A goalless draw with Newcastle left United with just two goals to show from their opening three Premier League games and means Tottenham defender Kyle Walker is joint-top of the club’s goalscoring table (following his own goal when the sides met two weeks ago), along with Adnan Januzaj, on one goal each.
Given that Wayne Rooney has now gone 10 games without a goal, a run stretching back to the first weekend in April, it could be argued that a summer transfer window that opened so brightly with swift and impressive signings to address problems at right-back and midfield is now in danger of becoming a disaster.
Despite three clean sheets to open the campaign, central defence remains a concern and the club’s goalkeeping situation remains in flux due to David de Gea’s on-going flirtation with Real Madrid.
But above all else, there is the issue of who precisely is going to convert the chances that United will undoubtedly create this season.
Rooney, whom van Gaal avoided playing up front for much of last season, and perennial substitute Javier Hernandez, who played twice for the Dutchman last season before being packed off on loan to Real, are the only two orthodox forwards in the United squad, although van Gaal stubbornly insists he has five such players, by adding attacking midfielder Januzaj, unproven youngster James Wilson and utility substitute Fellaini to that list.
Hard to imagine that this time 12 months ago, all five players were in van Gaal’s squad, along with Robin van Persie and Danny Welbeck.
“Last year I had five strikers and then as a manager, you choose in theory, because I didn’t see them,” said van Gaal. “Because Robin van Persie came one day before the season started, he was not on tour in the USA, Welbeck, there was an offer from other clubs, and so you have to choose. But now I can choose better because I know my players, and that’s why I have chosen Chicharito, because he is another type from Rooney, and we have also Fellaini, who is another type of player. So I have different types, then I have Wilson and Januzaj, so I don’t think we need a striker.
“When he is the best striker in the world then, yes, we need him, but that’s the issue that I have been saying for two months: he has to contribute, but when he cannot contribute in our eyes, then we won’t buy any striker.
“But when he does, we shall buy.”
Rooney, whose frustrations mounted here with a first-half “goal” ruled out for offside, remains key to the issue although even had the England centre-forward been contributing at his impressive career average of slightly less than 0.5 goals per game, it would surely only have been papering over the cracks and desperate need for forward reinforcements. Still, van Gaal insists that even a striker with a huge reputation may not necessarily be the answer, pointing to his disappointing purchases of Radamel Falcao and Angel di Maria last summer as examples of the fact that reputation does not guarantee results.
“You never know that,” he said. “In a club like Manchester United, you never know that, because you have seen it for example with Falcao and Di Maria last season: great players, but they have to adapt to the culture of Manchester United. You have that with every buy.”
Inconceivable as it may be that van Gaal will not strengthen before deadline, the possibility remains that the next four months will pass with Rooney as United’s only available orthodox, and trusted, centre-forward.
Former United assistant Steve McClaren, whose game-plan and powers of motivation were little short of inspired at Old Trafford, knows Rooney from international days and believes it is only a matter of time before Rooney hits stride. “You look at our players and think they’re still 20% or so down on where they’ll eventually be,” said McClaren.
“All players in the league are. He will be included in that, and it’s a stage, especially with them being in Europe, where they’ve just got to build. It’s the same with us. I look around our squad and think, ‘Well he could be sharper, and he could be sharper’. It was a short pre-season and an early start, and that’s what you’re going to get. He (Rooney) is very strong mentally with what he’s been through. He won’t be bothered — it’ll come. Look at the goals he’s scored. Anyone who thinks he’s lost it just has to look at his record. He’ll know he’s going to score again. This team today, in the first 20 minutes, could have been two or three up. We survived that, and that made it a different story.”
Romero 6; Darmian 6 (Valencia 77, 6), Smalling 8, Blind 6, Shaw 7; Schneiderlin 7, Schweinsteiger 6 (Carrick 59, 7); Mata 6, Januzaj 6 (Hernandez 67, 6), Memphis 6; Rooney 6.
Krul 9; Mbemba 7, Taylor 8, Coloccini 8, Haidara 7; Anita 7; Obertan 6 (Thauvin 69, 7), Colback 7, Wijnaldum 6, Perez 6 (Tiote 78, 6); Mitrovic 7 (Cisse 88).
C Pawson 6