Friday, 31 July 2015

LESSONS FROM THE UNITED STATES


Manchester United flew home as soon as the 90 minutes were up in Illinois to call time to an eventful summer tour of the USA ahead of the new league season. In perhaps a timely dose of antidote, Paris Saint Germain inflicted a professional 2-0 defeat to the Red Devils to halt what would have been another procession of victories across the pond  over a summer.

It's not lost to memory that last year, United just about made a clean sweep of many of Europe's power houses in pre-season only to find Swansea City a significant step up from what they prepared for. Midway through the match commentary on Wednesday night/Thursday morning, MUTV's David Stowell did well to point out that it is never healthy to have everything go your way in pre-season. Indeed, Matuidi's poke beyond a hapless David De Gea was the first time United had gone behind on tour. When Zlatan Ibrahimovic made in 2-0, it thankfully gave us a chance to examine the character of this Louis van Gaal team.

As it were, PSG displayed a defensive tactical acumen in the second half to nullify everything United had going forward. It was the kind of game management that you will find at Champions League semi-final level. Get yourself ahead to allow you to play on the counter then see the game out when you have no need for further goals.

That United came up short only tells us a few new things and not much that we didn't know about pre-match: Louis van Gaal has built a great footballing side that will pretty much brush side most opponents but struggle against sides that can park the bus  are defensively astute. Little surprise then that in his post-match comments, he likened PSG's style to the game at Stamford Bridge late last season. Why? Because in truth, United, in a footballing sense, played very well on the night. In fact, had United, just like in that Chelsea game, converted at least one of their chances in the opening 20 minutes, chances are we would be mulling over a different result!

Therefore we can already make one conclusion ahead of the big kick-off next weekend: United are still short of the cutting edge at both ends of the pitch. We're not yet a one-chance-one-goal side upfront and are hardly assured of keeping a clean sheet at the back. It's a worrying conclusion because whereas games are usually won in midfield, it is the statistics at the back and the front that really decide matches. In lamenting the absence of a Neymar-kind of player, Louis van Gaal is bemoaning the absence of a creative genius who will break down the kind of defensive shield PSG put up yesterday. Because, let's face, it, United could easily be up against the French side in the Champions League next term and it's hard to imagine a different result if both sides approach the game in similar fashion.

Make no mistake though, the type of football Louis van Gaal has gotten United playing will floor just about anybody on their day. The worry though is that the Dutchman's philosophy assumes that the opposition will also come out all guns blazing against United. Little wonder then that United could easily fare better upfront against the all-guns blazing Barcelona and indeed many of the top sides that came at United last season. Chances are that from the visit of Spurs next weekend, just about all sides in the premier league will secure their backline first and seek to exploit United's defensive vulnerability in a counter-attack based approach. Indeed, I'd be surprised if anybody but Arsenal and Manchester City come to Old Trafford with a different game-plan.

You would imagine then that at least one of two things must give before the transfer window shuts on 1st September: Either Louis van Gaal adds to the attacking options or succumbs to the need for an experienced leader in defence. So far, it seems the latter is less likely than the former.

It does, however, remain damning that United have already made five signings and yet there appears to be a need for a couple more. If you had mentioned at the close of last season that United will add 5 players to their side, few would have asked for more. Luckily for Louis this time, he had most of his new players on tour with the side ahead of the new season.

Already Matteo Darmian is looking like the best bit of scouting business the club has done in a while. Meanwhile the addition of Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger has finally put to bed concerns about the midfield. At least United finally have the balance that the manager so desperately yearned for last season.

In asking for the very best players in the world as the next level, perhaps it went past us that this United squad has evolved so quickly that it is no longer about patching holes but increasingly the quality of the side. That in itself is a measure of progress.

It does however come with added responsibilities. Louis van Gaal will no longer be excused to mere tallying the amount of chances United created in comparison with the opposition post-match. A decent manager ought to make do with the current players United have in their ranks to some credible effect over a season. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the pressure ahead of the new campaign.

It's good to have the real stuff back!

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