[dropcap]J[/dropcap]osé 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.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]In each match Mourinho garnered a little new knowledge about his new signings, while underlining some of the holes in his squad.[/blockquote]
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.
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.
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.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Fellaini is a ‘special teams’ player, useful when launching it, but nowhere else. That point was underlined by his second half appearance against Barcelona.[/blockquote]
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.
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.”
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.