Starting as they mean go on: Reds face Leicester in season opener
For the third time in as many years Manchester United’s pre-season campaign has carried with it a renewed sense of optimism. In summer 2014, United sacked Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor, David Moyes, and replaced him with Dutch veteran Louis Van Gaal. Throughout that summer supporters were treated to some outstanding performances by Van Gaal’s Netherlands squad at the World Cup. It built hope for what was not to come.
The transfer window augmented that hope, with the Reds breaking the British transfer record to sign Argentinian winger Angel Di Maria, and bringing in star striker Radamel Falcao. Van Gaal’s team won each one of its pre-season games, blazing past Roma, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Liverpool in the process.
It wasn’t a sign of a rosy future though, with a stop-start season following. The Reds frustrated and excited in equal measure. Van Gaal was afforded the benefit of the doubt – after all the Dutchman’s infamous ‘philosophy’ was not something that could not be implemented overnight. The 2014-15 season ended with United pipping Liverpool to fourth after a run of impressive victories against Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City. With it came a return to the Champions League.
That season wasn’t pretty, but Van Gaal achieved his aim; and during summer 2015 United fans could feel optimistic about their side’s chances in the upcoming campaign. There were more exciting signings: Memphis Depay, Matteo Darmian, Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Anthony Martial. Five players to bring balance to Van Gaal’s team; enough perhaps to bring the title back to Old Trafford.
It didn’t happen, of course. Instead United went backwards last season and despite winning the FA Cup, the board had already made up its mind to replace a manager who, despite spending close to £300 million, finish only fifth in the table, behind Sunday’s opponents Leicester City.
Another summer on and José Mourinho has landed the job he has seemingly been waiting for his entire career. The man many believe should have replaced Sir Alex is loving the role and the Portuguese manager has a point to prove as well. Cast aside for the second time by Chelsea after a disappointing start to last season, Mourinho has arrived at a cross-roads in his career.
Mourinho: manager at a crossroads
No longer untouchable, Mourinho must re-establish his reputation after leading his title-winning Chelsea team to the worst ever defence of a Premier League crown. Yet, he has also arrived at a club that needs him just as much as he needs United. Both Mourinho and the Reds are wounded giants, desperate to return to the top.
Mourinho has started the job well, oozing confidence in his introductory press conference. It appears to be a perfect fit. There have been the customary digs at rivals, including Arsene Wenger and Jurgen Klopp, before Mourinho subtly smeared his predecessor’s methods. Mourinho will not “hide behind a philosophy” and he certainly “wants to win everything”. Music to the fans’ ears.
The club’s transfer business has been exemplary too, after three summers of embarrassing behaviour in the market. Mourinho has made three impressive signings, and looks set to complete the fourth when Paul Pogba joins for a fee of around £100 million. It will shake the football world. And while it is, of course, too early to say that the club is “back”, it is not unreasonable for fans to dream of what may come this year. After all, Mourinho is a manager who just about guarantees success.
And so to Leicester City. After a summer that included the European Championships, Mourinho and Pep Guardiola landing in Manchester, a potential world record transfer and the Olympic Games, it is easy to forget that Claudio Ranieri’s team is the reigning champions of England. Everything that can be said about Leicester has already been said. It was a fairy tale, an impossible dream, something that will not be repeated soon.
The team has its critics; many point to a low Premier League standard and Leicester’s ‘kick and run’ tactics. Yet, Leicester’s achievement will also be recorded as one of the biggest stories in team-sport history, and although the Foxes are unlikely to repeat the heroics this season, few will be surprised if Ranieri’s men lift the Community Shield on Sunday.
Both sides want this – a trophy that can instil confidence for the season ahead, a day out to Wembley for the fans, and for Mourinho a perfect chance to test his line-up against a team that will not be easily beaten. The approach is intriguing. Mourinho has an undeserved reputation for playing negative football, however an ‘all-out attack’ approach plays into Leicester’s hands, with the Foxes excellent on the counter.
Leicester arrived at Wembley having lost a major star though, with N’golo Kante heading to Chelsea in a £30 million deal this summer. United’s midfielders will enjoy a rare opportunity to play around Leicester’s engine room without the energy of Kante sniffing out any danger.
Both managers have been quick to confirm they are looking for victory, with Ranieri suggesting that his players must forget about last season if they want to enjoy success again this year.
“We’re ambitious, but know it will hard. I forgot what happened last season, now my focus is on the new season,” Ranieri said. “All managers and players want to play at Wembley stadium. This is not a friendly, we will give the maximum and also Manchester United will too. Both teams want to win”.
Mourinho echoed his counterpart, although United’s disrupted pre-season means that the Portuguese manager will also use Sunday to offer as many minutes to his undercooked squad as possible.
“The week of no work in China was really bad for us,” said Mourinho. “So we need to train, we need to play, we need minutes for the players. Now we have no chance to train against other teams. We have Leicester before the Premier League and it is not a training session – it is a game.
“We have to face it as a game. We have the chance to give minutes to some people. Some who I know cannot play for 90 minutes, but of course we are going to try to win it.”
Mourinho’s has a poor record in the Community Shield, with the manager having one won one of his four matches as Chelsea boss. United fares better, having won the trophy a record 20 times and winning the shield in five of the club’s last six appearances. Both managers should be wary though: none of the previous five winners have gone on to capture the Premier League that season.
United subs from: Romero, Smalling, Jones, Darmian, Rojo, Schneiderlin, Fellaini, Memphis, Lingard, Mata, Rashford
Leicester subs from: Zieler, Rodriguez, Mendy, Inler, Gray, Okazaki, Ulloa
With both teams determined to get the season off to a winning start, Sunday’s game is more than a glorified friendly. Ranieri desperately needs to continue the feel good factor surround the King Power Stadium, especially after a difficult pre-season, while Mourinho is looking for hunger ahead of a campaign in which his side should challenge for the title.
United’s team will include a mix of old faces and new signings. In goal, David De Gea’s position as number one remains unchallenged. In front of him there is less certainty. Antonio Valencia has impressed during pre-season, contributing three assists against Galatasaray. The Ecuadorian is entering his eighth year at the club and while the rumours persist that Mourinho is in the hunt for a right-back, Valencia remains a decent option.
Summer signing Eric Bailly is another who has impressed in pre-season and will play at centre back along with Daley Blind in Chris Smalling’s absence. Blind and Bailly have paired well during pre-season, with Bailly’s pace and height complementing Blind’s reading of the game. Luke Shaw is a welcome return at left-back, and has shown no lasting effects from the horrific injury sustained in Eindhoven last September.
As many predicted, Mourinho has taken a shine to Ander Herrera, who has started each of United’s pre-season games. Herrera is certainly a Mourinho-type player due to the Spaniard’s tenacity in the tackle and quick thinking on the ball. He has been partnered by both Morgan Schneiderlin and Michael Carrick at times this summer, however the Geordie’s impressive performance in the second half against Galatasaray in Stockholm last week probably means he will start alongside Herrera on Sunday.
Further forward, new man Henrik Mkhitaryan starts on the right, looking to inject some of the creativity that was sorely missed last season. The Armenian performed well at 10 against Wigan Athletic, although has been positioned on the wing in the following matches.
Instead, it is Wayne Rooney who will occupy the central creative role on Sunday. After all, Mourinho is a self-confessed fan. Yet, Rooney’s place in the team very much depends on the start he makes to the season, with Mourinho willing to drop players for poor performances, regardless of their status within the dressing room.
Anthony Martial will line up on the left where he was so devastating last season, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic starts up front in only his second appearance at Wembley. The Swede has impressed his team mates since arriving on a free transfer from Paris St Germain, and despite being in the twilight of his career, many hope that the striker will be the catalyst for United’s title challenge.
Referee: Craig Pawson
Assistants: S Child, L Betts
Fourth Official: R Madley
Leicester 2-1 United