The arrival of Romelu Lukaku from Everton and Nemanja Matic from Chelsea brought some excitement amongst Manchester United fans in pre-season.
However, before they open their English Premier League account this Sunday against West Ham, Man-Utd looked pedestrian against Real Madrid in the Uefa Super Cup as they lost 1-2 on Tuesday night. In fact, their anticipation of winning the Premier League this time round appears misplaced.
Let us face it; Man-Utd struggled against Real Madrid. One could have mistaken them for the likes of Yeovil Town when they faced Arsenal at the Emirates in an FA Cup game.
They looked sucked in by the occasion and got overwhelmed admiring the beauty of the stadium. Isco, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro played some pretty patterns, as ‘His Baldness’ (Zidane’s new title) team made Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Ander Herrera and Jesse Lingard chase shadows.
True, the players disappointed, but largely did manager Jose Mourinho. Really, by now, Man-Utd must have a default system of play; a formation the players are used to playing in. One that comes as second nature to them.
But up to now, Man-Utd is still all over the place, as we certainly all saw this week. The question that lingers is how exactly Mourinho wanted his team to play.
At least when Sir Alex Ferguson was manager, regardless of who the opponent was, the formation hardly changed, let alone the strategy and approach. It was cast in stone that Man-Utd always used the wings and direct play.
In the 3-4-3 that Man-Utd were framed out to be playing before kick-off, Jesse Lingard was a wing-back on the left side. It is not Lingard’s fault that he did not thrive in that role. But that does not mean he is not a good player.
As a winger or behind the centre-forward, Lingard has been effective. In fact, to appreciate how much Mourinho was gambling that night, he later moved Lingard further forward, closer to Lukaku, as the first half drew to a close.
That was after Pogba had failed to operate as the left-sided forward supporting Lukaku. It was mambo-jumbo for sure.
Even Mkhitaryan, who used to be a key conductor at Dortmund, disappeared in the second half. It was just not clear how they would play after Marouane Fellaini came on.
But that was at the expense of Juan Mata and Anthony Martial, as was leaving Daley Blind, a naturally left-footed defender/midfielder, on the bench for Matteo Darmian.
This did not only enable Daniel Carvajal to have a field day, camping in Man-Utd’s box, it also showed how unbalanced Mourinho’s side was. Because they (Darmian and Lingard) were not playing from their stronger body sides, they could hardly attack Real Madrid.
There is enough talent at Man-Utd. But they are failing to use it because Mourinho is too cautious and probably unsure of who to play here and there.
Unless Man-Utd settle into a team, it will be difficult to get into rhythm; the kind needed to beat opponents. Not a 3-5-2 today, a 3-4-3 the next day, then a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 the other day.
That squad at Mourinho’s disposal is so good not to compete on all fronts. But unless they get to grips with a certain approach like Fergie’s teams did in their usually 4-4-2 system, prepare for another dour season. Clearly, Marcus Rashford is promising as a centre-forward.
But he does not match Martial as a wing forward, technically. Just why doesn’t Mourinho let the ‘dogs out’? Let them play.
Let them enjoy themselves in their most natural positions, unless circumstances, say injuries, compel otherwise.
Just how often does Barcelona mind about the opposition to feel pressured to change their approach or system?
They beat you with what you already know. Such were Fergie’s teams too, as were Mourinho’s when Arjen Robben, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Damien Duff terrorized everybody. But all that came with settled teams, which United is not today.
Few would be able to comprehend the captain issue at the club. It is illogical to name Michael Carrick skipper when he is going to be a bit- part player at the club.
In addition, no matter how long Antonio Valencia has been at United, he just does not have the charisma to be captain.
He cannot address a press conference. Give the arm-band to Pogba. He is naturally the leader of the team; self-assured and a mainstay. His assistants can be Herrera and Blind, another leader groomed at Ajax Amsterdam.