Five lessons learnt from the Manchester United preseason

Manchester United have strengthened significantly over the offseason and, consequently, fans are very optimistic about their chances for the campaign ahead.

John Kent discusses their transfer activities and how the new boys will fit into manager Jose Mourinho’s team come kick off.


1. Jose should buy a defender…just in case

Don’t get me wrong, I do not include the whole defence in this statement. We all know that in David De Gea United have one of the top three goalkeepers in the world at present, if not the best, and with the Spaniard they will always be tough to beat.

At full back, Luke Shaw has made a promising return from injury, and the sight of him running down the left side of the Old Trafford turf was undoubtedly the highlight of Wayne Rooney’s testimonial last Wednesday night.

On the other side, Antonio Valencia has been a pleasant surprise, with there being signs that he might well have learnt to cross the ball again. Not enough has been seen of Matteo Darmian though to make a proper statement.

A move for Fabinho of Ligue 1 side AS Monaco has been mooted, but Mourinho may give Valencia the first couple of games to prove himself.

It is the centre of defence though that will have the United fans worried. Chris Smalling has been injured, and thus will go into the new season with no real match rhythm, and whilst Daley Blind has proven an able deputy, he will not have opposition strikers trembling in their boots.

Eric Bailly has impressed immensely; I think he looks very calm and composed on the ball, and will be a tough one to out muscle – a couple of times he has ushered opposing strikers off the ball in situations that others would’ve baulked at.

My issue is that he is young, and also has no Premier League experience, and whilst I hope he proves me wrong, I would be very surprised if Jose Mourinho does not dip his hand into the market once again for a more experienced defender.

2. Zlatan and Wayne are not a match made in heaven

Manchester United’s new number nine Zlatan Ibrahimovic has spoken about relishing the thought of playing with Rooney, saying his selfless work-rate made him the ideal striking partner – well, I would beg to differ.

The players are too similar in one aspect – they both like to drop deep to pick up the ball, Rooney in particular when United are struggling for possession in the final third.

If we look at the two heat maps below from a game for each of the two players, you will see how they are apt to occupy similar positions:

A heat map of Wayne Rooney’s performance in a 0-0 draw against Crystal Palace 2015/16
A heat map of Wayne Rooney’s performance in a 0-0 draw against Crystal Palace 2015/16
A heat map Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s against Belgium in the Euro 2016 Championship
A heat map Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s against Belgium in the Euro 2016 Championship

It does not take a rocket scientist to realise that this combination will therefore not work.

How best to deal with it? It’s simple in my opinion; in Anthony Martial and Rashford, then to a lesser extent Memphis Depay and Jesse Lingard, United have a group of players who will outpace the majority of defenders in the Premier League.

It then becomes a case of two into one, and in my opinion that player should be Zlatan. He has shown a willingness to get the ball whenever possible in pre-season, and one of his biggest strengths is the way he holds it up, and then will be able to get the runners heading towards the goal.

This is the reason he is able to not only score goals, but get a large amount of assists on top of it.

That brings us nicely onto the next question then, and what to do with Wayne Rooney.


3. Rooney should be given a chance, but Jose must be ruthless

There is no doubting that Rooney still has the potential to offer a lot to this Manchester United side. Take his passing average for example – last year it was up at 83.1%, which is 2.9% higher then he has averaged over his career, although this would largely be due to the ‘safety’ first approach employed at Van Gaal.

Furthermore, Jose Mourinho is seeking to build a team ready to intimidate, whether it be Zlatan, Martial, De Gea, or the arrival of Paul Pogba; Rooney certainly falls into this category, one just has to look at the way that the likes of Lionel Messi speak of him to realise the respect that he carries amongst the very best players in world football.

The worrying thing though is the steady decline in the goals scored column, as Rooney failed to reach double figures in the Premier League last year. This will undoubtedly concern Jose Mourinho, and will largely be the reason that he is deployed in the number ten position behind the striker, rather than closer to goal.

Should Rooney be able to lay on the passes, this will not be a problem, and I have no doubt United would thrive if it were the case. This is far from guaranteed though, and do not be surprised to see football’s favourite blogger, Juan Mata, take his place.

My dream scenario would be to take the change further by Henrik Mkhitaryan into the middle, and have the speed merchants running off him and Zlatan and creating havoc for the opposition defence.

4. Jose may just settle

Now, before anyone makes any comments about how  a ‘leopard never changes it’s spots’, and ‘we’ve heard it all before’, just hear me out.

The respect that Jose Mourinho has always had for the red half of Manchester is undeniable. Just see below for a few things the ‘Special One’ has said about his new charges:

  • “I told Mr. Ferguson that United didn’t deserve to leave with nothing.”
  • “My wish has been granted. It will be unforgettable to go back to Manchester…I want to face the best and United are a team of champions with a super coach in Alex Ferguson.”
  • “The best team lost. We didn’t deserve to win but football is like this.”


These pale in comparison when you see how Mourinho has behaved towards other rivals, whether it be the long running feud with Arsene Wenger, or the eye poking incident over in La Liga.

What is it then that suggests a change in his ways? Firstly a look at the couple of players brought in, not least the first of the bunch, Eric Bailly, whom Mourinho has admitted is a long term project.

Even Pogba, for all the vast amount of money being spent, is hardly the finished article.

Yes, you can point to both Zlatan and Mkhitaryan being on the older side of the scale, but Zlatan in particular has his reasons for coming over, not least as Jose knows he is desperate to get one over a certain manager across the road.


Another potential target that is, or at least was, rumoured to be close is Reece Oxford from West Ham, with Jose no doubt intrigued at the prospect of combining him with Tim Fosu-Mensah and Axel Tuanzebe, who both saw some minutes in pre-season, though the latter in particular may be off on loan.

In terms of talk, a lot of the theatrics of Mourinho seem to have disappeared (for now) from his persona, and talk instead seems concentrated at getting the most out of his team, and hopefully staying in the longer term then his initial contract dictates.

I know there is a long way to go, and he could yet spontaneously combust in spectacular fashion, but watch this space.

5. The team is not there yet

Yes, there is potential, but there is a long way to go. United fans have to remember what Jose was left by both Louis Van Gaal and David Moyes, and if United are to challenge it could very well be down to the weakness of others rather than their own strength.

The fact that United are not in the Champions League could be a blessing in disguise as it will allow them to rebuild away from the attention, and the potential scrutiny, that an away fixture at the Camp Nou for example could bring.

It is exciting times though, and for the first time since the days of Sir Alex Ferguson, United can go into the campaign with a real sense of optimism.

The Author

John Kent

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