Four games down, four games won. The Manchester United bandwagon rolls on. Real Madrid picked off. Time to bring on Barcelona.
Admittedly, a scrappy pre-season win via possibly the worst penalty shootout in the history of football, against the European Champions who fielded a team of kids in the second half, will not carry as much weight as victory in the UEFA Super Cup next month. But it is progress nevertheless.
In setting up the opening goal in Santa Clara last night, Anthony Martial showed a flash of the mesmerising talent he possesses in his feet. Midfield dynamo Casemiro then thrashed home a penalty to earn a draw for Los Blancos.
Being in the United States, a stalemate wouldn’t do. This scenario saw both teams flatter to deceive in a pitiful penalty shootout which United looked almost embarrassed to win 2-1 – seven of the 10 spot kicks were missed.
Even though the game wasn’t exactly spot on, here’s three things for United and Jose Mourinho to take away from the game.
Question marks have been placed next to Phil Jones and Chris Smalling’s United futures this tour following the arrival of Victor Lindelof from Benfica – but Jones put in a sterling 45-minute shift against Real to boost his standing in the squad.
It’s embarrassing to look back now on Sir Alex Ferguson’s comments when the now 25-year-old arrived from Blackburn in the summer of 2011. The Scot infamously said Jones could become the greatest player in Manchester United’s history.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Every injury you can think of has robbed Jones of a consistent run in the side.
The 21-times capped England international only played 26 games in 2016/17, but was one of United’s standout players during their 27-game unbeaten run from November 6 to March 13. He missed just three matches in a 21-game spell and performed consistently to suggest he could finally cement his place at the heart of the back four.
Injury reared its ugly head towards the end of the campaign once again. But at the moment, he’s probably the leading candidate to start alongside Eric Bailly at centre-back if the new season was to start tomorrow.
Lindelof is only 23 and has endured a rocky start to his Reds career in the US, while Jones’ combative and fearless approach is more pleasing than Smalling’s often cumbersome style.
With Marcos Rojo sidelined until November, Mourinho will only likely jettison one central defender before the season starts – if any.
And after an assured performance at Levi’s Stadium, and still being only 25, Jones is still a good fit for United.
There’s no doubting Anthony Martial is a special talent. But for all his ability, a phrase often credited to Sir Alex Ferguson could describe the Frenchman to a tee: “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard”.
The quote actually derives from Tim Notke, an American high school basketball coach, and was first brought to prominence in 2007 by now Golden State Warriors star player Kevin Durant when he was National College Basketball Player of the Year.
Mourinho praised Martial’s performance – he played all 90 minutes against Real – after the match, but also veiled that praise by demanding to see his ability more frequently. “We want more consistency in his talent,” Mourinho said.
And the manager is right to be demanding.
The 21-year-old went announced himself on the Old Trafford stage in perfect fashion with that superb debut goal – showing similar slalom running skills with which he used to tee up Jesse Lingard – against Liverpool in September 2015. But 17 goals in 49 appearances in his debut campaign became just eight in 42 last term.
He would be well advised to take a leaf from the book of the man he set up for United’s goal in Santa Clara. Lingard has his detractors, but if there was ever an example of a player who’s worked hard to churn what talent he is into a career at a big club, Lingard’s United tenure is that.
The 24-year-old has shone on pre-season tours in the past, scoring four goals in seven games in the summer of 2013. He’s grafted and ultimately carved out fruitful loan spells at Birmingham City and Brighton & Hove Albion, before eventually breaking into the first team during Louis van Gaal’s last season as Old Trafford boss.
Martial is infinitely more talented than Lingard, who would surely admit as much. Yet, if he doesn’t show similar application, it will be Lingard who is remembered more fondly by United fans in years to come.
The Frenchman has to fight if he wants to be more than a fleeting fancy at Old Trafford.
Results are not the be-all and end-all in pre-season, but four wins on the spin – including against your bitter city rivals and the European champions – are not exactly bad omens.
United still have a big test against Barcelona to end their US Tour on Thursday. They then round out the summer with friendlies against Valerenga and Sampdoria, not to mention facing Madrid in what will be a much more meaningful clash for the UEFA Super Cup in Skopje on August 8.
But Mourinho will be full of confidence as he heads into his second season in charge and with a full pre-season under his players’ belts, which is more than can be said for 12 months ago. In 2016, United played only four games before facing Leicester in the Community Shield –their cancelled clash with Manchester City at Beijing’s Bird’s Nest hardly ideal.
The excitement of Mourinho’s arrival a year ago had United fans dreaming of a season spent competing for titles. And while the EFL Cup, Europa League and Community Shield crowns were lifted, there was a sense of dejection after finishing just sixth in the Premier League.
Now, having had a year to mold United into his vision, a couple of signings that will feel truly like his own players and moving the team on from the ponderous, one-dimensional passing monotony of Louis van Gaal, Jose will feel a proper title challenge is more realistic in 2017/18. For a club of United’s stature, for a manger of Mourinho’s ilk, nothing else will do.
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