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.
It has been just 43 days since Manchester United last played – a drab scoreless draw against Hull City at the KC Stadium. Yet, Louis van Gaal’s return to work last week signaled the start of United’s “preparation time” ahead of the new season, which begins when Tottenham Hotspur visit Old Trafford on 8 August. Indeed, with the Dutchman’s players gathering for pre-season training on Monday, Van Gaal’s squad has just over a month before the Premier League kicks off once again. With a short tour of the United States planned this summer, and a manager now firmly in place, expectations are high that United will start the campaign proper in more positive fashion than a year ago.
Louis van Gaal’s insistence that the club cuts down the tour schedule will remove a long-held concern that the true objective placed by the club’s hierarchy on pre-season is commercial rather than “preparation.” Both the Dutchman, and David Moyes in the summer of 2013, have complained about pre-season’s intensity. Especially sponsors’ demands. This complaint has been at least partly addressed, with the club set to play just four games in the States this summer, to five the year before, and with fewer commercial-led requirements demanded.
United will start pre-season fixtures a week earlier than in 2014 and complete the tour inside 12 days, with games scheduled in Seattle, San Jose, Santa Clara and Chicago. Travel, although not light when it involves a transatlantic flight, will not force the squad to criss-cross the US this summer as it did last. With no confirmed domestic warm-up date ahead of United’s Premier League start Van Gaal can have few complaints about a heavy schedule.
“Last year in the United States of America, we won everything playing against big, top clubs, and then we had to play our first match against Swansea City and we lost. That cannot happen next year. The most important aspect is building up our team with individual players so they are thinking like a team, but also we need fitness and match rhythm. We have to play matches, but we also have to train. The problem was when we went to America we didn’t have so many times to train because we had to fly and travel a lot.
“Now though, we have improved our America tour because we have two basecamps and can build up our fitness better. Last year we had a lot of time differences.”
With the schedule set to Van Gaal’s liking the veteran coach can keep at least half an eye on the transfer market, although United has added only the Dutch winger Memphis Depay to the squad to date. With just a week before before the squad sets off for the west coast there remains legitimate fears that United faces yet another last-minute dash around Europe to fill obvious limitations to Van Gaal’s side.
At least the Dutchman enjoys a mostly fit squad. While the traveling party is yet to be finalised, most of the squad has enjoyed a reasonable summer break, with few suffering for tournament commitments. Only Argentinians Marcos Rojo and Angel di Maria may need to miss part of the US tour due to lengthy participation in Copa America. Still, Van Gaal will no doubt be hugely relieved, not least with United facing two decisive Champions League qualification games in mid-August.
And once again the tour will be a chance for some of United’s youngsters to earn a place in Van Gaal’s squad, with Patrick McNair, Tyler Blackett and – to a lesser extent – Reece James having used last summer to force their way into the Dutchman’s first team plans. Andreas Pereira will surely play some part over the next month despite featuring in the Under-20 World Cup earlier this summer. Javier Hernández, injured and due to be sold, and Nani, sold to Fenerbahce this week, will play no part, although Robin Van Persie and David de Gea remain at the club longer than many expected.
United vs Club América – 8pm, 17 July – CenturyLink Field, Seattle
Club América lays claim to being the most successful side in Mexican history, having won a record 12 league titles and five Copa México trophies. Formed in 1916, América plays at Estadio Azteca – home to the comically deep nets of the 1986 World Cup and more than 95,000 fans. Managed by former Mexico coach Ignacio Ambríz, Las Águilas boasts a mix of local and South American talent in a squad that finished second in Torneo Clausura in May. América appointed Ambríz as the season closed when former coach Gustavo Matosas was sacked after just six months in charge.
The game takes place at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, which is home to both the Seattle Seahawks NFL team and the Sounders MLS side. Located in the heart of downtown Seattle, CenturyLink field was completed in 2002 using public money and seats around 67,000 fans in a well-appointed stadium. It is a notoriously rowdy venue during Seahawks matches, where the fans once recorded a ‘roar’ at more than 136.6 decibels. Although the Sounders regularly attract more than 40,000 to MLS games the atmosphere is far more likely to be ‘pre-season sedate’ come 17 July.
United vs San Jose Earthquakes – 8pm, 21 July – Avaya Stadium, San Jose
San Jose was home to an original North American Soccer League team, operating under the Earthquakes moniker from 1974 to 1988. Indeed, George Best played 56 games for the club in ’80/81, scoring 21 goals. NASL closed after the ’84 season, although the club played in the Western Soccer League until ’88 when the outfit finally folded, albeit living on through ownership as the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks.
Despite being resurrected in ’94 as an inaugural MLS team the Earthquakes have failed to make an impression in recent seasons. The club finished last in the Western Conference in 2014 – 18th overall – although the Earthquakes can boast two Supporters Shield titles for the best record in the regular season in 2005 and 2012 and MLS Cup victory in 2001 and 2003.
The game will be played at the Earthquakes’ ‘soccer specific’ Avaya Stadium, which houses just 18,000 fans, and is located on the outskirts of Mineta San José International Airport. The original venue for this tie – the California Memorial Stadium, located on the Berkley campus and home to the University of California Golden Bears ‘football’ team – was apparently changed at Van Gaal’s behest, with the Dutchman loathe to make his players travel 45 miles north through the Bay area’s notorious rush-hour traffic.
United vs Barcelona – 1pm, 25 July – Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara
Barcelona’s La Liga campaign does not start until 15 August so Los Culés might well be a touch under-cooked come matchday against United – not that the European Champions will provide anything but the sternest test. Luis Enrique’s outfit won La Liga, Copa del Rey and the Champions League last season, although the campaign did not pass without drama. In fact Enrique’s continued employment at Camp Nou beyond this summer came under question more than once over the past year.
On the pitch, Lionel Messi may not take part due to the Copa America tournament in Chile this summer, leaving Enrique with a strike duo of Neymar and Luis Suarez. The pair scored ‘just’ the 64 goals last season.
Newly opened Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara is home to the San Francisco 49ers NFL team and holds just under 70,000. It is scheduled to host Super Bowl 50 next February and was built at a cost of more than $1.3 billion. The 49ers atmospheric old venue on Candlestick Bay was closed when the team moved to Levi’s in 2014.
United vs Paris Saint-Germain – 8pm, 29 July – Soldier Field, Chicago
Qatari-owned PSG cantered to the Ligue 1 title last season. It was a third victorious campaign in a row. Mind you, Laurent Blanc’s side secured the trophy by just the eight points last May – a low over that three-year period. Former United defender Blanc remains manager despite Rouge-et-Bleu’s failure to make an impression on the Champions League although – with Financial Fair Play restrictions now lifted – PSG will once again compete at the top table of the European transfer market this summer. Whatever the coming spend Blanc’s squad is replete with talent, including the incomparable Zlatan Ibrahimović, and Ed Woodward’s wet-dream, Edinson Cavani.
The fixture will be played at the 60,000-capacity Soldier Field. The stadium opened in 1924, making it the oldest operational NFL venue, albeit with more than $800 million having been recently spent on renovations in recent years. Soldier Field is home to the Chicago Bears NFL team, but the Chicago Fire MLS outfit moved out in 2005. United lost to Bayern Munich at the venue in summer 2004.
Louis van Gaal has rarely been a man to shirk responsibility. Less than a month into his Manchester United tenure the former Netherlands manager is set to call time on those fringe members of the squad who have failed to impress during the Reds’ successful summer tour. With no European football in the coming season, van Gaal is thought to be happier working with a relatively small squad, meaning that while United could yet add to the club’s playing staff before 1 September, a clutch of players will be told they have no future at Old Trafford.
Speaking ahead the International Champions Cup final against Liverpool on Monday, van Gaal admitted that he will tell affected players shortly after United touch down in Manchester this week. The Dutchman has used 26 players in four matches against Los Angeles Galaxy, Roma, Internazionale and Real Madrid, with a further three World Cup stars given the summer off. Not all of them will survive the summer as United players.
The vibe in van Gaal’s camp is positive after a string of good results on tour, but with the veteran likely to use a senior squad of 22-25 players, augmented by those youngsters not sent out on loan, his squad is already over-stocked. Meanwhile, executive vice chairman Ed Woodward is attempting to tie up deals for a senior midfielder and an experienced central defender, assuming van Gaal retains the 3-4-1-2 system he has deployed on tour.
“I have let all the players play so I know now more than I did before,” said van Gaal on Sunday.
“I shall make judgments after the tour. In football you have to judge. Always you have to give a chance to a player to make a transfer when you see that his perspective is not so high to play. You have to say it in advance. When you say it on 31 August it’s too late. I shall say to the players what I think after the tour.”
The Dutchman is well stocked in goal with David de Gea certain to start United’s opening Premier League fixture against Swansea City on 16 August. Anders Lindegaard remains an able deputy, although the Dane could actively seek a transfer out of the club with first team prospects limited. Sam Johnstone is set to be offered an opportunity to impress on loan at Championship level, but Ben Amos, now 24, has surely played his last game for the club.
However, United remains light in central defence, where Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones will start against the Swans unless the Reds buy in the next fortnight. Elsewhere, 21-year-old Michael Keane may well have done enough to earn a place in United’s first team squad for the coming season, although the youngster was criticised for giving away a penalty against Real Madrid on Saturday night. Tyler Blackett has a United future, although the 20-year-old may well find that he is sent away from Old Trafford on loan in the coming season.
In Luke Shaw and Rafael da Silva United’s new manager boasts two attacking defenders that should prosper at wing-back, although Antonio Valencia has been given a new lease of life under van Gaal on the right. The left side is more troublesome, however, where Ashley Young has twice appeared at wing-back on tour. The feeling remains that the Englishman’s defensive game will be picked apart in more competitive fixtures should Shaw not immediately take to life in the Old Trafford spotlight. Youngster Reece James impressed on tour and could yet be included in van Gaal’s squad as a left-field left wing-back.
Indeed, if United is short of a player at wing-back, then central midfield remains the club’s glaring weak spot. Ander Herrera has done enough on tour to suggest the Basque will become a fine addition to United’s squad, but doubts remain elsewhere. Darren Fletcher has impressed in the box-to-box role that many doubted the Scot could ever regain, although it has been four years since the 30-year-old completed more than 30 games in a season.
Meanwhile, Anderson will be sold, with the Brazilian having failed to impress during seven largely disappointing years at Old Trafford. The fee is likely to be less than £10 million as the player is entering the final 12 months of his United contract. The Reds will also take a fee for Marouane Fellaini if a buyer can be found before the transfer window closes, or farm the Belgian out on loan if a permanent move does not materialise.
However, there is less certainty over Tom Cleverley’s future. While the 24-year-old has regularly featured on tour – even captaining the Reds against Roma – the Englishman’s career has stagnated over the past two years. Michael Carrick will be retained, not least because of the Englishman’s experience, although the former international is unlikely to feature before the autumn sets in.
The future is less rosy for Nani, who is unlikely to feature in van Gaal’s plans at all, not least because the club has long since resolved to sell the errant Portuguese winger. Neither is the former Sporting player an obvious fit for any of the roles in the Dutchman’s new system.
Despite scoring twice against Madrid at the weekend there is little to suggest Young will feature in one of van Gaal’s three forward positions either, leaving the 29-year-old seeking a role at wing-back. Meanwhile, United will sell or loan Wilfried Zaha despite positive noises from the player that he is ready to make an impact at Old Trafford after a £15 million transfer in 2013.
In the number 10 role van Gaal is well served, as the Dutchman pointedly noted last week. Juan Mata has seemingly locked down the position, with Shinji Kagawa a talented deputy, although United’s new manager has mooted the idea of moving the Japanese playmaker into a deeper role. The club could yet take a fee for Kagawa if Borussia Dortmund, Atlético Madrid or any other suitor comes forward with a bid.
Meanwhile, Adnan Januzaj will enjoy a freer role than the touchline hugging winger dictated by David Moyes’ one-dimensional approach. Wayne Rooney could, at a push, drop into the deeper role seen under the Scot , although the Scouser has played in a more conventional forward role during the summer; one that may yet bring more out of a player who flattered and deceived under a Moyes’ fawning leadership.
Elsewhere, Jesse Lingard will be sent out on loan again, with his Old Trafford future in more doubt after the summer than before it, while United will probably accept bids for Nick Powell, who missed the tour through injury.
Up front Rooney and Robin van Persie will seemingly become United’s preferred strike pairing, although the Dutchman misses the season’s opener. In his absence Danny Welbeck will feature more often in a central role than in the past, although Javier Hernández has not yet been shown the Old Trafford door. Welbeck started each of United’s games on tour, with van Gaal seeming impressed by the Mancunian’s rounded game.
Elsewhere, a clutch of youngsters hope for a long-term future at the club even if van Gaal has no immediate first team requirements. Will Keane joined United’s tour party, but can hope for a little more than a loan move before the window closes. Angelo Henriquez will be sold or offered a fresh loan deal, while Tom Lawrence and James Wilson, who made first team debuts under Ryan Giggs at the end of last season, will be sent out on loan as part of their long-term development.
Rant’s verdict: United’s 2014/15 squad
Certain to feature: De Gea, Rafael, Shaw, Smalling, Evans, Jones, Carrick, Fletcher, Valencia, Herrera, Rooney, Welbeck, van Persie
Under scrutiny: Lindegaard, M Keane, James, Cleverley, Young, Kagawa, Hernández
Out-the-door: Amos, Nani, Anderson, Fellaini, Zaha
Loaned out: Johnstone, Blackett, Lawrence, Lingard, Henriquez, Wilson, W Keane
Required signings: wing-back, central defender, central midfielder
It is, to paraphrase John Cleese, not despair, but hope that is so hard to take. Common idiom, perhaps, but one that has become more relevant to Manchester United supporters over the past 12 months. After all, there were plenty of false dawns in David Moyes’ calamitous Old Trafford reign before despair set in; many supporters even believed that the Scot was prematurely sacked last April. Hope to the last. Yet, over the course of Sir Alex Ferguson’s 27 years in Manchester, there were so few moments of real despair. Quite the contrary – in the fog of myriad glory there were rarely times when United supporters even required hope. Expectation more like.
Louis van Gaal’s first few weeks have reset the clock. Not on expectation – not just yet – but there is certainly renewed hope. Indeed, the sense of anticipation is growing by the game after a series of impressive pre-season results. Just four games into United’s preparations for the new campaign, van Gaal’s side has built a multi-faceted argument that the coming months will be positive: attractive football, genuine progress and potentially even trophies.
Tuesday’s penalty shoot-out victory over Internazionale served to reinforce the positive vibe in van Gaal’s camp built through wins over LA Galaxy and Roma. United’s 3-1 triumph against Real Madrid on Saturday, in front of more than 109,000 fans in Ann Arbor, has supporters believing that a return to pre-eminence is now possible under the new regime.
Genuine expectation can wait though. After all, Real manager Carlo Ancelotti did not introduce Cristiano Ronaldo until the 75th minute, while Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez are yet to start pre-season training. Los Merengues are also a week behind United in preparation for the new season. Yet, little will take away from another vibrant United performance, with Ashley Young scoring twice in a compelling victory over the European Champions.
“It’s a very good result for us and it gives confidence to all the players,” said van Gaal in the aftermath.
“The game was not a friendly; I had the feeling that Real didn’t want to lose, which is why he (Ancelotti) started with Ronaldo a little bit earlier than he had said before. We deserved to win. We are in the right way and we’re missing players like Fellaini, Januzaj and van Persie. You cannot say: ‘OK, so we’ll beat every team,’ but of course it’s a very good result for us and it gives confidence to all the players.”
van Persie will not return before the season begins, with the Dutchman taking a van Gaal-enforced summer break. In the striker’s absence Wayne Rooney continues to impress in pre-season, leading the line in a flexible 3-4-1-2 system that has the Reds playing more attractive football than at any point under Moyes’ stewardship. To underline the progress, van Gaal’s side took the lead on Saturday after a slick 20-pass move involving Danny Welbeck, Darren Fletcher and Rooney, before Young side-footed home the opener.
Saturday’s victory also bore witness further to the Dutchman’s first choice side. Of the touring party only Chris Smalling, Rafael da Silva and Luke Shaw missed out, with youngster Michael Keane starting at centre-back. Phil Jones and Jonny Evans will complete what is van Gaal’s likely first choice back-three alongside Smalling. Young and Antonio Valencia started at wing-back on Saturday, with Shaw and Rafael set to challenge for wide roles in the coming season.
Meanwhile, Fletcher again impressed partnering new acquisition Ander Herrera in centre midfield – an area where United’s squad is still painfully thin. Marouane Fellaini is taking a post World Cup break, although the Belgian could yet be sold this summer, while Anderson will leave when a suitable buyer is found. Unless van Gaal spends in the coming month Michael Carrick will remain key to United’s hopes next season, albeit with the Englishman set to miss at least two months of the new campaign.
Up front Rooney and Welbeck has seemingly become van Gaal’s preferred strike pair, with Javier Hernández making a goalscoring substitute appearance in Michigan. The bench may well be a regular home for Chicharito should he remain at Old Trafford beyond August. Finally, Juan Mata has locked down the ‘number 10’ role – probably the only one that can justify the Spaniard’s £37 million acquisition. Shinji Kagawa, for the moment, will have to play second fiddle.
United’s progress as a team is clear, despite van Gaal’s limited time with the club. Yet, pre-season has also underlined the progress of individuals, especially in defensive areas where United has undergone a profound restructuring. Injury and new acquisitions excepted, Evans is likely to become United’s first-choice central defender in the coming season, with Jones, Smalling, Keane and Tyler Blackett complementing the back line.
Meanwhile, Young has delivered eye-catching performances despite two seasons of social media-baiting mediocrity. The Englishman has even impressed as an emergency wing-back this summer – a role that surely only van Gaal foresaw for errant former Aston Villa player. Even Rooney, restored to a more traditional striking role under van Gaal, appears closer to the player he once was. Should Fellaini impress on his return then the Dutchman will have completed a water to wine, bread and fishes triumvirate of miracles at Old Trafford.
Still, it is United’s back-three that now forms the bedrock of the Reds challenge for Champions League qualification next season – a back-line that has already impressed a notoriously meticulous manager.
“It’s not a new system for Mata, Rooney or Welbeck, who play in their position, neither is it a new system for the two midfielders. The greatest impact with this new system is on the back line,” said van Gaal.
“It’s amazing we had one chance against us in the first half, and two in the second. It’s amazing that they have picked up a new system like that.”
Indeed, after so little time there is an instinctive belief that van Gaal is not only the right man for United, but one who has arrived at just the right time. The Dutchman’s uncanny ability to build teams that are consistently greater the sum of – sometimes – average parts has been a feature of more than 20 years at the top of European football. It is a trait that will be placed under real scrutiny in Manchester, where he inherits an unbalanced squad that is still short in central midfield and wide areas – and of an experienced central defender.
Yet, there also remains a growing belief that United’s short-term destiny is not solely a fight with Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur for fourth place in the Premier League. Without European football van Gaal may be able to work with a tighter group, and deploy strong selections in the major cup competitions. It’s an observation that will lead many supporters to thoughts of silverware in the coming season.
The Premier League title may remain a stretch goal given Manchester City’s squad depth and Chelsea’s spending, yet van Gaal is already exceeding expectations. The coming 12 months will not be a repeat of last year’s humiliation; it may even bring unexpected glory.
Now there’s hope for you.
There has been no word on David Moyes’ fabled iPad bunker. You know the one – the Scot’s replica of Everton’s Finch Farm transfer headquarters: whiteboard lists of targets and touchscreen analytics married effortlessly to interactive profiles on players from Aberdeen to Zenit St Petersburg. It was, we were told, the modernisation of United’s archaic recruitment process; one that had fallen behind under a system previously dominated by Sir Alex Ferguson’s old school contacts book.
Supporters were always skeptical of the claim. Not that Ludditism is prevalent on Old Trafford’s terraces, nor progress without merit, but simply because of the gusto with which executive vice chairman Ed Woodward set to spinning the change. Tablets and interactive profiles; PowerPoint tactics and ProZone analytics – all sound logic until it spews out Marouane Fellaini and 82 crosses. The computer really should have said no.
One suspects, although time will of course tell, that Louis van Gaal wouldn’t know an iPad from his elbow. Nor will the Dutchman feel the need to complete one of Woodward’s extensive ‘acquisition justification’ reports before blowing the best part of £30 million on a new player. There is smart scouting and then, at the risk of stating the obvious, there is common sense.
Yet, van Gaal is prepared to make progressive change. Woodward, for example, was more than happy to tell journalists on United’s summer tour in Los Angeles that the club will spend upwards of £3 million installing floodlights at Carrington alongside Desso synthetic-hybrid grass. The changes will enable United’s squad to train late into the winter evenings – and to do so on grass that is not unlike Old Trafford’s.
Still basking in the glory of the Dutchman’s appointment, Woodward is proffered significant slack for spin. For now. Not least because the former banker has at least delivered two high-profile players this summer, although this is a narrative that could turn before the window is out.
On the training field van Gaal’s impact has been felt immediately, where players not only enjoy the veteran’s intensive sessions, but all the more for the high proportion of ball work. That is always a favourite – and much in contrast to Moyes’ love of punishing long runs. After all, the Scotsman’s view on progress was seemingly confined to the office. On the pitch United’s tactical make-up too often mirrored the outdated training methods employed at Carrington.
Indeed, pre-season 2014/15 could hardly be more different than 12 months ago, with van Gaal at ease in the company of media scrutiny and comfortable with his extensive power. Nor is the Dutchman bothered by the commercial commitments foisted on his squad. van Gaal has even been pleasant – humorous some might say – with the embedded fourth estate. Moyes, by contrast, flitted from fear to the loathing of a man trapped inside his own anxiety, and playing out his deconstruction in the most public arena.
In other words, the former Netherlands coach is everything Moyes was not; a United manager in spirit not only name.
Yet, these are essentially ancillary concerns, albeit ones that will play a significant role in United’s success. The real tests are to come. After all, van Gaal is yet to lead his side into pre-season conflict, let alone the intensity of Premier League action.
On the pitch United’s opening game against David Beckham’s former club, Los Angeles Galaxy, takes place at the 92,000-capacity Rose Bowl in the early hours of Thursday morning. Player fitness and a bumper crowd aside, the real quarry will be in a first glimpse of van Gaal’s tactical outlook, albeit with a side that will not include Robin van Persie.
It promises to be an entertaining month, with a far more positive outlook than United’s legion support has become used to over the past year. Indeed, supporters can forget, for the moment, Netherlands’ pragmatic approach the World Cup. van Gaal has always been a manager with a philosophy; one based on the “most important thing” of “ball circulation” in which the “team that creates the quickest football is the best.”
This is, after all, a philosophy that chimes squarely with the ‘United way’. Glib observation perhaps, but one in which Moyes never fully found comfort.
Certainly, Wayne Rooney was quick to recognise the change in United’s LA camp, admitting that he must “train well and listen” if he wants to play a significant role under van Gaal. What a difference a year makes from the sycophantic pandering that enveloped the Englishman under Moyes.
“We all have to go out there and show what we can do and show every day in training what different qualities we have as players and a team. Everyone wants to impress a new manager and that’s what we’re aiming to do,” added the 28-year-old.
Still, there is much work to do. The Dutchman is yet to stamp his authority on United’s transfer business for a start, although that will surely come. van Gaal has already started work on trimming United’s ample fat. The former Barcelona coach signed off on Patrice Evra’s £2 million departure to Juventus this week, while he made no effort to retain Rio Ferdinand’s services, nor those of Alexander Bütner. Bébé will join Benfica, while the club will take almost any fee for the errant Anderson.
There are at least half-a-dozen other United players that will sleep uneasily on the club’s tour of LA, Ann Arbor, Denver and Washington. van Gaal may not yet feel emboldened enough to jettison Tom Cleverley, Ashley Young, Nani and Fellaini, but there is good argument to move on from each.
Incoming transfers will garner more headlines still. United is short an experienced central defender, energetic box-to-box midfielder, and high quality winger. These are faults on which Woodward will be judged if United remain short come September.
Then there is the upcoming debate over which player captains the side: van Persie, Rooney or a compromise candidate, the injured Michael Carrick, perhaps? Small fry in the big picture, but a decision that will generate controversy and perhaps even resentment. One suspects van Gaal cares little for either, and nothing for slaughtering previously sacred cows.
In the meantime the Dutchman is unlikely to be carrying a PowerPoint print out into the Rose Bowl on Thursday, let alone an iPad. Modern methods can abound elsewhere. The Dutchman is comfortable with an approach that has worked more often than not.
Louis van Gaal’s 25-man Manchester United squad set flight for California on Friday ahead of a three-week pre-season tour of the United States – a regular summer fixture with so many stateside with sponsors to please. Games follow against LA Galaxy, AS Roma, Internazionale and Real Madrid before the Reds return home for the Premier League kick off in August.
It is a summer tour of marked contrast to the 2013 variant in Asia-Pac. High quality opposition, a van Gaal-led training camp, and some fresh faces to boot – there are many grounds on which to feel optimistic that the coming weeks will set United fair for the season ahead. Not least because whatever faults remain in United’s squad – and there are many still as yet uncorrected – none will be exacerbated by David Moyes.
Where Moyes was star-struck on United’s pre-season tour in 2013, van Gaal waltzed into Old Trafford on Thursday every bit a United manager. Arrogance, confidence, an unbreakable worldview – call it what you want – but Reds man, woman and child, know a United manager when they see one. Whisper it quietly, but there is just a touch of Sir Alex Ferguson in United’s new Dutchman.
There will be plenty of analysis of the former Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager to come. For now he has just shy of a month to get his squad into shape for the season ahead – and just two further weeks to seal any additions to a squad that is short an experienced central defender, high-quality box-to-box midfielder and goal-scoring winger.
van Gaal is taking a strong squad to the States, with the English World Cup contingent all making the trip west. Robin van Persie, Marouane Fellaini, and Adnan Januzaj have been given a post World Cup break, while Javier Hernández joins part way though.
New signings Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera are also in van Gaal’s travelling party, while youngsters Tyler Blackett, Michael Keane, Reece James and Will Keane travel. James Wilson, who scored on début towards the end of last season, will be disappointed to have been left at home.
van Gaal’s side is competing in the eight team ‘International Champions Cup’, with the participants divided in two groups of four, and the group winners set to meet at the Sun Life Stadium in Miami on 4 August.
Tour squad: De Gea, Lindegaard, Amos, Johnstone, Rafael, Evans, Smalling, Jones, Shaw, Blackett, M Keane, James, Herrera, Cleverley, Fletcher, Young, Zaha, Kagawa, Mata, Valencia, Nani, Lingard, Welbeck, Rooney, W Keane.
Manchester United v LA Galaxy – Rose Bowl, Pasadena – 24 July, 4.06 am
Beckham’s former club has enjoyed a mixed start to the MLS campaign, although is now unbeaten in seven games – the prelude, perhaps, to a strong second half of the season. Third in the Western Conference, behind runaway leaders Seattle Sounders, Bruce Arena’s side is still in the hunt for a ninth MLS title overall. The side contains some familiar names in Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan and Robbie Rogers, although Omar Gonzalez alone made the US national squad that reached the World Cup round of 16 in Brazil.
Usually based at the 30,00 capacity StubHub Center in Carson, the fixture against United will be played at the 92,000 Rose Bowl, below, 25 miles away in Pasadena. The Rose Bowl is home to the UCLA American Football team, but also staged the 1994 World Cup final, where Roberto Bagio missed a crucial penalty in the shoot-out to hand Brazil the trophy. In 1984 more than 101,000 people saw the France beat Brazil 2-0 in the Olympic Gold Medal match.
United will hold an open training session at the venue on Tuesday, July 22 at 7pm local time.
Manchester United v AS Roma – Sports Authority Field, Denver – 26 July, 9.06pm
Roma finished second to Juventus in the 2013/14 Serie A season, although some 17 points adrift. Former Lille manager Rudi García was a surprise choice for the Head Coach role when appointed in June 2013, but won over many doubters as the Giallorossi stormed to 10 Serie A victories in a row at the start of the campaign. Roma failed to maintain that form, but secured Champions League football with some comfort. Mehdi Benatia, Miralem Pjanic, Daniele De Rossi and Kevin Strootman are familiar names, while former England left-back Ashley Cole joined during earlier this month.
The match will be played at the 76,000-capacity Sports Authority Field at Mile High – home to NFL team Denver Broncos. Opened in September 2001, the new venue was built adjacent to the original ‘Mile High Stadium’, with many fans – and even the Denver Post – refusing to name the stadium after the original sponsors Invesco. ‘Against Modern Football’ – whatever kind of football that might be.
United will also hold open training in Denver, with the session at Sport Authority Field on Friday, 25 July.
Manchester United v Inter Milan – FedEx Field, Washington DC – 30 July, 12.30am
It was a disastrous season for the Milan clubs in 2013/14, although Inter at least qualified for the Europa League by finishing fifth in Serie A. Nerazzurri coach Walter Mazzarri kept his job despite the disappointing campaign, although the expectation is that he leads Inter back into the Champions League in the coming months. Former United defender Nemanja Vidić joined in June, alongside Frenchman Yann M’Vila, although it has been a low-key window to date. Rodrigo Palacio, Hernanes, and Fredy Guarín all featured in the World Cup.
FedEx Field played host to United in 2011, with the Reds beating Barcelona 2-1 in front of 81,807 fans. Usually home to NFL’s Washington Redskins, the stadium can hold more than 85,000 fans, although it is not universally popular with supporters – not least because the stadium is 15 miles from downtown Washington.
Manchester United v Real Madrid – Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor – 2 August, 9.06pm
Los Merengues failed to capture La Liga in 2013/14 after coming in third behind champions Atlético Madrid and rivals Barcelona. While the league performance hurt, Carlo Ancelotti kept his job after Real captured the Champions League for a record 10th time. Many of the Real squad went to the World Cup, although few will be welcomed ‘home’ with as much excitement as world champion Toni Kroos. The German joined Real last week for around £20 million – surely the bargain of the summer.
United’s final game of the summer tour – save for a potential final in Miami – will take place at ‘The Big House’, Ann Arbor’s Michigan Stadium. The 109,000 capacity venue is usually host to the University of Michigan American Football team, the Wolverines, and is the largest stadium in the United States – the third largest non-racing stadium in the world.
Manchester United v Valencia CF – Old Trafford – 12 August, 7.30pm
United completes pre-season against Valencia at Old Trafford. Los Che arrives in Manchester with a new manager in Nuno Espirito Santo after a period of turmoil at Valencia. Years of financial trouble, necessitating repeated sales of leading players in order to balance the books, may be over with Peter Lim taking control in May. The Singaporean bought up more than 70 per cent of Valencia from the club’s foundation – a move that fans hope brings a period of stability and, after a long wait, a new stadium too.
* all times BST
Sir Alex Ferguson has once again challenged his players to match Barcelona, with Manchester United facing the European champions in Washington on Saturday night. Just 63 days after the humiliating defeat by the Catalans at Wembley the question, with six senior players having left the club and no new central midfielder on the horizon, is how?
This, of course, is no trivial matter. The destruction by Pep Guardiola’s side in London was so comprehensive that Michael Carrick’s head is probably still spinning. While Barça is so good that few successfully compete, United’s total capitulation in midfield on 28 May served only to highlight the glaring weakness in Ferguson’s squad.
That Ferguson can no longer call on Paul Scholes, Owen Hargreaves nor – in all likelihood – Darron Gibson in the coming season has also reduced the Scot’s options in midfield. The quality hardly ran deep to start.
In the aftermath of Wembley defeat Ferguson challenged his players to reach Barça’s level; it’s a theme that United’s 69-year-old coach returned to ahead of Saturday’s game in the Capital.
“In everyone’s mind they are the best team, currently, in the world,” admitted Ferguson, without hint of irony.
“I’m quite happy to be in second place at this moment in time because that’s our challenge. Our challenge will be to get to that level.”
Yet, Ferguson’s summer activity to date has largely been aimed at maintaining the status quo. Long-term evolution rather than a quantum leap in quality has been the theme. Hardly a portent to challenge Barcelona as Europe’s finest in the coming campaign. In any case, many observers feel that United over-achieved on the continent last season.
David de Gea will replace Edwin van der Sar in the medium term, although Ferguson has offered Anders Lindegard the chance to impress during the pre-season US tour. Whichever way the goalkeeping decision goes it is certainly not yet an upgrade.
Meanwhile, room for Phil Jones has been made by the transfer of Wes Brown and John O’Shea to Sunderland. Jones is flexible and talented but completely inexperienced at European leave. Then there is Ashley Young, who will at least offer a versatile alternative to the failed experiment with Gabriel Obertan and Bébé, although few count the former Aston Villa winger in Barça’s class.
There is little doubt Ferguson recognises the problem at the heart of his midfield though. This despite protestations to the contrary in recent days. After all, why else would he instruct chief executive to pursue the aforementioned midfield trio this summer? Yet, David Gill insists deals for Sneijder, Modric and Nasri are now “dead.” United seemingly lack the financial muscle to force Inter’s hand over the Dutchman, Nasri will probably join Manchester City next summer, and Tottenham Hotspur remains intransigent over Modric, who has expressed a desire to join Chelsea in any case.
“We didn’t progress that one [Sneijder]. I’m not doing anything on anything at the moment, so they are all dead,” said Gill on Friday.
“The important point is that you never know. I’ve been around in football long enough to know things change quickly. Somebody may become available and we can then say we are interested.
“We have been clear all along. There is money in the bank. Some people have not believed us but if a player is required to improve the squad and challenge for top honours, the money is there. That is still the case. We are not afraid to spend big money on players of a certain age.”
Whether Gill’s comments are yet another in a long-line of spin from the executive will only be confirmed on 31 August. Yet, Gill’s key line – “of a certain age” – might well be confirmation that United’s transfer policy of buying young with a view to re-sale value is still in place. Informally United will not spend large fees on players over 26.
With Sneijder now 27, a total financial commitment of more than £80 million required to prize the Dutchman away from Inter and pay the midfielder’s wages, and little re-sale possible, it is inconceivable that United will deal unless Blaunegra substantially reduces its financial requirements to nearer £20 million than £35 million.
The impasse leaves the Reds to look for an alternative or – far more likely – Gill may Ferguson to begin the season with Anderson, Carrick, Ryan Giggs and Darren Fletcher as the senior central midfielders at the club. Each has their significant limitations.
This is to say nothing of the club’s desperate need for a defensive midfielder with Hargreaves now cast into football’s wilderness.
What then of the stated goal to match Barcelona? Based on a hope and a prayer, critics might add. Perhaps Anderson ‘will come good’ after four years of inconsistency. Maybe, Fletcher will regain confidence after a debilitating illness. Potentially Carrick will step up a level despite history telling us otherwise. Hope, as a wise observer once noted, is no kind of strategy.
That Barça can boast such riches in attack and yet add both the outstanding Alexis Sanches and in all probability Cesc Fabregas too has if anything taken Guardiola’s side further away from United this summer.
United may well emerge victorious as FedEx Field tonight. Ferguson side is, after all, three weeks ahead of its opponents in pre-season preparation, with Barça not beginning the La Liga campaign until late August. Without central midfield reinforcements few will expect a repeat come the Champions League final next May.
After four wins in a row on Manchester United’s tour of the United States Sir Alex Ferguson’s team is apparently in good shape ahead of the new season. Light at least one midfielder for sure but, with the Community Shield match against Manchester City just 10 days away, the focus is quickly turning away from the summer transfer market and to, heaven forbid, actual competitive football.
Indeed, the Community Shield may take on added significance this season and not solely because United’s ‘noisy’ rivals offer the competition at Wembley. But with matches against all the club’s title rivals within the first 10 Premier League games, Ferguson’s side cannot afford the kind of slow start suffered last season.
Ferguson puts United’s that start, in which the Scot’s side did not win away from home until October and suffered a succession of draws, down to poor preparation in pre-season. It’s a mistake that the United manager intends to correct before the Premier League starts, for United at least, with a fixture against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthornes on 14 August.
Yet with four easy victories against Championship-level MLS opponents behind United on this tour there is significant danger in Ferguson’s stars being undercooked for the season opener. Plenty of the Scot’s squad are yet to play a full 90 minutes on tour, while Antonio Valencia and Javier Hernandez have not appeared at all.
The Scot will surely be grateful for tougher opponents in coming games; first against Barcelona in Washington in two days time, then to the Community Shield fixture with City. In between Paul Scholes’ testimonial against a scratch XI under the New York Cosmos banner takes place at Old Trafford.
“Last year, I mucked up by giving the players too many half games in pre-season and not enough 90 minutes,” admitted Ferguson this week.
“I will address that this year because when we played Fulham and Everton early last season we were well short, fitness wise. Anyone can win the league – ourselves, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal or Chelsea. But when I look at it, our biggest challenge is ourselves.”
The challenge certainly hasn’t been the standard of opposition on tour. The four goal victory over a David Beckham-led MLS All Star team in the early hours of Thursday morning brought United’s goal tally to 18 in four games. As in matches against New England Patriots, Seattle Sounders and Chicago Fire, the MLS All Stars’ depth was somewhat threadbare once the rash of second-half substitutions began.
At the tight Red Bull Arena in Franklin New Jersey – one of the few MLS stadiums built especially for football – Ferguson also made significant changes, with nine substitutes entering the field after half-time. The pattern had been similar in previous tour matches. Ferguson, it seems, has largely failed to heed his own words.
Yet Ferguson will be pleased with the performances of Dimitar Berbatov and Anderson who each scored in New Jersey, along with Danny Welbeck and Park Ji-Sung. The Bulgarian may well have a significant role during early season games, with Hernandez lacking match fitness and restricted to training alone for the next fortnight after suffering a mild concussion in warm-up on Wednesday.
Ferguson also singled-out new signing Phil Jones for praise, with the 19-year-old former Blackburn Rovers defender starting the game in an unfamiliar right-back role before reverting to the centre on the hour.
Despite the wholesale changes Ferguson declared himself happy with his squad’s improving fitness, with the Scot likely to deploy a similar strategy against Barcelona on Saturday.
“The fitness is improving all the time, the games help with that, of course,” added Ferguson.
“We’ve had some good training sessions as well and we’ve tried to get tempo into our game and some rhythm. It’s also important all the players are given as much game time as possible. Tonight was the first time we gave the starters a good hour’s work. Saturday will be similar – the first XI that play will get an hour before we change it.”
So to the re-match with Barcelona, just two months after the humiliating defeat against the Catalans at Wembley in May. The 82,000 capacity FedEx Field, Washington, DC will host United’s last tour match before Ferguson’s squad heads home and, with the Spaniards earlier into pre-season than United, a chance for a modicum of revenge.
“It is only pre-season,” added Ferguson. “I just want the players to go out and enjoy it.”
The Catalan giants will be without Lionel Messi, who is still recovering from his exertions at the Copa America with Argentina. But the passing carousel of Andreas Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets are likely to play. That thought alone is likely to bring Michael Carrick out in a cold sweat.
There is, after all, nothing quite like chasing the ball for 90 minutes to increase sub-standard fitness levels.