Manchester United are saved! Manchester United are doomed! Or, perhaps, they're somewhere in between.
In the wake of last year's Moyesian apocalypse, Manchester United moved quickly to reassure the footballing world that they were merely sleeping dragons and not yet fallen giants. The appointment of brash Dutchman Louis van Gaal was an emphatic statement of intent that appeared even more emphatic after he led an unfancied Netherlands squad all the way to the semifinals of this summer's World Cup. Van Gaal had the track record of success and the persona, it seemed, to restore Sir Alex Ferguson's legacy and steer United back to the top of the English game. The self-proclaimed inventor of modern football was poised to wake the Manchester dragon and set it burning across the English countryside.
The same people who were so quick to herald the dawn of a new era were trumpeting its demise only days later.
Before he ever oversaw a match, Louis van Gaal's reputation as savior already seemed secure. Whether they believed in his tactical acumen or merely bought into his blustery bravado, the football media proved eager to worship at the altar of van Gaal. Every outlet spent the summer convincing us that Manchester United's triumphant return to the summit of English football was not just likely, but inevitable. Forget the top four, United were about to challenge for the title, capture the treble, win the Super Bowl and sweep the World Series. They told us how LVG revolutionized tactics and how he revolutionized management. They told us he was so revolutionary he would revolutionize revolutions. They gleefully slathered page after page of endless platitudes onto a massive papier mache construct in the shape of a hungry Mancunian tiger. And the world trembled in fear and awe of a newly risen United.
But then they put in a toothless performance in its opening day defeat to Swansea. Having been promised a team to put Fergie's Fledglings to shame, the sight of naught but soggy newsprint in its place left fans outraged. And no one took more delight in tearing apart this paper tiger than its very creators. The same people who were so quick to herald the dawn of a new era were trumpeting its demise only days later.
We know we shouldn't judge on the back of one game, but tar and feathers are still sold out of every store in Manchester. It's easy to get so caught up in the undertow of narrative that you forget it doesn't matter which story you're being sold. As long as it's exciting, the people peddling content are winning. Controversy and hyperbole draw you in; the more bold the claim the better. Why fact-check a sensational story when you can print a retraction the next day? You get 'em coming and going. It's the same sort of system that lets Fox show two men kissing on Glee only to have two other men screaming angrily about it on Fox News.
Now that Manchester United have conclusively and irrevocably proven that all the hype from the summer was a lie, we're told, the papers can now sell you their righteous indignation. Even though they're the ones who sold the lie in the first place. We're prepared to tear down the false messiah on the say-so of the same folks who told us to buy frankincense and myrrh futures a month ago.
So which United is the real United? Fallen giants or sleeping dragons? Paper tigers or real ones? Maybe we should leave off with the metaphors and just let United be what they actually are: a good team struggling to repair the damage inevitably caused by the departure of the greatest manager in the history of the game.
The real headline for Manchester United this year should probably be more akin to "Louis van Gaal is a very good manager who's had a very nice career and he'll probably improve United from last season. But this team needs more than a new coat of paint, and it's up to Ed Woodward to convince that he has the ability to bring in the signings needed to revitalize a squad that's seen so many key faces leave since Ferguson's retirement. LVG's 3-5-2 is an exciting tactical development, but it can only take you so far with Tyler Blackett, Chris Smalling, and Phil Jones in the back three all season. Injuries to crucial pieces of United's jigsaw like RVP and Luke Shaw and the need for reinforcement means overnight revolution shouldn't be expected. As van Gaal himself said, expect United to need three months before they can fire on all cylinders. But if LVG can impose his vision, United will be in excellent shape to make a long-term recovery from last year's disaster."
But that's rather cumbersome and unsexy headline, isn't it? Ah well. Easier to get more tar.