Pre-season leaves Reds hopeful despite enduring questions
It took little more than four minutes. The spin, the leap, the goal. Zlatan Ibrahimovic as only Zlatan could, scoring on his non-competitive début, with a bicycle kick of sorts against Galatasaray in Gothenburg. The moment of Manchester United’s pre-season; a flash of brilliance to underline that the coming season should be very different from the three that have preceded it. Hope, then, for millions of United supporters, although questions still surround a squad that remains incomplete and a tactical plan that is far from firm.
José Mourinho’s team will enter the new campaign a little undercooked having played just four games in pre-season: against Wigan Athletic, Borussia Dortmund, Galatasaray and Everton. While the schedule is a game light after the Reds’ match against neighbours Manchester City in Beijing was cancelled, the emphasis placed on commercial and not physical preparation means this outcome was always likely. Sunday’s Community Shield against Leicester City will form an important step in United’s road to being prepared for the real kick-off in 10 days time.
Yet, this time round the now annual gripe about United’s commercial prioritisation is a side-show in a narrative that speaks to the team’s rebirth. Nothing is won yet, but given the judicious spending already made and that yet to come, and the high-quality manager now in residence, it will surprise many if there isn’t a challenge for the title.
Indeed, a squad benefit of confidence and belief in May has already metamorphosed into a group that believes the Premier League crown is genuinely up for grabs.
“Of course we want to get back to winning ways, winning trophies,” says Ashley Young, whose bright performance against Everton suggests the Englishman may yet hold a key role in the season to come. “A club the size of United should be pushing for the title and I believe, with the squad we’ve got, we’ll be doing that this season.”
After all, many – although not nearly all – of the holes in United’s squad have been addressed with the acquisitions of Zlatan, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Eric Bailly and, when complete, Paul Pogba. It’ll represent more than £160 million in new talent, although a similar number of players will leave before the window is out.
Beyond the transfer market there have been glimpses of a renaissance at Old Trafford. Performance levels of many have been good in pre-season, despite the mixed results, and there is a hint of a style yet to come – one that is both more open and attacking than Louis van Gaal’s, but secure in defence as all Mourinho teams must be. Just a hint, for now, but enough to ensure expectations have already reached a new zenith.
“We want to have the ball – but not just to have it, we want to attack,” said midfielder Ander Herrera. “I think we are going to see a very offensive Man United, but a compact team as well. We are improving and building a fantastic team. We are optimistic for the new season.”
The renewed optimism comes not only from a sense of renewal after the summer break, and a new manager at the helm, but high-quality new faces in the dressing room.
Ibrahimovic may turn 35 before Christmas, but the Swede’s mobility has already become a factor in United’s attacking plan. The striker’s pace over five to 10 yards will help the Reds shift defences out of position, and when allied to pace on the wings – compared to Van Gaal’s more prosaic strategy – fans are more likely to witness a dynamic front-foot forward team this season than last.
In that Mkhitaryan is also key, not only because of the winger’s pace, but his creativity in the final third. The Armenian contributed more than 25 goals or assists last season, predominantly from wide areas, and although the former Borussia player is likely to operate from the right flank he will become United’s key creative fulcrum in the coming months.
Meanwhile, at the back Bailly has already demonstrated a potent mix of steely physicality in defence and talent on the ball that will put pressure on Mourinho’s first-choice defensive pairing of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. While Smalling is well placed to continue his sound form of the last 18 months, Jones will inevitably end up on the treatment table – opening up a spot for former Villarreal defender Bailly to seize. The talent is already evident.
Then there is Pogba, who will become the jewel in the summer’s crown. The Frenchman’s Euro 2016 performances underwhelmed, although Didier Deschamps criminal use of a world-class player in the wrong position must be noted. At Old Trafford, Pogba will be the box-to-box number eight that United has lacked, or perhaps failed to find in Herrera. The fee approaching, or perhaps exceeding, £100 million is eye-watering for a player that may not break 10 goals in the coming season, but the balance he offers in terms of physical presence, risk-taking attacking runs and outstanding statistics is surely worth the outlay.
There are still questions about Mourinho’s squad though, or more specifically, the performance of certain players. The Portuguese manager must stimulate stronger performances from Herrera, while finding a suitable role for Morgan Schneiderlin, a box-to-box player Van Gaal attempted to crowbar into a defensive role. And what of Fellaini, a dirty bomb in a league full of sling-shots? The Belgian remains a strange acquisition whose most notable assets in a three-year Old Trafford career have been his right and left elbows.
Elsewhere Luke Shaw’s fitness, Antonio Valencia’s defensive capability, Matteo Darmian’s inconsistency, Bastian Schweinsteiger’s legs, and Memphis Depay’s horrendous form will all come under the microscope in the season’s early forays.
"The now annual gripe about United’s commercial prioritisation is a side-show in a narrative that speaks to the team’s rebirth. Nothing is won yet, but given the judicious spending and high-quality manager in residence, it will surprise if there isn’t a challenge for the title."
That is to say little of Mourinho’s biggest challenge: captain Wayne Rooney, who will start the season as first choice at number 10, but in reality is third best in each position for which the manager says he will be considered – nine and 10. For the moment, Mourinho has not wavered from a party-line that lauds Rooney as key to United’s hopes.
“The season he joined Manchester United is the season I came to England for the first time,” Mourinho said. “Everybody knows, I tried to buy him. He is a player I always wanted to have in my side. Finally, I have him in the club he loves, the club where he has spent the best years of his career. And, I think, the best is yet to come from him.”
It is an optimistic assessment of a player who has suffered three seasons of stark and compounding decline.
Beyond questions of personnel, the balance and shape of Mourinho’s side is still unclear four games into pre-season. Typically, historically, Mourinho has used a multi-faceted 4-2-3-1 system – one with which he is likely to start the campaign. Mourinho’s back five: David de Gea, Valencia, Smalling, Jones and Shaw is already set. In midfield Michael Carrick will find a partner in one of Herrera or Schneiderlin on the opening day of the new campaign, with Mkhitaryan, Rooney and Antony Martial in support of Ibrahimovic.
It is a system that compromises more than one player, while crowbarring Rooney into a creative role for which he has long since been unsuitable. And while Martial can be explosive from the left, he is even more devastating through the middle, while the brightest of all United’s youngsters, Marcus Rashford, is set to start the campaign on the bench.
Perhaps the biggest compromise in the 4-2-3-1 system is Pogba’s role. The player will come into the team as a deep-lying eight, a lesser platform than his talents deserve – and exactly the same mistake Deschamps made in France this summer.
Indeed, the balance of United’s squad, especially with Pogba, lends itself to an unfamiliar but dynamic 4-3-3 system, with the Frenchman given plenty of license as a highly ‘vertical’ midfielder, supported by a two from Carrick, Herrera and Schneiderlin. Ibrahimovic, meanwhile, is ideally flanked by two from Memphis Depay, Martial, Rashford or Mkhitaryan. There is no logical place for Rooney.
That big decision will come in time. China beckons for the captain, but not just yet. For the moment, Mourinho’s United will begin the new season with renewed and genuine hope. It is a squad strong enough to challenge in what should be an ultra-competitive Premier League campaign.
Seven teams hold out hope for a title challenge: champions Leicester, City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and, of course, United. There are few guarantees, but for the first time in three years, hope at Old Trafford is held more genuinely than at any time since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.