Manchester United have significant injury issues for their first competitive game under Louis van Gaal. Although Robin van Persie, who missed Tuesday’s 2-1 friendly victory over Valencia should be back to lead the line alongside Wayne Rooney, newly installed as captain, Luke Shaw, Jonny Evans and Antonio Valencia could all miss Saturday’s game through injury. Given the shortage of defenders on United’s books, that is a major concern: Evans has been excellent in pre-season and, although Ashley Young – a surprise hit of pre-season – could play at wing back, the absences mean the inexperienced Tyler Blackett and Reece James come into contention. Michael Carrick, Anderson, Danny Welbeck and Rafael are all definitely out. Swansea are without midfielder Leon Britton and the forwards Marvin Emnes and Ryan Donnelly.
The opening day can offer a mirage. United met Swansea City in their first game last season and romped to a 4-1 victory that, while never as comprehensive as the scoreline suggested, was comfortable enough, Van Persie and Welbeck blowing Swansea away with two goals each; at that point, the David Moyes era seemed to be going rather well. United won 2-0 in the league at home as well, but the game that will give Swansea hope is the FA Cup tie at Old Trafford, in which Wayne Routledge ran amok and Swansea won 2-1.
Van Gaal was a late convert to 3-5-2, becoming convinced of the merit of the system after seeing Feyenoord use it against PSV Eindhoven in March. He employed it at the World Cup and was enamoured enough of it to carry on using it at Old Trafford, where it has been the template for a highly successful pre-season in which United won the International Champions Cup. Although Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are yet to adjust fully to the back three, Evans has thrived, relishing the opportunity to step out from the back with two men covering behind him. Similarly the third midfielder allows Juan Mata to play almost as an old-fashioned number 10, creating from the front of midfield. The key, as ever in a 3-5-2, is the wing-backs: can Valencia and Shaw (or Young or James) offer sufficient attacking width while still providing defensive security?
SWANSEA’S WIDE MEN
Any team playing against a 3-5-2 will instinctively look to attack the areas behind the full-backs and United might be particularly vulnerable there. Although Jones and Smaling have both played at full-back and so should be adept at playing wide, both are relatively new to doing so from a back three and some hesitation is only to be expected. Add in a pair of experienced wing-backs and the flanks look an obvious vulnerability. Assuming Swansea stick with the 4-3-3 of pre-season (although they have used a front two at times), that probably means Routledge being asked to reprise the heroics of seven months ago. The Mexican winger Jefferson Montero could take the other flank, although he was woefully short of end-product in the 3-0 defeat to Villarreal last weekend. The other (and less likely) option is to pair Bafetimbi Gomis, another new signing, with Wilfried Bony, in a lop-sided formation with either Montero or Routledge (or perhaps Nathan Dyer) on one wing.
A BACK THREE v A FRONT ONE
One of the reasons a back three fell out of fashion in the late nineties was the number of sides that started playing with a lone central striker. Three centre-backs worked when two marked the opposing centre-forwards, leaving one free as cover. With only one opposition striker, though, teams with a back three were left with a marker, a spare man and a redundant man. The slow return of the back three is the result of teams being happy to operate with two spare men, who must be adept at getting across to cover for their wing-backs should they be caught upfield. United are still searching for the cohesion that would enable them to do that, so it would seem to play into their hands if Garry Monk fielded both Bony and Gomis. Bony alone, though, mobile as he is, could cause major problems.
Swansea haven’t convinced in pre-season and the likelihood is that United will win fairly comfortably. The issues in United’s rearguard, though, make it likely the away side could nick a goal, so both teams to score at 2.08 looks good value. Pursuing a similar logic, over 3.5 goals at 2.75 offers something a little longer.Or, for something a little more adventurous, perhaps the way to go is a correct score bet on 3-1 at 12.50 or 4-1 at 19.00.
READ: Iain Macintosh's Premier League Weekend Preview