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.
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