Never before has a pre-season jolly across the pond held so much significance for Manchester United fans. Under normal circumstances, the only thing that excites about this period is the chance to watch any new signings perform, hoping that they’ll be the next United legend, rather than the next Jordi Cruyff. After last year’s dismal campaign however, any sense of normality has long since disappeared from the Theatre of Dreams.
Finishing seventh in the league was unheard of under Sir Alex. In fact since 1992, when the old Division One was reincarnated as the Premier League, United have never finished outside of the top three. Ferguson was never going to be replaced, but it soon became clear that David Moyes was definitely not the ‘Chosen One’, despite that much publicised banner.
At the end of a season populated by obsessive taunting from all angles, Manchester United fans needed a saviour.
The negotiations weren’t exactly swift, but in May this year, Louis Van Gaal was announced as Manchester United manager on a three year deal. Stories were soon circulating about Van Gaal’s personality, his methods and his temperament, and it suddenly became all very exciting.
It was the World Cup however that forced people in England to take serious notice of Aloysius Paulus Maria Van Gaal. He dragged his Dutch team all the way to the semi-finals, where they were unlucky to lose on penalties to Argentina. ‘King Louis’ achieved this with a midfield devoid of any real star performers, instead fashioning a well organised team that never gave up, as shown by their brilliant comeback against Mexico. Throw in the performances of a rejuvenated Robin Van Persie and there was much cause for optimism amongst the Man United faithful.
But what have we actually learned from Van Gaal’s short reign at United so far?
Well, he’s certainly not afraid to make unpopular decisions. One of the most heavily criticised players last season, rightly or wrongly, Tom Cleverley was given the captaincy for the match against Roma, although his performance in that match indicated that it was probably for the last time. Another, Ashley Young, has been deployed as a wing back and seems to have recaptured some of the form that persuaded Fergie to bring him to Old Trafford in 2011.
You can almost hear the groans when Young and/or Cleverley are included in United’s starting eleven, but that won’t bother Van Gaal one bit; he’s not in England to be popular, he’s here to win football matches. Of course, the two tend to go hand in hand, but you get my point.
It goes without saying that Van Gaal demands the best from all of his players, and more often than not, he gets it. This should shatter the popular misconception that the current Manchester United squad is awash with second rate players who should be plying their trade in the lower echelons of English football. Indeed, one of the mysteries of last year’s title defence was deciphering just how a squad that finished top of the pile in May 2013 could fare so badly in the 12 months that followed.
The pre-season tour has highlighted how the current squad are striving to impress the new gaffer. Twelve months ago, the same players started the season waiting for David Moyes to impress them. Poor old Moyesy.
Peripheral players last season, such as Smalling, Fletcher, Jones and Evans, all seem to be benefiting from Van Gaal’s management style. It remains to be seen if the manager can get the best out of Nani or Marouane Fellaini, though there won’t be too many holding their breath.
United are blessed with a wealth of attacking options. Impressively, Van Gaal has found a way to accomodate the trio of Mata, Rooney and Van Persie in the starting line up without having to play any of them out of position. His preference to play three central defenders and deploy two wing backs means that he can still operate with two midfielders, probably selected from Carrick (when fit), Fletcher and Herrera, with Mata in his preferred position just off the two strikers. Antonio Valencia and Rafael will fight for the right wing back position, leaving Luke Shaw and, it would appear, Ashley Young to squabble over the left.
Van Gaal has also fared well in the transfer market. The aforementioned Luke Shaw has been brought in to patrol the left side of the Old Trafford pitch for years to come; an investment if you will. He has been publicly forced to work on his fitness away from the squad, but Van Gaal is notorious for coming down hardest on the players that he expects the most from. Shaw is an extremely talented player, and is rightly being tipped to have a very bright future for United and England as his career progresses.
Ander Herrera was also recruited, despite the farce of last summer, and already looks at home in the red shirt. His awareness, composure and eye for a pass is something not seen at United since the retirement of Paul Scholes. For a player of such technical ability, Herrera doesn’t mind a tackle either. United fans will be happy to see a player willing to put so much in to the cause, whilst simultaneously dazzling them with his approach play. Big things are expected of the Spaniard in the coming months.
There is a confidence amongst the Manchester United squad again. Compare the five penalties against Inter Milan recently with those against Sunderland in the Capital One Cup last season. During the Inter Milan shoot-out, each penalty was an exercise in precision and confidence. This is of course helped by Van Gaal’s penchant for practicing penalties on a regular basis. Last season, United already looked a beaten team, despite the euphoria of a last gasp equaliser just moments before in front of a delirious Stretford End.
It is only pre-season of course, but it would appear that United have their swagger back, and King Louis could be just the catalyst they need to bring the silverware flooding back to the Old Trafford trophy room.