PSV test offers chance to assess United's progress under van Gaal
Taking stock is daily practice at Old Trafford these days.
Every moment presents another chance to assess where Manchester United stand in their quest to return to the pinnacle of European football. Every utterance supplies a chance to gauge Louis van Gaal's progress and weigh the merits of his squad. Results vary with every completed pass, every misstep, and every success or failure along the way.
Even in this realm of incremental judgments and persistent referendums about a work in progress, there is a weight to United's return to the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday. This trip to PSV Eindhoven (live, Tuesday, FS1, FOX Sports Go. 2 p.m. ET) brings all of the links between the two clubs to the fore, but it also presents United with a chance to make an impression upon their return to the grand stage after a one-year absence.
It is a manageable assignment, even with Wayne Rooney omitted with a hamstring complaint with one eye on the trip to Southampton at the weekend. United enter this fixture brimming with confidence after the 3-1 victory over Liverpool on Saturday. Their patient work in possession finally allied with more thrust in the final third to secure the points. It proved an encouraging twist after a season filled with dominance in possession and frustration in the final third.
Those measures reflect a United team still in the midst of transition from the swashbuckling of the past to the patient buildup of the present. For all of the dominion on the ball and all of the defiance in defense, there is something still unfinished about United at the moment. The summer spending strengthened the squad considerably without completing it. United travel to the Netherlands with Daley Blind in the heart of defense and Marouane Fellaini or Anthony Martial leading the line. These are not the measures employed by a team primed to march deep into the Champions League.
United start their European obligations without the convictions of the past. There are expectations of navigating through a tricky group including CSKA Moscow, PSV and Wolfsburg, but there are no guarantees of safe progress at this nascent stage.
"We have to show on the pitch if we are able to win matches at the highest level in my opinion -- that is the challenge for us now," van Gaal said in his pre-match press conference. "Last year we were fourth in the Premier League and because of that we qualified for the Champions League, but now we have to show we can play at this level. I don't know if we can, I have to wait and see."
Van Gaal's patient, rigid instructions in the buildup suit the continental challenges well. United expect to control the proceedings at the Philips Stadion, limit the defensive exposure and squeeze PSV inside their own half with intelligent, precise work on the ball. The key remains figuring out a way to vary the tempo in possession (not a particular strength this season) to create opportunities and ward off the possibility of counter-attacks from the home side.
PSV enter this fixture with a 12-match unbeaten run in tow and a desire to translate their sterling domestic form into Europe. The Dutch champions sold Memphis Depay to United and Georginio Wijnaldum to Newcastle United in the summer to balance the books, but they reinforced with Mexico centerback Héctor Moreno (back in time for the 6-0 win over 10-man Cambuur on Saturday) and retained Andrés Guardado and Luuk De Jong. The resulting blend of experience and youth makes Phillip Cocu's side an awkward proposition, particularly if Maxime Lestienne and Luciano Narsingh locate space behind the United football and maintain the supply lines to De Jong.
Even with those strengths, PSV start Group B as outsiders to progress and outsiders on the night against United. The realities left Cocu to manage his expectations ahead of United's visit.
"United have a lot of individual quality, they are experienced and they are a top football team," Cocu told reporters on Monday. "You can see the hand of Louis van Gaal. Our intention is to go for the win, but we will not be naive. Our initial aim, however, is to try to win."
Van Gaal expressed similar sentiments ("A draw is always a good result -- but I want to win," he said.) in a rather off-brand recognition of United's own status at the moment. There is a pressing need to tick boxes along the way to reveal signs of progress. The victory over Liverpool completed one test. This trek to Eindhoven represents another.
It is United's reality for now, even as those magical European nights return once more.