Manchester United made it two wins from two on their pre-season tour of America, but Jose Mourinho’s men were made to work much harder for victory than in their opening 5-2 demolition of the LA Galaxy on Saturday.
Romelu Lukaku got his first United goal in his second appearance, a cool, composed finish which turned out to be the winner in a 2-1 triumph for the 10-man Reds, who saw Antonio Valencia harshly shown a straight red card in the second half.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan also continued his fine form across the pond with a well-taken goal to level the match after United had gone behind to Luis Silva’s opener – before delivering a delightful assist for Lukaku’s winner.
Here, we look at three things United and manager Mourinho can take away from this game…
He’s vilified by non-United fans as being ‘not very good’ and he even divides opinion among Reds fans, but he’s been one of the standout stars at the start of the US tour.
He’s bagged three assists in two games and at a time when most players are stepping up their fitness and searching for sharpness, the 24-year-old looks in peak condition.
The Warrington-born Lingard isn’t the sturdiest of players and is often chastised for his carelessness in possession, but he’s been bright in attack, dropping deep to receive the ball in midfield and distributing it well, while he looks like he’s been working on his defensive duties.
His tenacity saw him dispossess LA Galaxy defender Nathan Smith and set up Marcus Rashford for United’s opening goal on the tour after just 115 seconds before he cleverly teed up Marouane Fellaini to make it 3-0.
Against Real Salt Lake he welcomed possession at every opportunity and rarely wasted it, while his role in Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s equaliser was a joy to behold. He was also involved in the build-up to Romelu Lukaku’s first United goal.
There were certainly areas of his game he needed to work on over the summer but the local lad is looking good.
With 15 draws recorded from their 38 Premier League games, taking chances was United’s biggest Achilles heel last season.
Despite forking out a world record fee to bring Paul Pogba back from Juventus and armed with an arsenal of attacking options, the Reds performed pitifully in front of goal – all five sides who finished above them in the Premier League scored more than their 54, as did Everton and even Bournemouth.
Profligacy was United’s greatest enemy. Despite a wealth of attacking talent, breaking down defences and creating chances – and finishing off the ones we did create – cost them dearly.
But in the first two games on tour, United have oozed quality going forward, with seven goals in two games.
Intricate one-touch passing between the lines involving Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard, Ander Herrera, Michael Carrick and Andreas Pereira has been a feature as they have fed the frontmen of Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford who have duly responded by finding the back of the net.
Despite last season’s woes in front of goal, failing to create and take chances has undermined United’s play in the seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
United have lost their cutting edge, but maybe, just maybe, that will change next season.
It’s been interesting to note Andreas Pereira’s two 45-minute displays in pre-season so far. The diminutive Brazilian featured in the second half of both games against LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake but whereas previous punctuated appearances for the Reds have seen the 21-year-old play in an attacking midfield, forward or wide role, he’s been deployed by Mourinho in central midfield in America, in a holding role.
Some United fans may find this perplexing but few will recall that when he actually arrived at Old Trafford from Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven in 2011 it was as a defensive midfielder. He was converted into a more forward-thinking player due to his technical proficiency.
Mourinho’s inclusion of Pereira on the US tour is just reward for a fine season last year on loan with Granada in La Liga, while the No15 jersey he’s been wearing could be an indication of his first-team standing for the coming season.
He’s been calm and assured in possession, his ball retention – a glaring fault of his game in his formative United years – has visibly been honed during his time in Spain, while he also developed a taste for tackling last season too – winning 44 per cent of his duels. All these attributes could see him excel in a central midfield three.
Mourinho’s trialing of the youngster in that area of the field might also serve as an indication that, should he be satisfied with what he sees from Pereira on the tour, he might prefer to make him a permanent fixture of the first team squad and relinquish summer pursuits for specialist holding midfielders like Nemanja Matic and Eric Dier.
In just two games of Manchester United’s summer tour to America, Henrikh Mkhitaryan is proving he can be the difference maker the Red Devils desperately crave.
There was frenzied excitement when the Armenian architect joined from Borussia Dortmund last summer, having just captured the Bundesliga Player of the Season award.
And there were plenty of flashes of the brilliance we’ve come to expect from the 28-year-old over the previous three years at Westfalenstadion, and indeed his three seasons with Shakhtar Donetsk prior to that.
It was by no means a flawless campaign. For all his undoubted class he lacked consistency. His form came in patches and he even found himself on the end of some stinging criticism from boss Jose Mourinho.
Mkhitaryan was dropped for the 1-1 home draw with Everton on April 4, having been replaced due to a poor performance during the goalless draw at West Brom three days earlier.
“I am not happy with Mkhi’s performance in the last match” said the Portuguese, while later that month, when asked to assess Mkhitaryan’s performances, Mourinho said “Good, in the Europa League”.
But whereas Mourinho’s words seem to be falling on deaf ears in Anthony Martial or Luke Shaw’s cases, Mkhitaryan appears to hear him loud and clear.
The criticism detracts slightly from what was nevertheless a very impressive debut season in England for Mhkitaryan, capped 64 times by his country.
He bagged 11 goals in 41 games in all competitions, although given his reputation as a creative No10, his tally of just one assist all season leaves much to be desired.
As with all new arrivals into the Premier League, Mkhitaryan seemed to struggle at times with the pace of the league. In 15 of his Premier League starts, he was replaced 11 times. In the Europa League he came off in eight of the 10 games in which he made the starting 11.
In all he was substituted 22 times in 30 games that he started.
But if the opening two matches of the US tour are anything to go by he’s adding stamina to his game.
At a time when players are developing their fitness and seeking sharpness, Mkhitaryan looks in tremendous shape already – despite the camera seemingly adding 10lbs when he was used to showcase the new home shirt on Twitter.
It looks like Henrikh Mkhitaryan returned back for pre-season training....three months pregnant. 👀😂 pic.twitter.com/jmIR7Qwnul— Sunday League (@SundayShoutsFC) July 9, 2017
His burst of pace in the opening game against LA Galaxy when receiving the ball in his own half was explosive, as he hurtled 60 metres and set up a chance for Romelu Lukaku, leaving two markers trailing in his wake.
His contribution at the top end of the pitch has also been lethal. He scored in both the opener and Tuesday’s second game against Real Salt Lake.
His two finishes have been clinical, one left foot, one right, while his assist for Lukaku’s first United goal, which turned out to be the winner against Real, was simply sublime.
He’s been wasteful at times in possession, which is to be expected in pre-season. But he’s knitted the play together wonderfully, piercing the MLS duo’s defences with intricate passes and linking effortlessly with his attacking colleagues. While also showing a keener hunger for tracking back too – something Mourinho would have undoubtedly asked him to improve.
Whereas pre-season results should not be read in to too that much, eye-catching individual performances tell a different tale. Mkhitaryan has shown little sign of rustiness and has hit the ground running, seemingly focused on showing his worth to Mourinho, his teammates and United fans this coming season.
After a promising start to life at Old Trafford, the man affectionately known as Mkhi is looking so fine and could light up the Premier League in 2017/18 as well as Old Trafford for years to come.
Romelu Lukaku says he is embracing being the focal point of Manchester United’s attack after the £75million signing from Everton got his first goal for the Red Devils in a pre-season clash with Real Salt Lake.
The big Belgian fired United ahead on 38 minutes, latching on to a low cross from Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
The 24-year-old striker had also been involved in United’s equaliser scored by Mkhitaryan in the 29th minute after Luis Silva had given Salt Lake a shock early lead.
Lukaku used his strength and physical presence to hold off the Real defense to feed Jesse Lingard, who provided the pass for Mkhitaryan to score.
And speaking to MUTV after the 2-1 win, Lukaku couldn’t hide his delight at opening his account and promised more is to come.
“I’m here to score goals and be the focal point of the team,” he said. “At Manchester United, we play to win and that’s the mentality when I get on the pitch and everything comes with it.
“From the first day, when we had the meeting with the manager in Los Angeles, you just felt that something special was happening. But it’s down to us now; we need to work hard every day and deliver in the pre-season games to be ready for the new season.
“I know a lot of the lads from before, a lot of them are my neighbours! I didn’t take a lot of time to settle in, I just want to be one of characters in the team to help the team win. I’ve been waiting for this opportunity, like I said. Now, I am here and it’s time to work hard and, hopefully, deliver.”
Romelu Lukaku's first goal for Manchester United, fantastic play from the team to create the chance— José (@MourinhoMindset) July 18, 2017
The United goals were the rare highlights of a disjointed first half performance from Mourinho’s side, who had travelled to Utah earlier Monday from their Los Angeles training camp.
For much of the opening half United were second best, with their defense being given a torrid time by a team who are languishing near the foot of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference.
“Real Salt Lake caused a bit of a shock – but we knew they were a good side and we were well prepared,” Lukaku added. “Every time we played at high pace, we did well. We need to keep improving because now we are playing against better opponents and we need to improve.
“The last five minutes before the end of the first half were tough. Physically, we worked really hard and, in the second half, we created a lot of chances. We didn’t score but, at least physically, everyone is healthy and working hard which is good for us.”