Manchester United’s 2018/19 Premier League plans began in earnest in the sweltering heat of Phoenix on Thursday as the Red Devils drew their opening pre-season fixture with Club America 1-1.
A 24-man squad jetted out from Manchester but the plane was crammed with more names unfamiliar to fans than senior stars, with many of United’s World Cup contingent now resting after their busy summers in Russia.
With Alexis Sanchez also left behind temporarily due to visa issues, it was a very youthful and bit-part squad that laboured to a late draw at the University of Phoenix Stadium – where Juan Mata’s 78th minute goal secured an unbeaten start.
With the likes of Romelu Lukaku, David De Gea and Marcus Rashford yet to join the squad, the early part of the tour will give the seven youth team players on the trip a chance to step up and impress the manager.
Meanwhile, the likes of Luke Shaw and Anthony Martial must try and force their way into the starting XI for the first game of the season against Leicester City in a little under three weeks.
As pre-season begins, here are five questions Jose Mourinho may be pondering.
How much of a setback will the World Cup prove to be?
Everyone loves a World Cup summer – the long months seem empty without a major tournament and only the incessant transfer rumour mill to occupy football fans’ minds.
Everyone except club managers that is. Now that the resplendent football from Russia is over, it’s time to focus on the start of the various European domestic seasons which get under way in a matter of weeks.
With that in mind, Mourinho must look back ruefully on the World Cup, especially with so many of his stars getting to the latter stages and, subsequently, deserving of an extended break.
The United boss flew to the United States without a glut of his biggest names – Paul Pogba, Lukaku, Marouane Fellaini, Jesse Lingard, Rashford, Phil Jones, Ashley Young, Marcos Rojo, De Gea, Nemanja Matic, Victor Lindelof and Fred all given three weeks off.
De Gea, Matic and Jones are expected to join up with the squad before Wednesday’s third game against AC Milan.
Antonio Valencia, Matteo Darmian, Chris Smalling, Eric Bailly, Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera, Andreas Pereira, Scott McTominay, Mata and Anthony Martial are just nine names who can be considered senior players. Thirteen of the 24-man squad currently in the States, meanwhile, are aged 16-22.
It’s not quite the crisis some make it out to be, with other big teams and managers in similar positions. But it’s far from ideal as United hope to hit the ground running.
Can Mourinho get the best out of Alexis Sanchez?
It’s perhaps unfair to label Sanchez’s first six months at United a complete disaster, but the South American only sparkled sporadically after switching clubs with Henrikh Mkhitaryan in January.
Signing Sanchez was deemed a major coup for Mourinho and United, especially as the Chilean didn’t cost a penny, with a straight swap deal done between the clubs.
The Armenian architect badly needed to step off the Old Trafford stage, seemingly unable to deal with the intense glare of the spotlight. But Sanchez was expected to bask in the glow. It hasn’t quite worked out like that.
Sanchez netted just twice and set up three goals in 12 Premier League games following his Old Trafford arrival. Mkhitaryan, meanwhile, scored as many goals and grabbed one more assist having appeared in one less game and playing 251 less minutes.
There was the odd flash of brilliance from Sanchez – the leap and direction of his header for the equalising goal in the 2-1 FA Cup semi-final triumph over Spurs was special.
Yet, for the most part, he struggled badly to justify earning a reportedly Premier League record £350,000 a week.
This summer is his first one without any significant international football for five years though and his first without any appearances for Chile at all since 2010.
With plenty of stars sitting out the early weeks of pre-season and perhaps not even likely to be fit for the Premier League kick-off, it’s both plausible and imperative that Sanchez starts earning that significant salary of his.
Can any youngsters show him something?
If you’re a fan or an avid follower of United’s academy and youth teams, you’re sure to be excited by the contingent of fresh faces on this summer’s tour.
There may be trepidation about the new Premier League season with a host of senior stars enjoying an extended rest after their World Cup exploits and expected to miss the early weeks of the 2018/19 campaign – but get beyond that and there’s going to be a chance to see some next generational talents on this trip.
Of the 24 players that flew out to the States earlier this week, only 13 are what you would call senior, with seven youth team players making Mourinho’s squad. Eight are still in their teens, with striker Mason Greenwood the youngest, at just 16, and Angel Gomes and James Garner just 17.
Reds fans Stateside got their first glimpse of one of the academy’s brightest stars in Phoenix on Thursday when frizzy-haired forward Tahith Chong replaced Martial on the hour.
Bright futures are being predicted for Gomes, a cousin of former United winger Nani, as well as left-back Demetri Mitchell and Chong.
But this trip is a real chance for those with some first-team experience under their belts already to stake a claim for regular football this season – namely versatile defenders Timothy Fosu-Mensah, who impressed on loan at Crystal Palace last term, and Axel Tuanzebe.
Can Martial be the main man?
Speaking of Martial, United fans who bravely emerged from their bedsheets to watch United’s first forays into the new term would have been rewarded by an impressive display from the 22-year-old.
He came close to opening the scoring on a couple of occasions, firing just over after a neat United move and then cutting inside and seeing a low shot deflected just wide.
The flamboyant Frenchman oozes flair. The problem is he too often frustrates, so it was good to see him hit the ground running against Club America, especially as he will be United’s lone senior striker in the early throes of pre-season and indeed probably when the Premier League kicks off.
In stifling 40C heat and with plenty of rust needing to be shaken off in America, Martial showed sharpness beyond what was probably expected as he roamed around with intent and purpose – perhaps keenly aware that in the absence of Lukaku and Sanchez he has an opportunity to stake an early claim to establish himself in the starting XI for the beginning of the season.
After a stuttering third campaign in red, in which he scored only 11 goals in 45 games in all competitions, he is in desperate need of a positive start to 2018/19.
Could Tahith Chong be something special?
There is a tendency for football fans to go a bit gaga over emerging young talents – Federico Macheda anyone?
But while serious United fans will be able to decipher between impressive debut and labeling Chong the new Cristiano Ronaldo, there was lots to admire about the Dutch teenager’s first runout in red.
The 18-year-old wideman, snapped up from Feyenoord two summers ago, looked completely at ease on the big stage, showing some intricate touches and impressive vision.
He was praised by Mourinho for his performance although the manager was nevertheless keen to temper expectations. He said Chong is technically and tactically at home in the first-team environment but lacking physically, even though he showed good strength and determination to chase back and win a few tackles.
Mourinho’s handling of Chong is understandable, especially considering the player only returned to action at the start of 2018 following 10 months on the sidelines with a cruciate knee injury.
Former United player Clayton Blackmore felt Angel Di Maria looked the closest thing to the next Ryan Giggs during his brief spell at United.
And Blackmore, who has been a youth team coach at Old Trafford since retiring and was instrumental in bringing Chong to Manchester, believes the teen could genuinely be the next Giggs. High praise indeed.
Chong was brave and bold on debut and though he has work to do, particularly physically, he looks like he might well be the real deal.
With his shaggy hair and tall, athletic build, Tahith Chong may remind you at first glance of Marouane Fellaini.
And while many Manchester United fans will shudder at the very mention of the big Belgian’s name, Dutch winger Chong is the very antithesis of the much-maligned yet undoubtedly useful midfielder.
Red Devils fans may not have known too much about the teenager born on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao prior to his first team bow in United’s opening pre-season friendly on their tour of the United States against Club America on Thursday.
But after the 18-year-old enjoyed a lively debut – including delivering a whipped and wicked cross that led to Juan Mata’s equaliser in the 1-1 draw in Phoenix – social media was awash with intrigue.
And while a lot of them were getting carried away – one United fan commented “Tahith Chong is the next Ronaldo confirmed” after watching the game – there is nothing wrong with getting excited about a young prospect.
After all, many a young career has been launched after an impressive pre-season. Jesse Lingard, now a household name for both club and country, plundered four goals on the 2013 summer tour to Australia and Asia.
With a depleted United arriving Stateside for the first leg of their 2018 pre-season tour due to the likes of Lingard, Romelu Lukaku and Fellaini enjoying an extended break after their World Cup exploits, Jose Mourinho is without a large group of senior players.
In addition, Alexis Sanchez failed to fly out due to visa issues although Mourinho is expected to have the Chilean as well as David De Gea, Nemanja Matic, new signing Fred and Phil Jones available for their third game on tour against AC Milan on Wednesday.
This has resulted in Chong and a host of other unheralded youngsters jetting out to the US, including RoShaun Williams, Demetri Mitchell, James Garner, Ethan Hamilton, Angel Gomes, Mason Greenwood and Joshua Bohui.
This group may not have many opportunities to impress Mourinho, with the big guns arriving soon. But Chong certainly took his chance against Club America, putting in a lively and technically proficient 30-minute cameo filled with neat touches, sharp passing and some excellent tackles after replacing the impressive Anthony Martial.
Here is an in-depth look at the frizzy-haired forward who could prove to be a real find this summer.
Name: Tahith Chong
Date of birth: December 4, 1999
Birthplace: Willemstad, Curacao
Joined United: July 27, 2016
Who is Tahith Chong?
The 18-year-old was signed from Feyenoord in 2016 and immediately caught the eye as part of Kieran McKenna’s Under-18 side.
He announced himself in his first season at the club by scoring a stunning strike against Southampton at Old Trafford in an FA Youth Cup game – which turned out to be United’s only goal in that competition – in December 2016, in front of the watching Mourinho.
A cruciate knee injury curtailed his first campaign in Manchester the following month. He spent a lengthy 10 months on the sidelines but the teen’s progress continued apace upon his return – scoring on his U23s debut in January this year, grabbing the only goal against Spurs, with Mourinho again in attendance.
The manager promoted him to train with the first team and having insisted he will not sign another attacking player this summer, opportunity is certainly knocking.
Where can he play?
A left-footer, Chong has featured in a left wing role in his youth but made his U23 debut on the right flank and has featured primarily from there for United. It is also where he predominantly played against Club America, drifting infield and sweeping passes out to the left.
As displayed throughout last season, he is versatile, allowing him to pop up anywhere across the front three.
Why should United fans be excited?
Chong was crowned Jimmy Murphy Youth Team Player of the Year at the 2017/18 end of season awards dinner, beating off stiff competition from Lee O’Connor and Garner.
Chong was the standout performer in the club’s academy last term and took home an award won in recent years by Marcus Rashford, James Wilson and Danny Welbeck, and before that by club icons Wes Brown, Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs.
What they say
Kieran McKenna, United’s U18 manager:
“Tahith has hit the ground running in his time here and I think he’s just a fantastic professional. He has the right attitude to training and looks after himself really well off the pitch. He’s really personable and good with the staff and players, which has helped him to settle in quickly.
“On the pitch, everyone has been excited by his performances; he’s an eye-catching player. We’ll just keep pushing him to add to that with an end product so he can add goals and assists, as he has been doing, and can have a bright future in the game.”
Clayton Blackmore – former United player and youth team coach:
“The second I saw him I said, ‘We have got to get him’. The closest player I’ve seen to filling Ryan Giggs’ boots was Angel Di Maria but Mr Van Gaal did not play him in the right position.
“He [Chong] could be the next one. He’s playing on the wing, looking really good running with the ball as well like Ryan. He’s done well since coming back from injury. He can go the distance.
“There are lots of pitfalls – keeping away from injury, not getting dragged down by the wrong people, knuckling down. He’s come back from a really bad knee injury and the club have to look after him.”
What he says
“I think it’s the dream of everyone in this room to play in the first team. But obviously we’re still focused. We’re still working hard to get there. That’s the dream.”