By Peter Staunton at Old Trafford
It's difficult to ascertain just exactly where Manchester United go from here. Their first six matches in the Premier League all appeared to be games in which they would have expected to take three points but it is necessary to reassess that now. It was a positive pre-season but Van Gaal now has a true sense of the battle he faces at Old Trafford after this 2-1 defeat to Swansea. For all the talk of a new start following the departure of David Moyes, it remains a wearyingly familiar tale. Possession not penetration and opponents no longer overawed by the occasion or simply making up the numbers.
Same old United, Ander Herrera notwithstanding. The signing from Athletic Blibao was busy in the midfield without standing out in the manner he did on the American tour. It was hard to see where the inspiration was going to come from. Wayne Rooney toiled for his half-chances and flattered to deceive aside from his goal. Chicharito was eager but ineffective. The early promise of Jesse Lingard burned out with an injury. Adnan Januzaj tormented his left-back but there was little end product.
And for all their possession, there was never the suggestion that United would get the requisite goals for the win. While injuries don't help - United are without nine first-team players - that is as much to do with fatigue after a long pre-season trip as it is to do with luck. It's difficult to isolate events on the field from what's been going on, or not, in the transfer market and United's troubles in that department, for the second successive summer, are telling. To be so light on numbers, so early in a season, is alarming. Even more so when the potential replacements keep slipping through Ed Woodward's fingers.
"When you have preparation time and you win everything and your first match you lose, it cannot be worse," said Van Gaal.
"It is not good because we have built up a lot of confidence and then it shall be smashed down because of this result."
Van Gaal, who worked well with unheralded players at the World Cup with the Netherlands, was supposed to be the man to coach United's fringe men back to health. Ashley Young and Javier Hernandez were both given reprieves here as they started on the opening day of the season. That however, may speak as much of the current problems faced by United in the injury department as it does for Van Gaal's desire to allow his squad to prove themselves.
Either way, picking Young proved an exercise in futility. He was neither left-back nor left-winger in the first half as Swansea aimed the majority of their attacking passes down his flank. He had Tyler Blackett for company on that side but neither had the measure of Nathan Dyer. He reverted to a more orthodox left-back role in the second half and it was from his sector that the winner came. Van Gaal cannot count on Luke Shaw and has not yet got Marco Rojo to select and so Young became an unlikely candidate for United's left-back. He lost Wayne Routledge, who shunted the ball into the path of Gylfi Sigurdsson for the winner.
"I know in what positions we need a better player," Van Gaal said. "But you have to buy only when the player can fulfil the way of playing that I ask. We have to wait and see."
Swansea will be aware of their status of party poopers here and the grander story will be about the fight Van Gaal has on his hands at Old Trafford but take nothing away from Garry Monk's side. They executed a formidable game plan and, despite the losses of Michael Vorm, Chico Flores and Ben Davies in summer, have conducted smart decent business.
The late cameo from Ecuador World Cup star Jefferson Montero prompted the goal, while Sigurdsson played like he'd never been away. The Icelander, Ki Sung-Yeung and Jonjo Shelvey dominated the midfield area where United continue to struggle despite the signing of Herrera.
United's squad players from last season came in and were asked to stand up and couldn't. They are where they were at the start of last season - with a lack of activity in the transfer market and no apparent strategy on the field. The difference this time is that they beat Swansea last year on opening day.
"I have seen a lot of players very nervous, making the wrong choices and that's a pity," said Van Gaal. "These players have to get used to that expectation because that is Manchester United. You have to cope with that pressure."
Van Gaal wrote in his programme notes of the need for his players to rely less on their intuition and to follow directions better. It is clear from this performance that they have not yet got that message on board. It will be a different United once Van Persie, Carrick, Shaw and others come back but for now Van Gaal has to work with what he's got. It's not good enough.