Marouane Fellaini is available again for Manchester United after serving his three-match ban for his red card at Hull City in the final game of last season, although that probably means a place on the bench rather than in the starting line-up, despite Louis van Gaal’s hints that he may use him as a centre-forward. Phil Jones is still out with his thrombosis, while Marcos Rojo still may not be match fit after being given an extra-long summer break following the Copa America. Swansea City have a full squad to draw from.
The question from Wednesday was were United good, or were Club Brugge bad? Van Gaal described beating the Belgian runners up 4-0 to complete a 7-1 aggregate victory as “a glorious night”, but until goals start arriving more regularly against Premier League opposition, there will be scepticism.
United may now have scored nine goals in five competitive games this season, but only two of those have been in their three Premier League games, and one of those was an own goal and the other deflected. Van Gaal speaks of “process” and of the importance first and foremost of “dominating” the opponent, something he has certainly achieved in four of five games so far (with the 1-0 win over Tottenham on the opening day a more even contest), but there has been a predictability about United in the league: they have been solid but unadventurous.
Swansea, who beat United home and away last season, have started the season superbly. They have a physicality about them now that was perhaps lacking before Garry Monk took over, the neatness through midfield they always had allied to real pace and incisiveness going forward. They beat Newcastle comfortably enough at home, and had the better of draws at Chelsea and Sunderland.
Matteo Darmian and Luke Shaw have been two of United’s most impressive performers so far this season, both offering support to the attack while rarely looking troubled in their defensive duties, but the full-backs will face a major examination against a pair of wide midfielders who have started the season superbly.
Jefferson Montero on the Swansea left is lightning fast, while Andre Ayew on the right has already scored twice and hit a post with a header: he is powerful and intelligent, his tendency to drift into the centre and aerial prowess making him a major goal-threat.
The problem for United is that even if they dominate central midfield, as they have tended to do this season, Swansea’s wingers will always offer an outlet.
Although United dominated possession against Aston Villa and Newcastle, part of their problem in terms of converting that into chances, and then into goals, has been the sense that their creative midfield three are constantly thinking about the positions they have to adopt if possession is lost – a sense of caution that has often brought criticism for Van Gaal, most notably from Johan Cruyff. Given how defensively secure Swansea have been – there was something freakish about both Chelsea goals, one a crossed free-kick that went straight in, the other a huge deflection – it’s easy to imagine United again running into trouble against a side happy to pack seven outfielders behind the ball, with Jack Cork and Jonjo Shelvey both in superb form at the back of midfield.
THE MIDFIELD BATTLE
Swansea controlled possession against Newcastle and Sunderland, but sat back against Chelsea until the red card to Thibaut Courtois, looking to absorb pressure and use Ayew and Montero on the break. It seems likely they’ll adopt that latter approach against United, who also usually look to control the ball, particularly given how sterile Van Gaal’s side has at times looked in possession this season. That perhaps makes a case for Ander Herrera, a feature of all United’s best performances under Van Gaal, to play at the back of midfield, so that he can add the extra attacking option of his runs from deep.
This looks fascinatingly evenly poised between one side that is in form and a more glamorous opponent that is just reaching for form. That immediately makes Swansea to win at 3.40 look attractive (United are 2.20), but against that there is the memory of Wayne Rooney’s hat-trick on Wednesday and the sense that he may have exploded into a goalscoring frenzy. Swansea draw no bet at 2.43 offers some sense of security, but feels an unsatisfactory compromise.
If Rooney is now in form, if Herrera is included to offer United thrust, if Van Gaal’s side have discovered some fluency and if Swansea are as dangerous on the break as they might be, then perhaps this won’t be quite the tight midfield battle it at first glance looks like being, and so the way to go is over 2.5 goals at 2.12.