Pre-season is a perilous time of year to be a football fan. You can get a little too giddy about a new signing’s Ballon d’Or prospects sky-rocketing because of a decent performance against a bunch of nobodies, or the world could be ending because of your club’s lack of transfer activity.
Manchester United fans in-particular tend to let themselves get carried away by emotion – be it joy, despair, delirium or melancholy.
This has become especially prevalent in seasons following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement as the legacy he built has slowly started to erode.
From the peaks of appointing abrasive, albeit serial champion, Jose Mourinho and landing marquee signings Angel Di Maria, Memphis Depay and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, to the troughs of Jose’s ugly and predictable demise and the abject failure of the aforementioned trio.
In their inaugural outing of pre-season, United overcame a tenacious yet limited Perth Glory 2-0. The A-League side provided a stern defensive test for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team before eventually being outclassed in the second half at Optus Stadium.
New signings Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka made their debuts and impressed, as did youngsters Angel Gomes, Mason Greenwood and James Garner, while reportedly wantaway Paul Pogba was unplayable.
Inevitably social media went into overdrive after the final whistle – to varying degrees of happiness, anger and of course ridiculous hyperbole.
“2 minutes in and I’m convinced Dan James is the missing piece in the United jigsaw and I’m sorry to say that we’re winning the Premier League this season,” tweeted one United fan.
Another, having seen Wan-Bissaka’s first outing in United colours, said: “Can we build a statue for Wan-Bissaka?”
Of course, a lot of this outpouring of adulation was tongue-in-cheek, though every fanbase has its cranks. And even the most stoic and sensible of fans can be guilty of getting carried away by the early throes of pre-season.
Glory against Perth needs to be appreciated for what it was. A decent initial run-out in which the new signings shone, as did a number of others. United looked sharp and hungry, with their high press particularly impressive.
A dose of reality, however, needs to be administered. This was a depleted Glory side who had a 15 and two 17-year-olds on the bench, and play in a league that would make teams in the lower reaches of Ligue 1 take issue with being called farmers.
Tougher opposition lie in wait. Arch-rivals Leeds United, Inter Milan, Tottenham and AC Milan – plus an appointment with Kristiansund, Solskjaer’s home town club – are the upcoming fixtures.
Not to mention United’s start to the Premier League campaign is tough – they host Chelsea on opening day and play Wolves, Leicester and Arsenal in their first seven fixtures.
But the positives should be dwelled upon. You should head into the new campaign with optimism. This is even more poignant for a club that endured one of their worst seasons in recent history last term and need a reason to feel positive.
And while expectations need to be tempered, they should not be tamed following 90 minutes of 2019/20 pre-season that has already eclipsed the build-up of 12 months ago.
Pre-season last summer yielded three thoroughly uninspiring opening draws – against Club America (in which a 78th-minute equaliser from Juan Mata was required) and San Jose Earthquakes. The third against AC Milan saw United eventually prevail (if that’s the right word) on penalties.
They were embarrassed by perennial rivals Liverpool 4-1 in front of more than 100,000 at Michigan Stadium before a solitary 2-1 victory came against a Real Madrid side several weeks behind United in their preparations. A 1-0 defeat to Bayern Munich bookended the summer.
Now, while you should not make the mistake of placing the importance of results during pre-season over performances, there really was precious little for United fans to take away from their abysmal American trip.
The scoreline against Liverpool actually flattered United. The chastening loss at ‘The Big House’ served as an indicator of the huge issues bubbling under the surface.
Mourinho, moody because he was not given sufficient backing in the transfer window to address what he deemed a critical issue at centre-back, and meandering into his usually murky third season, had a meltdown – harshly targeting United’s youngsters who he’d hand selected to go on tour.
“This is not my squad, this is not even half of my squad. This is not even 30 per cent of my squad,” the manager said.
“We are not playing here to improve the team or to improve our dynamic or to improve our routines, we are playing here just to try to survive and to have some not very ugly results.”
Survive is what Mourinho managed to do, until December, when he was sacked.
Solskjaer tried – initially very successfully – to patch things up. But even though he has perhaps an insurmountable job on his hands, with talismanic midfielder Pogba seeking a move, United appear to be much more upbeat Down Under.
Despite what he and his agent say publicly, Pogba was professional and put in a pristine performance on the field in Perth, setting up Marcus Rashord’s goal.
In what seemed a rebuke to Mourinho’s stinging criticism a year ago, 18-year-old James Garner’s rocket rubber-stamped a convincing victory. Mesmeric Gomes looks to have ratcheted up his development from any previous United performance of his while 17-year-old Greenwood – he of 26 goals in 30 appearances at various age grades for United last season – tormented Ivan Franjic at left-back in the second half and was unlucky not to count himself among the scorers.
James’ speed, guile and runs in behind look like Premier League defenders might well have some sleepless nights next season while Wan-Bissaka – nicknamed ‘Spider’ at Crystal Palace – caught several opponents in his web, with four out of four tackles completed, picking right up from where he left off last season.
United fans will discover more about their side when they face Leeds at the same venue on Wednesday. It’s important not to get carried away. But it’s equally important to believe better times are coming.
Daniel James aspires to be like Manchester United great Ryan Giggs whose advice, belief and support is helping the Welsh winger live out his dreams.
Just 17 months after making his senior debut for Swansea, the 21-year-old’s remarkable rise shows no sign of abating – despite some notable knocks along the way.
Seeing a move to Leeds collapse at the start of the year was one such setback, yet it meant James would instead become Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first signing as United manager in a deal that could reach around £18million.
The winger has also become a Wales international during that time and could scarcely ask for a better mentor than international manager Giggs, who knows a thing or two about succeeding at Old Trafford.
“Giggsy, as soon as I came into the Wales set up, had ambitions for me,” James said.
“The way he brought me and a lot of other youngsters through has been amazing.
“He spoke to me when I first signed for United. His advice was to be myself, which is what I will try to do.
“He wasn’t a bad player was he? What he did at Manchester United was amazing. Every young winger looks up to a person like him.
“He was playing in the Premier League until he was 40 and he was still beating players. Credit to him, the way he looks after his body.
“It is amazing for me, when I go away on internationals, to learn from people like him. He is obviously someone I aspire to be like.”
Making anywhere near the impact of Giggs will be difficult, but James has made a good start to life at United on and off the pitch.
The 21-year-old has impressed in pre-season training and spent more time than any of his team-mates signing autographs and posing for selfies on Thursday when 12,000 fans descended on the WACA for training.
Two days on and 50,206 were in attendance as James made his first appearance for the club in a 2-0 win against Perth Glory at the mammoth Optus Stadium, where he was the standout performer in the first half.
“Walking out there, with the amount of fans that have come from everywhere is surreal, really,” James said. “Playing with those players is a dream come true.
“I don’t think it (signing all those autographs on Thursday) will ever sink in, really.
“Walking out at Old Trafford is the big one. That is when it will probably sink in.
“But the amount of fans that came to training shows the support this club has got. The amount of fans that turned up tonight from all over is just amazing.”
James has barely stopped grinning since joining the group – quite the contrast to the negativity that surrounds the club following a poor season and a lack of summer activity.
Asked if that negativity had played on his mind before deciding to join, James said: “Not at all. When a club like Manchester United come calling you can’t say no.
“As soon as they did there was no thought in my mind not to be here. Today the support was absolutely amazing. I am so glad to be here.”
Instinctive second-half finishes from Marcus Rashford and James Garner saw Manchester United kick-off their pre-season commitments with a comfortable 2-0 win against weakened A-League Grand Finalists Perth Glory.
The England striker produced an expert, first-time effort on the turn upon the hour mark at Optus Stadium in a fixture from which summer buys Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka debuted, plus two separate XIs took to the field Down Under. England Under-18 midfielder Garner would then lash in a thunderous low drive on 85 minutes to complete the predictably one-sided victory.
Glory had provided dogged opposition throughout, utilising an entrenched five-man defence to cover the absences of several key players such as ex-Republic of Ireland forward Andy Keogh.
Here, Sport360 picks out two Red Devils performers who excelled and two whose displays will provide manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with food for thought:
Ignore the paltry opposition, multiple half-time changes or nascent stage of pre-season this fixture came in.
For the opening 45 minutes, James offered United something they have lacked for much of the last decade – unalloyed pace.
The £15 million pick-up from the Championship’s Swansea City was a constant outlet, plus an invaluable out-ball over the top against a packed rearguard. A succession of low crosses were pumped in by him from either flank, the best being blazed over by fellow speedster Diogo Dalot.
Abundant promise that he must now deliver on.
Much is being staked on Rashford’s proficiency in front of goal by United striking great Solskjaer.
With Belgium centre forward Romelu Lukaku watching on from the stands, amid a reputed minor injury concern and transfer talks with Inter Milan, the 21-year-old made a small delivery on his manager’s faith. His swivel from wantaway midfielder Paul Pogba’s deflected flick and sweet low strike must be repeat when the competitive action begins.
It is a symptom of United’s dysfunction that the errant Argentina defender remains on the payroll.
The 29-year-old was a man on a mission at the Optus – but this individual streak was not a positive. He fired in a ridiculous long-range shot from distance, regularly charged out of the backline and had to be covered by the diligent Chris Smalling.
The sooner he is gone, the better.
The Netherlands youth international put in a perfectly adequate display, even coming close to winning a first-half penalty after a driving run into the box.
His display, however, did not hold a favourable comparison to those put in by fellow starlets Angel Gomes, 18, and Mason Greenwood, 17, after the break. The diminutive former-mentioned looked to have taken a development leap, while the incessant Greenwood oozed danger and nearly shattered the far post with a fierce low shot.
These kids will get chances to shadow the wide areas in Solskjaer’s 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 set-up. Chong, 19, might not get many more opportunities to impress.