US tour underlines United’s progress and limitations

July 27, 2017 Tags: , Reads 14 comments
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José Mourinho’s tired Manchester United squad flew back to England on Thursday, a five game tour of the United States having concluded with a narrow defeat to Barcelona in Washington D.C. That defeat was far from catastrophic, of course, and Mourinho will have confirmed much about his squad’s qualities and weaknesses over the past three weeks. It is the latter that was front of mind as United departed Dulles, bound for Manchester.

Victories over local sides LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake were followed in quick succession by three games against higher quality opponents in Manchester City, Real Madrid and Barça. In each match Mourinho garnered a little new knowledge about his new signings, Romelu Lukaku and Victor Lindelöf, while underlining some of the holes in his squad.

Victory over Galaxy, the weakest of this summer’s pre-season opponents, was every bit as easy as the 5-2 scoreline suggested. The narrow 2-1 win against Salt Lake was a touch frustrating and disjointed. Neither opponent represented much more than a solid warm-up for challenges to come.

"In each match Mourinho garnered a little new knowledge about his new signings, while underlining some of the holes in his squad."

The Reds enjoyed victory over local rivals City, the first Manchester derby to be held outside the UK. Yet, with so many changes throughout the game, the result said little about the relative merits of each team, although City has been quicker to patch obvious weaknesses in the transfer market this summer. The Blues have spent close to £200 million spent on defenders and a new goalkeeper – it should go some way to addressing Pep Guardiola’s defensive inadequacies in the months to come.

Romelu Lukaku

Some of United’s stalwarts certainly impressed against City. David De Gea – still a Red and he should remain one past this summer – pulled off a fine save in the first half to quash any talk about a lack of focus. The Spaniard shared duties on tour with Sergio Romero and Joel Pereira, although will surely start the season as Mourinho’s number one. That said, with Romero having signed a new contract, all eyes will be on Mourinho; will the manager once again use the Argentine in European games as he did last season? The youngster Pereira is rated highly at United, leaving the Reds well covered between the sticks.

Mourinho will have enjoyed the performances of his defenders less. Lindelöf is clearly still finding his feet in a United shirt, and Chris Smalling was generally suspect across the whole tour. It has been some time since the Englishman was not. The Swede’s normally calm demeanour was repeatedly challenged in the States and he suffered against both City and Barcelona in particular. He cannot, yet, count himself a guaranteed starter when the Premier League opens on 13 August.

Elsewhere, Phil Jones and Eric Bailly each emerged from the tour with plenty of credit, although Bailly has not yet started with Lindelöf. Mourinho explained that aberration as a focus on the UEFA Supercup against Real Madrid, where Bailly will serve the second of a three match European ban. Jones was more composed than not, underlining the qualities available if only the Englishman can stay fit.

At full-back Mourinho has fewer concerns, but little depth. There is little new to learn about Antonio Valencia, while Matteo Darmian did little to change the impression that he is a dependable if uninspiring option at left-back. Daley Blind had something of a ‘mare against Barcelona, while Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo were along to watch the games. It seems that neither is likely to play this side of 2018. Timothy Fosu-Mensah did well for the most part, including keeping Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale and Isco mostly quiet for a half.

Paul Pogba

In midfield Mourinho is both blessed and desperately short. Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba were both commanding in central midfield against City, performing in pre-season much as they had last year, as was the Frenchman in United’s defeat to Barcelona. Herrera’s injury against Real Madrid curtailed his tour, but he will certainly start the season alongside the Frenchman. As for Pogba, everybody at the club expects an outstanding season from one of the world’s great central midfielders.

Andreas Pereira enjoyed a good tour, rarely outstanding, but neither out of place among first team company. The Brazilians a talented, multi-functional player, but is far from first choice either at his preferred role behind the main striker, nor in wide areas.

Mourinho will be more concerned about his defensive midfield options. Club captain Michael Carrick’s legs often looked every bit the Geordie’s 36 years, even in pre-season. Marouane Fellaini’s tour was summed up by the horrendous open-goal miss against Real Madrid, an effort sent high and wide with only the goalkeeper to beat. The Belgian is effectively a ‘special teams’ player, useful when launching it, but nowhere else. That point was underlined by the Fellaini’s confidence-sapping second half appearance against Barcelona on Wednesday. Oil and water.

"Fellaini is a ‘special teams’ player, useful when launching it, but nowhere else. That point was underlined by his second half appearance against Barcelona."

Little wonder Mourinho is publicly desperate to conclude a deal for Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic. The soon-to-be 29-year-old Serbian inspires few as an archetypal water-carrier, but he holds the trust of his manager-to-be and will need little time to adapt at United. The midfielder is a fine passer, yet neither his defensive nor attacking stats are better than his peers, and he will add little in the way of dynamism to United’s midfield.

In wide areas Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jesse Lingard both impressed. Mkhitaryan had opportunities both on the wing and at number 10, and the Armenian will certainly be an important player in the season to come, although with Mourinho yet to settle on a system, the former Borussia Dortmund player may yet find himself on the bench when the season opens. 

Lingard was the only player to start all five games on tour, although his least impressive performance came in the final game against Barcelona, albeit on the left. Juan Mata was injured against Salt Lake, but should play in Oslo at the weekend.

Then there was Antony Martial, a player for whom there is much pressure, almost all of it created by his manager. Yet, the Frenchman completed the full 90 minutes against Madrid, beating four Merengues in the moment of the tour to create Lingard’s goal. He scored against LA and often looked lively coming in from the left. Mourinho may yet want more defensively from the 21-year-old, but it is to be hoped that the United manager is not still tempted to cash in on offers from abroad.

Anthony Martial

It remains to be seen whether United will conclude a deal for Ivan Perisic, another older player for whom United will have to pay a huge fee. That deal would certainly put Martial’s future in doubt and yet United’s past three weeks offered a glimpse of why a transfer would be so short sighted.

Up front both Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku scored fine goals against City to get tongues wagging about a potential partnership. Rashford ended the tour with three, while Lukaku has nicely integrated into the side already. The Belgian’s use of the ball in deep areas will never be of the standard Zlatan Ibrahimovic set, and he can slow play when the ball is not in front of him. Yet, Lukaku’s direct running and easy-going finishing will add a more dynamic and perhaps more efficient element to United’s attack. The loser, unless Mourinho switches to a 3-5-2 system, could well be Rashford – a player set for a campaign coming on from the bench or starting on the wing.

Tactically, Mourinho switched between three-man and four-man defensive systems. The former may suit United’s personnel better, and it would allow Rashford and Lukaku to play through the middle. Mourinho is more comfortable with the 4-2-3-1 system that looked a little ponderous against Barça.

Greater focus may be placed on whether United will be more expansive in the season to come. Pre-season can be deceptive in that regard, but Mourinho’s comments after Wednesday’s game suggested that his team will be as pragmatic as ever.

Bemoaning his lack of world-class talent in comparison to Madrid and Barcelona, the Portuguese instead admitted that against stronger teams he must “compensate for the difference in quality with a certain tactical organisation.”

“With that you can win in football,” Mourinho added. “It’s possible a team is in a certain day better than the sum of the parts, that’s possible in football.”

Anthony Martial

So to Oslo at the weekend, followed by a game against Sampdoria in Dublin and then the Supercup on 8 August. It has been a packed summer, involving something close to 15,000 air-miles, a tough training schedule, and numerous commercial commitments. Such is the way of pre-season: part preparation, part money-spinning opportunity.

The positives were many: Martial’s resurgence, Lukaku’s goals, Rashford’s development, Mkhitaryan’s quality, Bailly’s class, and Lingard’s maturity. The negatives were well-known and are yet to be fixed: Fellaini’s enduring lack of quality, Carrick’s ageing limbs, ongoing uncertainty in central defence, and a certain ponderous quality through midfield.

Mourinho’s side may be a little net ahead of last season, having traded Lukaku for Ibrahimovic and finally lifted the burden of Wayne Rooney. The gains are marginal though.

As it stands Mourinho’s target will be another fight for fourth place in the Premier League and qualification from the Champions League group stages. United supporters want better, but to expect it is to put faith in a strategy of hope. Mourinho, a pragmatist to the last, understands this better than most.


G Silva - July 28, 2017 Reply

Really good analysis. The worse, however, in this United is the lack of depth. Both in the full back as well as in midfield positions. Looking at the past, United just bought really badly. The initial mourinho team (before baily, ibrahimovic,…) was weak for such a club.

HaraldO - July 28, 2017 Reply

Fair and balanced analysis. Solid piece Ed.

It’s a foregone conclusion that Perisic and Matic will be signed before Sept 2nd. They may not be the flashiest signings, but they tick all the right boxes: built like tanks, consistent, versatile and – most importantly – full of grit. In a window characterized by £135M wing-backs and £160M Mbappes, having a Victor Moses or Marcos Alonso in your team is becoming somewhat of a revolutionary act.

For me the big question (and you touch on this in your piece) is where will Perisic slot in? I believe a 352 or 433 formation with him playing as AV25- type LWB would significantly strengthen us. Surely Mourinho can’t ignore our problems at left back?

So far I think MCFC have significantly strengthened. Chelsea is about the same, but they won 30 games last season. There are four weeks left. Lets see what surprises this Window has left!

Wayo.ghana - July 28, 2017 Reply

Pls José…just outbid arsenal for HARDWORKING lemar with the taste of champions league football as an advantage too….then settle for midfield pair of fabinho and verratti….I know it will cost a lot of damn cash…but United needs squad depth to challenge on all front….besides…we can sell Darmain to balance the books😡

AJ - July 28, 2017 Reply

Fabinho 50m + Veratti 120m + Lemar 60m

Not even China will pay 230m for Darmian mate..

Denton Davey - July 28, 2017 Reply

Jo$e’s primary need is a holding midfielder – this is obvious, not only to protect the back four but to allow Pogba to play further up the field since Pogba’s talent is wasted if he’s overloaded with defensive duties.

The full backs are a significant problem because for all Valencia’s stamina he offers little attacking end-product because his crossing is not good enough. On the left side, Shaw might be OK but needs to be fit. While neither Rojo nor Blind is the answer on the flank, Marcos Rojo would be more-than-useful in a 3-at-the-back if (a big “if”) he can regain his pre-surgery fitness. Mateo Darmian is, well, Mateo Darmian – a spear-carrier but not exactly MrExcitement.

I think a 3-5-2 formation is the best for the squad we have – all those central defenders provide depth and a bit of quality. If Jo$e wants to play 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 we need at least two more signings.

So, to my way of thinking, some of the issues that emerged during the course of Jo$e’s first year are now blatantly obvious but it’s not altogether clear that he’s resolved them with the importation of Lukaku and Lindelof.

There’s lots of attacking talent BUT it’s not clear how to get the best out of Lukaku, Rashford, Martial, Mata, and Mhkitaryan while Lingard provides useful depth/insurance. Maybe it’s not relevant for this year, but there’s a lot of attacking talent in the younger age-groups.

Getting Ibra back (in October/November) might be a blessing – if he’s willing to be an “impact sub” – BUT it might be a curse if he’s not willing to be an “impact sub”. TheWayneBoy won’t be missed.

AND, most depressingly, MrBlowJob and BigManSmalling are still hoovering up massive weekly wages for another year, taking playing-time (and development-time) away from the likes of Tuanzebe, Fosu-Mensah, Andreas Pereira, and maybe even Demi Mitchell and Scott McTominay.

So, in my view, Jo$e’s management skills will be stretched to get all-that-much more out of this odd collection of players. Maybe next year ??????

Julian - July 29, 2017 Reply

Apart from the usual dig at Rooney, a good analysis. Without further signings the only real hope is for a two striker policy to include Rashford. You could say Lukaku = Zlatan and therefore no real improvement except age. Have to be more attacking upfront.

Denton Davey - July 29, 2017 Reply

My usual dig at Rooney would be that SAF would have jettisoned him because he had become a dead=weight. In SAF’s last season, TheWayneBoy was splitting time with Danny Welbeck, for christsakes.

SAF left behind a chalice – a team that won the EPL by double-digits and seemed to be set up to continue on – BUT it was TheMoyessiah who put in the poison.

Of course, Rooney’s last years were not without some highlights – but that splendid free-kick at Stoke and one or two others didn’t come for free and his presence meant that other options were not taken (or even explored.)

SKW - August 6, 2017 Reply

Are you joking?

The team Ferguson left behind was riddled with problems that had been papered over. Problems we’re still dealing with YEARS later.

Steve - August 1, 2017 Reply

3-5-2, with Mata or Mkhitaryan off Lukaka or Rashford seems so perfect for us, but all the signs are that Jose’s go-to formation with remain 4-3-3. This is a problem, as we just don’t have players who can reliably perform in those wide positions. To my mind, all of the potential candidates are really players who want to cut back inside to link with others or to shoot. Not only does this make things predictable for the opposing full back, but it also slows down our play as our wide men aren’t just running onto balls and heading into whatever space is ahead of them, they’re trying to manufacture their favourite shooting position or waiting for the full back to overlap. I’d say Rashford is the most effective of the bunch in a wide position (though hardly a specialist) but I can see the need for some one like Perisic on the left from Jose’s perspective. Even then, I’m not convinced there’s enough guile in that lineup so am almost hoping Jose will be forced to play 3-5-2 despite his instincts. This seems to be continuing a theme of the post-SAF days where the fans seem to diagnose the problem before the manager does. That said, if Jose is a true pragmatist he’ll be more open to changing mind to suit the facts than Moyes and LVG proved to be.

Denton Davey - August 4, 2017 Reply

“To my mind, all of the potential candidates are really players who want to cut back inside to link with others or to shoot.”

Actually, both Valencia and Shaw would fit-the-bill for an “attacking winger” but, of course, Valencia’s crossing is just woeful and Shaw is always hurt and isn’t in Jo$e’s good-books. So, yeah, Perisic would make sense in that way of seeing things.

steve - August 4, 2017 Reply

Yes, that’s true, and Young would qualify as well come to think of it. It was encouraging to see Jose use 3-5-2 again in the final friendly game – perhaps that means we’ll see it against Madrid – Darmian actually set up a goal, but didn’t look particularly convincing at left wing-back (understandably).

Denton Davey - August 5, 2017 Reply

I’m not at all convinced that Ashley Young is much of an attacking winger – his crossing has been pretty awful and his shooting isn’t much to write home about, either. He has regressed a lot from the 25-year old for Villa who was scoring 10-15 goals – now, he’s less useful than the much-derided Jesse Lingard.

Denton Davey - August 4, 2017 Reply

What about Gareth Bale ?

It seems that Madrid want to sell him to finance their purchase of Mbappe and it’s unclear if there are any other clubs that have the resources to pay ca$h for him. Also, it seems that Zizou only wants three strikers – CR7/Benzema/Mbappe – which is being put about to suggest that Bale needs to be sold for “internal reasons” as well as financial ones.

So, I’d suggest playing Madrid at their own game – give them a low-ball offer/take-it-or-leave it.

How much ? Not to be too nasty, but why not half-price for what RM paid for him before he began to become injury-prone ?

No haggling – this is the price and not a penny more.

So, for 45million, an injury-riddled Bale or a healthy Perisic ?

SKW - August 6, 2017 Reply

With this team — mark my words — we won’t win a thing.

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