Tour poses new questions as the season looms
In truth it has proven to be a mixed pre-season in the United States, although the manager departed the continent with an air of calm satisfaction. “Preparation time,” as Louis van Gaal call it, is traditional as a period of focus on fitness and match “rhythm” – not necessarily results. For Manchester United, with three victories and Thursday’s defeat to Paris Saint-Germain, there has been a touch of success in both this summer.
Thursday’s insipid defeat was perhaps the lowest point on tour, although not for all the obvious reasons. Defeat to the French side in the build-up to the opening Premier League fixture against Tottenham Hotpsur will bother the Dutchman little. The uninspiring nature of United’s capitulation might, although the veteran coach declared himself to be “really satisfied about the performance.”
The coach’s assessment was perhaps a little generous, albeit at a time when the Dutchman is keen to build on the positives from the past fortnight. “We lose, but maybe that is also good because last year we won everything and then we lost the first match in the Premier League,” admitted Van Gaa.
Truth be told, last week’s victory over Barcelona in Santa Clara aside, much of United’s football on tour has been of the plodding variety that dominated last autumn and winter, in a formation that Van Gaal is – at least in his own words – unlikely to used in the months ahead.
In victory over Club America in Seattle Van Gaal used 22 players – a side each half – seeking to build “rhythm” over understanding and attacking flow. It showed, with only Memphis Depay, Andrea Pereira and Matteo Darmian catching the eye. More, perhaps, for the novelty than the raw performance.
Meanwhile, 900 miles south in San Jose, United’s victory over the Earthquakes brought visceral criticism from the manager, especially of his younger players, of which a number have enjoyed minutes on this tour. It was a touch strident from the Dutch man if a point that worked in United’s favour during an at times exciting victory over European champions Barcelona. Three goals against Luis Enrique’s undercooked side were reward for a vibrant attacking display, but there should be plenty of warning in the three occasions on which the Catalans hit the woodwork.
If United’s attacking play, PSG excepted, has sometimes been dynamic, with Memphis and Juan Mata striking up a solid relationship in particular, then defensively and tactically the Reds remain a work in progress. In truth, United’s defensive performances as a unit have not been good in the States. Whatever moves United may still make in the market this summer, Van Gaal will focus on organisation back at Carrington over the next 10 days.
United’s coach will certainly seek to eliminate the “personal errors,” made against PSG. “You cannot fight against personal errors when you are playing at the top level,” he added.
Individually, Luke Shaw and Darmian have impressed, while Daley Blind’s four-game spell at centre-back offered a touch of class in distribution from the back. It is, however, dangerously worrying evidence that United has given up on acquiring the high-class experienced defender required.
Phil Jones will be fortunate indeed if he remains ahead of Chris Smalling come the season’s start, although Van Gaal has left the door open for the malfunctioning former Blackburn Rovers player. “I think I shall play Shaw with Darmian, and with Daley Blind,” offered the 62-year-old. “The right central position I have to consider.” Indeed, he must.
Tactically, Van Gaal deployed two defensive midfielders in all four fixtures, meaning that United has often struggled to drive enough bodies into attacking zones. This is not helped by Bastian Scheweinsteiger’s obvious lack of match sharpness nor Morgan Schneiderlin’s bedding in process. It is also not the formation many expected Van Gaal to field.
Whether Van Gaal lines up in a more conventional Dutch 4-3-3 against Spurs depends in part on Schweinsteiger’s ability to drive forward from midfield; and that formation is, it seems, also the only hope Ander Herrera still holds of forcing his way back into the team. United’s best player over the final three months of last season is once again back in the cold.
Indeed, Herrera’s exclusion from the startling line-up on tour might be taken as sign of Van Gaal’s potential caution in the weeks ahead. After all, his favoured central midfielders – Schweinsteiger, Schneiderlin and Michael Carrick – each hold a more defensive mindset than the Spaniard.
When pressed in the aftermath of United’s final tour match Van Gaal admitted that his team will “more or less” field a 4-3-3 in the coming campaign. Then again, the Dutchman made the same point on more than one occasion this summer. He used the formation not once on tour.
Taken at his word Van Gaal may have already settled on nine of his starting team against Tottenham: David de Gea, Darmian, Blind, Shaw, Schneiderlin, Mata, Ashley Young, Memphis and Wayne Rooney. Two from Carrick, Schweinsteiger, Smalling and Jones will complete a side that can be deployed in the shape promised, with Memphis on United’s left, or in the system used on tour, with three in support of Rooney.
Whatever the tactical questions, Van Gaal’s squad also has the air of being incomplete. Not least because De Gea and Angel di Maria’s futures are still to be decided. The Argentinian is likely to join PSG once the formalities of transfer negotiations are complete, while De Gea may yet be forced to play out the final year of his contract with United. De Gea has, by all accounts, remained solidly professional, albeit the Spaniard’s mistake, leading to a PSG goal on Thursday, might hint at a lack of focus.
Losing De Gea at this stage would mark a significant blow to United’s hopes of building a Premier League title challenge. By contrast, few at Old Trafford will miss Di Maria, with the winger believed to be camped out in his homeland awaiting word from Paris. Di Maria’s exit, together with Pedro’s probable arrival, may well be the last attacking changes of the summer.
Still, away from the squad, the tour has predominantly been of Van Gaal’s conception in microscopic detail – and to his liking. From the shortened programme, with fewer commercial responsibilities, to a focus on the training ground at the expense of additional pre-season games – all of the Dutchman’s making. It is also Van Gaal’s decision to spend the final 10 days’ build-up focused on training, with only behind-closed-doors games in preparation.
“I have to say I have seen a lot of very good things from my team. So in the pre-season it is more about the performance than the result. I was rather satisfied,” concludes the Dutchman.
United is certainly in superior shape than at this stage last season – and the squad is almost fully fit. Supporters remain optimistic with good reason. After all, four of United’s five summer acquisitions have performed solidly on tour and the fifth – Sergio Romero – will see only minimal action over the next year.
That last nagging doubt, over United’s defensive frailties, could yet be patched up in a transfer market that has a month to run. That, or Van Gaal will earn his keep on the training ground. It is his preferred habitat.