Little more than five weeks after Manchester United’s crushing defeat in the Champions League final and Sir Alex Ferguson’s players returned to pre-season training on Monday. Ferguson’s squad reports back to Carrington for seven days fitness assessment and intensive training ahead of the club’s summer tour to America that will take in Boston, Seattle, Chicago, New York and Washington.
Returnees include most of Ferguson’s squad, including new signing Ashley Young, although Javier Hernández will be given an extended break following his Gold Cup exploits and Antonio Valencia is away with Ecuador at the Copa America in Argentina. David de Gea, Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley and Chris Smalling have been given additional time off following the European Under-21 championships this summer but should all make United’s American trip at some stage.
Ferguson’s players set off for the States on 11 July, spending three weeks criss-crossing the continent, playing games against New England Revolution, Seattle Sounders, Chigcao Fire, a repeat of last summer’s fixture with MLS All-Stars, before concluding the tour with a game against European Champions Barcelona in Washington.
But the tour is, as always, part preparation and part commercial operation. Ferguson’s players will spend a week of intensive training at Nike’s headquarters in Portland, Oregon where Wayne Rooney was exciled last autumn, while the Scot’s squad will also rack up more than 8,000 miles in North America alone and have a rash of commercial commitments. Old Trafford’s bean counters can expect the tour to generate significant revenues for the club: around £5 million was pulled in from last summer’s games in Canada, US and Mexico.
Ferguson returns to Carrington with much having changed at the club in the weeks since the chastening loss to Barcelona at Wembley. In the wake of defeat Ferguson promised that United will “rise to the challenge”. It is no easy task following a second humiliating loss to Pep Guardiola’s side in the past three years.
Indeed, the challenge of closing the gap to Barça is made more difficult with a rash of retirements this summer; Edwin van der Sar, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville have called it a day since this time last year, while Owen Hargreaves has left the club with no known destination.
The turnover of playing staff is likely to increase with Darron Gibson, Wes Brown and John O’Shea certain to leave the club, while Bébé has joined Besiktas on loan. Gabriel Obertan and several members of United’s reserves look set to move on before the window closes in August.
Change will be felt in the backroom too, with Scholes joining Ferguson’s coaching staff, although no role has been defined yet for the 36-year-old former midfielder. Ferguson would also like van der Sar to remain with the club in more than an ambassadorial role, although the great Dutchman is committed to spending more time with his family.
The club’s reaction to the outflow has been to spend more heavily than has become the norm under the Glazer family’s regime. de Gea’s acquisition was widely expected as van der Sar’s replacement, while Jones offers additional defensive cover with Brown and O’Shea off to pastures new. Young will bring a new attacking option to an area that has been hit by injuries to Park Ji-Sung and Valencia in the past season. The former Aston Villa player will is unlikely to bridge to gap to Barcelona but will certainly be deployed more often than Gabriel Obertan or Bébé have in the past year.
Yet, the marquee central midfield signing that most supporters crave is has not materialised this summer, although Ferguson’s pursuit of Arsenal’s Samir Nasri is real. It had better be; neither Luka Modric nor Wesley Sneijder is likely to join the club unless United ups to bidding to unprecedented levels. Moreover, should either Manchester City or Chelsea pursue early interest in the 25-year-old French midfielder then United is also unlikely to start a bidding war for Nasri.
Pre-season also begins with doubts remaining about senior members of Ferguson’s squad, most notably Nani and Dimitar Berbatov. While the Portuguese has publicly declared his desire to remain at Old Trafford, Ferguson’s failed pursuit of Alexis Sanchez begs the question of how much faith the Scot still holds in Nani. The feeling may well be reciprocal with Jorge Mendes letting it be known to Nani’s many suitors that the winger is open to a move.
Meanwhile, Berbatov is reportedly of interest to a host of European clubs, including newly enriched Paris Saint Germain, Valencia and Juventus. The striker, who is out of contract next summer, will be allowed to leave for around half the £30 million fee United paid three years ago. The Bulgarian’s new-found role as 30-year-old part-time squad member may tip the balance in favour of a move.
It has been a busy 36 days. With 58 to go before the transfer window shuts there is likely to be more drama yet.