L), an 11-point drop over 26 games which is 0.42 points less per game for Moyes than Ferguson.

If they would have secured 0.42 points less per game in the big games, United should still have come up with 15pts from the 12 matches against the top six, which would have put them at 73 at the end of the year; good enough for Champions League football in every other season other than last.

Instead, they got just six points in 12 big games (1W, 3D, 8L) all under Moyes.

Clearly, Moyes wasn't good enough against the lower 13 teams (0.42 PPG less than Ferguson) but against the big teams, he was incredibly poor, 1.16 PPG worse than the year previous.

This is Van Gaal's challenge. Whoever he signs, it is still likely he will be better than Moyes, but not quite as good as Ferguson's settled side, against the 13 other teams, giving him around 20 wins, three draws and three losses for an approximate total of 63.

How he does in the other 12 matches will show us whether United can challenge for the title, the Champions League spots or face another season out of the sport's elite competition.

United's rebuild will take time and we will have to wait for answers. Van Gaal's side are the only team to not play any side in the top half from last season during the first two months of the season. Expect United to start very well, watch the expectations soar but get ready to see how good they really are when the strong tests come along.

Louis van Gaal (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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