As Manchester United left the field after convincingly beating Real Madrid 3-1 at the International Champions Cup in Ann Arbor four years ago, a longtime member of staff approached Louis van Gaal. “Thanks for making us smile again,” he told the Dutchman.
Van Gaal had been at the club a month or two, but a 100 percent record in preseason lifted the mood after a dire season under David Moyes. Despite adding to the squad with the signings of world-class players Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria, United went on to finish fourth, 17 points behind Jose Mourinho and champions Chelsea. It was an improvement on the previous year of seventh, but the brief enthusiasm after that Madrid win soon disappeared after a 5-3 defeat at Leicester in September.
This weekend, Mourinho’s United were back in Ann Arbor for a second time and lost 4-1 to Liverpool. This time, United got it wrong in several areas. The players didn’t stay in Ann Arbor like Liverpool, whose personnel (including the manager) mixed with travelling fans. There are around 30 travelling United fans from the UK in the United States this summer who haven’t been so much as invited to a training session.
Nor did United properly show their appreciation to the thousands of United fans like Liverpool, who have really smartened up their act with the media. And Mourinho again cut a figure of misery in the news conferences.
While Mourinho’s popularity has dipped this year, the majority of United fans still back him — but it’s as if he doesn’t want that support and is waiting to snap. He really doesn’t help himself when he could help himself. Why the unhappiness? He’s got a great job, most of his players are behind him and most respect him, even though they don’t always agree with him.
United fans also know there’s no obvious candidate to replace their manager right now. Of course they hope the football will be more entertaining and that the gap between United and City will be closer, but this is where the club is right now. It could be, and has been, worse. It could be, and has been, better.
For all the negatives about absent players and Mourinho missing first team personnel he desires, there are positives which could have been accentuated. Paul Pogba is a World Cup winner and several United players enjoyed excellent World Cups; David De Gea stayed at the club; the manager got his way with Marouane Fellaini and Fred — pronounced “Fredgy,” according to the man himself.
United still hope to sign a central defender before the season starts, with Leicester and England star Harry Maguire the No. 1 target, but signing players from clubs that don’t want to sell is difficult. The club feel that the new shorter transfer deadline, ending on Aug. 9, is a disadvantage for English sides given the fact that European rivals have an extra three weeks to sign new players.
A heavily depleted United have been poor on this preseason tour, failing to win a game in 90 minutes in any of the first four matches. United are not favourites to beat Real Madrid on Miami on Tuesday night or Bayern Munich in Bavaria on Sunday, either. There hasn’t been a single year since the early 1990s where the team have failed to win a single game in preseason, but a great preseason form doesn’t guarantee a title.
United have been unbeaten five times in preseason: 1997-98, 2008-09, 2009-10 (lost one shootout), 2011-12 (won all seven) 2014-15 (won all six). In only one of the following seasons, 2008-09, did United win the league (and also reached another Champions League final).
Much depends, of course, on the relative stages of preparation of the teams involved. When United beat Madrid four years ago, they were two weeks further into their preseason while last weekend, Liverpool had more of their first-team players and more games under their belts.
The quality of opponents can vary greatly, too. United played fourth division Bury, five league of Ireland clubs and Glasgow Rangers before the 1990-91 season; trips to Scandinavia were regular in the early 1990s to play fit local sides in cool summer conditions. Fitness was first, before the days of commercialism at least.
More players are also trialled in preseason because the risks are minimal, so it’s seldom an accurate reflection about the state of play. There are players who thrived in preseason and then went quiet when the season started: Federico Macheda and Jordi Cruyff were two, and Cruyff admitted that he hibernated like a bear in the winter.
Doing well in preseason can’t be a bad thing, though. Andreas Pereira, a preseason star for three consecutive years now, is full of confidence. Alexis Sanchez is also confident, fit and rested, although he still has no inclination to do any media work since he wants to concentrate on his football. That’s OK on one level but the fans are also interested in what he has to say outside of his own corporate tie-ups.
Mourinho feels like a man being asked to do his job without his tools, but he’s already been backed heavily in the transfer market and has a very good pool of players to choose from — although the World Cup means that they won’t all be ready for selection when the season starts against Leicester on Aug. 10.
The United squad will head back to Manchester after the Madrid game. The headlines are almost universally negative about the club right now, but the mood among the players is fine. They just want to get home and see their families before getting to the business of playing competitive football.
Win or lose against Madrid and Bayern, the important result will be what happens against less illustrious opponents Leicester on the opening weekend of the season.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.