3 things we learned in preseason about Manchester United
The new season is upon us and the real action is about to begin after a summer of transfer ins and outs, money-spinning preseason tournaments and a sensational world record breaking transfer thrown in for good measure. Manchester United spent a large part of their summer touring the United States before finishing up with fixtures against Valerenga and Sampdoria.
Overall Jose Mourinho seems pretty pleased with how things have gone, particularly in the USA. His United team finished with only one loss during their friendly programme, to Spanish giants Barcelona and have come out the other side without any fresh injury concerns. However, the results are perhaps not the most important aspect of preseason and Mourinho has used the fixtures to blood new players, try new formations and learn about the squad. Below I look over some of the key things that we have learned from this preseason…
Jose wants tactical flexibility
During the preseason schedule, Mourinho used several different formations and systems and the team is developing the kind of tactical flexibility that should allow them to compete against any side. Last season’s home Premier League fixture against Chelsea gave us a glimpse of how Mourinho can use a three centre-back system to maximise the options he has in the squad. He continued this theme in preseason and frequently used a 3-5-2 formation. The advantages of this are clear to see and there is a feeling that this is potentially a better use of the current options in the squad. It allows a bit of protection for new signing Victor Lindelof, who has looked a little shaky in preseason, as well as allowing fellow newcomer Romelu Lukaku to be used in a front two whilst still being able to field a midfield three. The thinking is that Lukaku operates better with a partner and retaining the midfield three allows Paul Pogba to be released from defensive duties as Nemanja Matic offers the type of protection that the side lacked last season.
This is unlikely to be Mourinho’s default formation but the use of it in preseason tells us that he considers it an attractive option in certain matches or even to change the course of a match. Teams that like to defend deep and in numbers will have more to contend with when faced with two up front and a marauding Paul Pogba than perhaps they would do when faced with a lone front man in a 4231.
Things may change if Mourinho gets his wish and United end up signing Gareth Bale or Ivan Perisic, both of whom operate on the left flank, but what is abundantly clear is that he wants the side to be able to switch between formations comfortably. Mourinho is all about options and more tactical flexibility is simply a case of increasing the weapons in his armoury to break teams down.
Lukaku brings more than just goals
After a summer long pursuit of Alvaro Morata, Jose Mourinho pulled the rug from under his former employers and signed their number one transfer target, Romelu Lukaku. Much has been made of what he brings to the side and plenty have pointed out that he is simply there to provide goals, in particular against the lesser sides that United so struggled against last season. Whilst that is true it does him a disservice to say that is all he brings.
Last season United were heavily reliant on the impressive Zlatan Ibrahimovic who operated as a traditional target man and plundered 28 goals. Lukaku is a very different player. Despite being a tall, strong centre forward and exhibiting good hold up play in his early appearances, he has been most impressive when playing on the shoulder of the last defender. His pace and intelligent running allows United to transition from defence/midfield quickly and at pace whilst his ability to occupy more than one defender at a time creates space for the likes of Mkhitaryan, Pogba, Mata, Rashford, Lingard and Martial to exploit going forward.
On more than one occasion in preseason United have won the ball and broken forward with pace. In contrast to the way in which Zlatan might have played in those situations, Lukaku more often than not turned and created space by making intelligent runs towards goal and into the channels. This forces the defenders to drop ever deeper as they fear his pace in behind and the ball carrier can stride forward with options wide and through the middle. This ability to spearhead counter-attacking moves gives United a different dimension than they had last season and with the extra protection that Matic offers we should see United swarming forward like some of the exhilarating teams that Sir Alex Ferguson created in his time.
Rashford is maturing
Romelu Lukaku is an expensive acquisition but if he thinks his spot as first choice striker is guaranteed he needs only to look at Marcus Rashford’s development and performances in preseason. Rashford had a somewhat subdued second campaign compared to his explosive start to life in the United senior squad and at times looked like the young kid that he is amidst the physicality of the Premier League. However, he has come back from the summer break looking visibly stronger and more muscular as his body has clearly matured.
His performances in preseason have also matured as there is a sense that there is more purpose to the way he plays. He opened the tour with 3 goals in as many games but it is the type of chance that he took and the way he took them that stood out. He looks more clinical and more determined to contribute in a meaningful way to the side. He has always looked dangerous with his pace, footwork and clever movement but sometimes lacked conviction in his end product last season, but his performances in preseason bode well for the future as he is now beginning to develop into a more well-rounded footballer.
He is by no means the finished article but it is obvious that he has benefitted from the presence of Wayne Rooney and Ibrahimovic in training as he has undoubtedly learned from their wealth of top level experience. He now has another accomplished striker to learn from, albeit one who is also learning and improving himself, and this season could mark a watershed moment in his career as more responsibility is thrust upon him with the departures of the aforementioned senior players.
There are many reasons for Manchester United fans to be cautiously optimistic for the new season but seeing one of their own, in Marcus Rashford, progress and hopefully develop into a top-class player is surely one of the more exciting prospects for them.