After what has been an encouraging, at times outstanding, preseason tour Manchester United will return to Old Trafford with a sense of confidence not experienced for the best part of a year.
The 3-1 victory against Liverpool last night was certainly not the team’s finest performance of the US tour. But considering that this time last year United limped to the end of a Far Eastern tour with a draw and a defeat, the win over the bitterest of rivals was a satisfying prelude to a season full of promise.
There are, however, a few issues for Louis van Gaal to mull over. The Dutchman may have said on Saturday that “we are winning… maybe we don’t need other players” but he changed tack before the Liverpool game, refusing to talk about potential signings for fear of driving up the price.
What last night’s game demonstrated is that United’s three-man defence of Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling needs re-enforcements. One friendly is not enough to dismiss a player – especially when they have performed admirably for much of the tour – but van Gaal would have been alarmed at how nervous Smalling in particular performed when terrorised by Raheem Sterling.
Jones also appeared uncharacteristically jumpy, his clumsy challenge bringing down Sterling early on for a penalty even if contact was minimal. The sense of hesitancy continued when Evans put Smalling under unnecessary pressure with a 3-yard pass and United were unfortunate not to concede further.
The pursuit of Matt Hummels may now gather pace. But with the defender’s father recently describing talk of a move as “nonsense” and Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp determined to hold onto the player it will be a hard chase.
In the end the defensive errors didn’t matter, because the misplaced passes and disjointedness of the first half eventually made way for some more well-worked goals and young Jesse Lingard’s finish was was most clinical of the evening. But van Gaal knows perfectly well that win is secondary to the lessons learned.
“[The result] in the end means nothing,” he said after the game. “Swansea City and the start of the Premier League is the most important game for us. The momentum though will help us for sure.”
Despite the various improvements and fixes required Manchester United fans will have been heartened by what they’ve seen in the US. Five wins from five is a remarkable illustration of how quickly the players have adapted to van Gaal’s system, with Wayne Rooney and Phil Jones among those to have commented on how well they have taken it on board.
Though a little shakier against Liverpool Darren Fletcher has enjoyed an excellent preseason, his first in three years. Ashley Young appears a player reborn, Wayne Rooney looks in excellent shape, while Ander Herrera and Juan Mata have shown theirs is a midfield partnership that can control United’s attacking flow.
United will now take on Valencia this Tuesday, their final preseason outing before the season starts in earnest on 16th August. Whilst there is plenty of work to do yet, the black cloud that covered Old Trafford for most of last season appears to lifting.