Louis van Gaal's reign as Manchester United manager will begin at Old Trafford with the test of Swansea City. The Dutchman also faces a daunting three-match run near the end of his maiden Premier League term, taking on Manchester City (home), Chelsea (away) and Everton (away) between April 11 and April 25.
After an abysmal 2013-14 season that saw Manchester United finish seventh, miss European competitions altogether, completely lose their vaunted Old Trafford aura and end with new manager David Moyes getting axed before the season even finished, it's impossible not to assume this year will be better for the Red Devils.
New manager Van Gaal will bring optimism and—the supporters will hope—a few signings with him. While the Red Devils will likely have something of an adjustment period under the Dutch manager, the expectations will be as high as ever.
Returning to the upper echelon of English football will be no easy feat, however. Manchester City aren't going anywhere. Liverpool have been revitalised. Chelsea and Arsenal will be strong once again. Tottenham and Everton won't be pushovers. The post-Sir Alex Ferguson world will be fraught with danger for United.
But surely they'll handle that danger better than they did a year ago. Let's take a look at the fixtures they'll face in that pursuit.
|Aug 16||3 p.m. BST||Swansea City (h)|
|Aug 23||3 p.m. BST||Sunderland (a)|
|Aug 30||3 p.m. BST||Burnley (a)|
|Sept 13||3 p.m. BST||Queens Park Rangers (h)|
|Sept 20||3 p.m. BST||Leicester City (a)|
|Sept 27||3 p.m. BST||West Ham United (h)|
|Oct 4||3 p.m. BST||Everton (h)|
|Oct 18||3 p.m. BST||West Bromwich Albion (a)|
|Oct 25||3 p.m. BST||Chelsea (h)|
|Nov 1||3 p.m. GMT||Manchester City (a)|
|Nov 8||3 p.m. GMT||Crystal Palace (h)|
|Nov 22||3 p.m. GMT||Arsenal (a)|
|Nov 29||3 p.m. GMT||Hull City (h)|
|Dec 2||7:45 p.m. GMT||Stoke City (h)|
|Dec 6||3 p.m. GMT||Southampton (a)|
|Dec 13||3 p.m. GMT||Liverpool (h)|
|Dec 20||3 p.m. GMT||Aston Villa (a)|
|Dec 26||3 p.m. GMT||Newcastle United (h)|
|Dec 28||3 p.m. GMT||Tottenham Hotspur (a)|
|Jan 1||3 p.m. GMT||Stoke City (a)|
|Jan 10||3 p.m. GMT||Southampton (h)|
|Jan 17||3 p.m. GMT||Queens Park Rangers (a)|
|Jan 31||3 p.m. GMT||Leicester City (h)|
|Feb 7||3 p.m. GMT||West Ham (a)|
|Feb 10||7:45 p.m. GMT||Burnley (h)|
|Feb 21||3 p.m. GMT||Swansea City (a)|
|Feb 28||3 p.m. GMT||Sunderland (h)|
|March 4||7:45 p.m. GMT||Newcastle United (a)|
|March 14||3 p.m. GMT||Tottenham Hotspur (h)|
|March 21||3 p.m. GMT||Liverpool (a)|
|April 4||3 p.m. BST||Aston Villa (h)|
|April 11||3 p.m. BST||Manchester City (h)|
|April 18||3 p.m. BST||Chelsea (a)|
|April 25||3 p.m. BST||Everton (a)|
|May 2||3 p.m. BST||West Bromwich Albion (h)|
|May 9||3 p.m. BST||Crystal Palace (a)|
|May 16||3 p.m. BST||Arsenal (h)|
|May 24||3 p.m. BST||Hull City (a)|
It's pretty amazing to think that United managed just six points against the Premier League's top six teams last season, four of which came against Arsenal. Manchester City, Everton and Liverpool all did the double against them, an astonishing mark of futility for one of the Premier League's proudest clubs.
Rectifying those results this year will obviously be a huge goal, and in a season that should be just as competitive as the 2013-14 campaign, you can bet United will prioritise coming away with more than six of a possible 36 points in those contests.
Of course, you can circle in permanent marker the dates against Manchester City and Liverpool. With City winning two of the last three league titles, the war for superiority in Manchester is very much alive and well. With Liverpool's resurgence, the long-running debate about which club is the historic toast of England seems revitalised as well.
Van Gaal and company will surely be busy in the transfer market, namely with addressing issues in the midfield as the main goal.
While United have an exciting youngster in Adnan Januzaj and quality veterans in the attack like Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata, Van Gaal will have the interesting task of finding a system that incorporates all of those players to the best of their abilities.
As always, where to play Rooney will be a huge decision facing Van Gaal. It's certainly not a new conundrum, dating back to Ferguson's days as manager, as Mark Payne of ESPN noted:
Ferguson became famous for two reasons: winning things and falling out with people. He has done both of those with Rooney. Rooney is on the record as saying he prefers playing as a central striker: 'I've had no problem playing out of position in the past, but I'm a forward and felt I deserved the right to play in my position.'
From these quotes we can take that Rooney feels he has reached a level in the pecking order where he can choose where he plays. Seen in that light, it seems obvious why he fell out with Ferguson.
That disagreement was largely over Rooney being asked to play in midfield rather than drop in from the left. The left side is actually a position that suits Rooney, as it invites him to cut inside and unleash his thunderous right boot on to the ball. There also isn't a right back alive who knows what to do with him.
Van Persie in the centre, Mata behind him and Rooney on the left could work if Rooney is willing to play the role of inverted winger as opposed to centre-forward. It was a position he has played well for United in the past, but who knows if he'll accept such a role now?
With Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez also available and a slew of talented but generally underachieving wingers in Nani, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, a bit of housecleaning might be in order anyway. The United team that takes the pitch next season could look very, very different.
One thing is for certain—it will be Van Gaal's way or the highway, as he said, via ESPN.co.uk:
I am a coach who wants a good relationship with my players, I think it is very important. I do everything to reach that level, but sometimes it is not reachable as the players are not open-minded and don't adapt to the norms that I put in the team. When you are not listening, always out, or I go out.
Van Gaal had the audacity to shift the Dutch away from their beloved 4-3-3 scheme before the World Cup, fearing he didn't have the personnel to make the style of play work. Perhaps at United he'll bring that same level of recognition about how to best utilise his players, something Moyes never brought.
And perhaps he'll bring a firm hand in the process. Moyes never seemed to know how to quite juggle his many stars or develop a rotation to suit them all. With plenty of top talents to manage for the Dutch, perhaps Van Gaal will be better suited to that task.
If he isn't, it will be another long season for Manchester United.