This summer has been a rare beast, with United’s senior squad untouched by late arrivals from senior international tournaments. For Jose Mourinho, who places great importance on pre-season work with his players, the situation is ideal. On top of player availability he has been able to choose his own tour destination and even poked Real Madrid in the eye by snaffling the best facilities at UCLA before the friendly match between the two. Conditions are near perfect for the Portuguese, whose only complaint can be that he as yet only has two of his requested four summer signings at the time of writing.
Soon, however, that may become three with United and Inter playing a game of dare as to whether the winger Ivan Perisic travels to China for Internazionale’s tour or diverts to the US. The Croat has had a tricky week, being forced to take part in a team photo for his current team but not having the will to even try to pretend that he wanted to be there. Cruel fate struck him over the weekend as a dental problem saw him travel home to Croatia for treatment from his own dentist, because so backward is the rest of Europe that oral care is beyond us. Or something. More likely Inter just wanted the mardy sod off the plot. Today (Tuesday) could be key for a transfer which has divided opinion. Some fans question the logic of paying a large fee for a player who will turn 29 early in the season and who is not a world class talent. Others, however, note that United lack a genuine winger capable of beating a man and accurately crossing, both traits Perisic undoubtedly has, and that goals and assists from a wide-man would go a long way to ending the goalscoring woes of last season. This writer has come to prefer the latter viewpoint, but notes that those unsure about the transfer have been molested by the Twitter fan police for daring to have a thought process not perfectly aligned with those of our Dear Leader. Social media, it appears, is no closer to understanding the concept of an ‘opinion’. Look it up in the dictionary. anti-independent-thought types.
The break from football over the summer was needed by the players, fans and manager after a long and stressful season. Mourinho admitted in May that he was sick of football by the final weeks of the season, the poor mite. However, time and commercial activities thousands of miles from home wait for no man, so in the blink of an eye, United starting playing actual football matches again. Romelu Lukaku was signed in time for training with his new teammates in LA and then a 45 minute debut in the 5-2 win over Galaxy. The Belgian played well as the manager experimented with a 3-5-2 system which allowed him to field two strikers, but missed a golden opportunity to open his account in red. A failure to score on debut prompted the more simple amongst rival fans to draw comparison online with Alexandre Lacazette and Wayne Rooney, who both netted on debut against pub sides from Australia and Tanzania. Tanzania, ffs. Cretins. It’s apparent already that Lukaku will be receiving what is henceforth known as the ‘Pogba treatment’, whereby the entire world will attempt to prove he is shit/overrated/overpriced every time he steps on a football field, a million memes stemming from a single shot wide or misplaced pass. Y’know, putting a video on the internet doesn’t retrospectively make a performance worse than it actually was.
The LA Galaxy match demonstrated why Mourinho is toying with the idea of fielding two strikers in some games. Anthony Martial also performed well, scoring one, and Marcus Rashford netted two excellently taken goals. His manager suggested post-match that the latter had grown three inches in 18 months and his muscular frame and bulging biceps point to a summer spent on the weights. In light of rumours that Zlatan is angling for a new contract when he’s recovers from injury the experimentation with a dual strike-force is understandable. Neither Rashford nor Martial excelled on the left wing last season, which would explain the interest in Perisic, who can play comfortably either as an orthodox wideman or wing back. The Croat’s versatility would also allow Mourinho to use him as a second striker, giving him options to fill the void left by Wayne Rooney’s departure. If Jose gets the players he wants this summer the balance of the team should be much better.
Speaking of Wayne Rooney, the now Everton player this week had some choice words about his former club:
“There are standards that you have to keep when you are at Manchester United….. Over the last few years it was down to me and Michael Carrick to keep the new players maintaining those standards. That became more difficult over the last few years, with some of the players who joined the club. There are traditions at United that have to be maintained. It’s become harder, but that’s not my problem anymore.”
It was a claim that riled some United fans. Few would argue that his wider point is not absolutely correct. Standards have slipped at the club, particularly in terms of the quality of players in the squad. That is indisputable. What grated with many is the implication that Rooney was not a part of that decline and that he and Michael Carrick were the only ones trying to hold it all together. It ignores the player’s own steep disintegration over the same period, from a world class talent to a rarely used back up. His body has no doubt taken a beating from a decade and a half of top class football, but it’s condition has not been aided by Rooney’s lifestyle choices. The player’s decline has been sharper than that of his team and one wonders what example it set to others at the club, particularly the younger squad members, when their captain was getting wasted on international duty. The great irony in Rooney’s comments is that it is the return to higher standards and expectations under Mourinho that saw him dropped and ultimately move on. To imply that only he and Carrick were fighting the dying of the light is disingenuous in the extreme. He is a club legend, but a little self-awareness wouldn’t hurt.
Moving on, United last night played their second game of pre-season against Real Salt Lake, a more disjointed performance than the tour opener in California, but a 2-1 victory nonetheless. It will be remembered only for the match’s third goal, Lukaku’s first at his new club, cleverly sidestepping the keeper when played through and firing past a defender on the line. It should be the first of many. Some fans and commentators argue that pre-season results and performances do not matter a great deal, but wins breed confidence, regardless of the opponent. On the flip side, the drop in standards under David Moyes was obvious during a disastrous pre-season in Asia and last summer’s handful of games pointed to the new manager having a big job on his hands, a reality which was borne out by the inconsistency of the opening months of the season. With the quality of opposition now increasing rapidly it will be interesting to see how well the squad are adapting to the demands being made of them. In particular, it will be good to get a look at Victor Lindelof against high-class forwards. The Swede is something of a mystery to many fans, this writer included, but Mourinho has always had an excellent eye for a defender and if he has 75% of the talents of last year’s unknown quantity, Eric Bailly, then United will take some breaking down next season and for years to come.
United have enjoyed a sedate start to pre-season. Next up is City, by which time Ivan Perisic may finally be a Red – or in China playing in black and blue, and the first big test in a comprehensive schedule of games before the Premier League kicks off in August. Jose Mourinho has micro-managed this tour, from location to duration, and if the players he wants arrive he and his team will be expected to challenge. This writer is cautiously optimistic about his chances of fully restoring the high standards about which Wayne Rooney spoke and which ultimately cost him another few years at United.
To finish, this week Red Voices reached its second birthday. We love what we do and thank each and every listener downloading the pod. We’re happy that so many of you enjoy what we produce and we’ll keep striving to to make it even better. Your support is massively appreciated.