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.