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.