Is the grey cloud above Manchester United starting to clear?
First a disclaimer, you don’t need to proclaim that ‘it’s only pre-season, it counts for nothing’, we all know there’s some truth to that but let’s try and get back to some positivity on the subject of Manchester United. We could most definitely use some after the way last season ended.
It’s been an eventful summer for United so far, mostly in a negative way. After a fantastic run under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in his first few months in charge, the wheels of Ole’s bus (or coach, that was never specified) fell off in dramatic fashion after that night in Paris. What followed was a failure to qualify for the Champions League, a disappointing FA Cup exit, a schooling against Barcelona and accusations that the players had downed tools on the man they worked so hard to get installed full-time.
Things haven’t been so rosy off the pitch either. The club failed to keep hold of fan favourite Ander Herrera, Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku have heavily indicated that they want away and the Glazers Out cries have reached their loudest volume since the initial Green and Gold protests. Not great, eh?
For all of those reasons, for the second pre-season in a row, there had been a general disinterest about the club from certain sections of the fanbase. That may have been different if Solskjaer had gotten the players he wanted in by July 1st like he had originally wanted but we’re still waiting for that overhaul to happen. We could be waiting all summer. However, since we’ve returned to action, there has been some positives, shocking as that may seem. It has also been abundantly clear that we’re still a few repairs away from passing our MOT.
Let’s dive in…
1. Aaron Wan-Bissaka is a dramatic improvement to our right flank.
I mean bloody hell, did you see that tracking back against Inter Milan? The former Crystal Palace man showed exactly the level of grit and determination that was sorely lacking from much of the squad for large parts of last season.
Not only is the effort there, but he also backs it up with some frankly amazing tackling, especially in one on one situations; you can’t get past the man!
Manchester United were incredibly lob-sided last season as every attack came down the left wing due to there being a total lack of width on the opposite flank. That should change now with the way Solskjaer has his team set up and the relative certainty that Wan-Bissaka will be the overwhelming first choice at right-back from now on. Gary Neville has finally been replaced!
2. It looks like we’re going with a 4-2-3-1 formation now.
Now it doesn’t mean that this will rigidly be the approach from now on, but Solskjaer has frequently talked about developing a style of play and getting an identity into this side. On the evidence of this pre-season, it looks like 4-2-3-1 may be the way he plans on doing that.
Possibly in an attempt to pander to Paul Pogba’s preferences and strengths, we’ve mainly adopted a 4-3-3 since well into Jose Mourinho’s reign. That continued for the majority of games since Solskjaer took over, too. However, the United boss looks like he’s ripping up that template and moving to a two-man midfield.
‘But Pogba can’t be trusted defensively’ I hear you scream at the back. Maybe so, but then again that may just be Solskjaer’s new challenge for the Frenchman.
The set-up does suit a forward line that is more than happy interchanging positions with Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Mason Greenwood and Daniel James all adept in a few positions across the front. That could cause nightmares for defences trying to mark that lot, plus it actually gets the best out of Juan Mata when he plays in the number ten spot. Hurrah!
3. We might not need to replace Romelu Lukaku if he moves on to Inter Milan.
Truth be told, there’s a lot of Manchester United fans that won’t care if Romelu Lukaku departs during pre-season. Whilst some of the criticism he gets is a little disrespectful if you ask the writer of this here article *ducks for cover*, if the side aren’t set up to utilise the Belgian’s strengths, he may as well move onto a team that does.
Whichever way you look at it, the guy scores goals over the course of a season. Important goals, too (see PSG away, Southampton at home and Crystal Palace away for more details). There has to be some sort of guarantee that the goal contributions United would lose by letting him go would be replaced. Step forward Mason Greenwood.
Okay, it’s a lot to place on young shoulders, but this boy looks deadly. He doesn’t necessarily have to be played through the middle to get these goals – he might find himself bullied by some experienced centre-halves around the league playing there. He could definitely contribute from the right like he has been doing so far on this pre-season tour, though. He is genuinely two-footed so he’ll be extra dangerous over there until he fills out more to have a run in the number nine spot.
This approach would require Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Alexis Sanchez (remember him?) all stepping up their contributions but that needs to happen anyway. As Solskjaer has said, Greenwood will score goals this season – let’s allow him to do just that.
4. We badly need a defender that can play out from the back with Lindelof.
*Cough* Harry Maguire *Cough*.
There’s no two ways about it, the mooted £80 million is an outrageous fee to pay for a centre-half. That amount of money bought you a Paul Pogba three years ago. That being said, the market is ridiculous right now and quite simply, United need a player of his ilk.
Too often so far on this pre-season tour have certain Manchester United defenders aimlessly passed it between themselves, especially when Lindelof has been off the pitch. Even with the Swede involved in the Leeds United game, Eric Bailly still seemed unable to see an available pass or wasn’t willing to take a risk in moving us forward. Lindelof was becoming visibly frustrated with the snail’s pace in which we got out from the back at times.
Bailly isn’t alone either. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones must’ve made more passes to each other than any other players in their age at the club – it’s a tiresome problem and one that Mourinho wanted to solve last year.
It would be nice to see Axel Tuanzebe given the chance to be the guy to fix this alongside Lindelof if a deal for Maguire isn’t made. He should remain at the club beyond pre-season whatever happens in all truth but that would likely mean finding a taker for one of the highly paid centre-backs that no one has ever really shown an interest in. We can hope, though.
5. Daniel James is far from the finished product right now.
Okay, it’s really early days on this one, so maybe this is a bit harsh to point out but this is Manchester United, there’s going to be scrutiny.
No one is expecting him to be world-beater coming from one season in the Championship with Swansea City and there is clearly potential there. The Welshman is most definitely rapid and could be a major asset, especially on the break late on in games as oppositions tire.
If he is going to make the difference, though, there is going to a be an improvement needed. It could just be early nerves or simply pre-season rustiness, but some of his decision making and final third execution has left a lot to be desired.
This point probably wouldn’t have made the list if he had taken a few of the chances he’s had, or put in better crosses after beating defences and gained a few assists in the three games so far . As it stands, he hasn’t quite done that yet but there is bags of time for him to find his feet; if or when he does, he will be a scary prospect along with the rest of this youthful, pacy attack.