One of the more successful preseasons this summer, in terms of results, belongs to Manchester United. After the horror show of last season, there was seemingly only one way the club could go from there, and sure enough, the club is moving in the right upward direction under new boss Louis van Gaal.
There are still a lot of improvements for United to make, however, if the club aims to try and win the Premier League this season. The Premier League has been littered with teams over the years that have had even better preseasons than United have this year only to underwhelm when the real business begins. The expectations should be high for United, but realistic still.
Van Gaal has made a smart move in now utilizing a 3-5-2 formation with the players he currently has. It is a formation which suits most of the players on the team, if not completely suitable to all, with the most obvious being the three central defenders. Question marks must still remain over Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Johnny Evans, and after the performances of those players against Liverpool in Miami, Van Gaal must be eager to bring a couple of players in for those positions.
In this particular formation, the three center-backs all need to be comfortable on the ball and adept at passing at both short and long range. In the first half against Liverpool, all three failed in each of those areas. Jones in particular has never really been reliable with the ball, and his passing in the Liverpool game lived up to that reputation perfectly. His decision making is still also poor, as he showed on the penalty he gave away to Raheem Sterling.
Evans too looked uncomfortable on the ball, as well as looking uneasy being in such a wide position as the center-backs spread out when United had possession. Ashley Young has surprisingly enjoyed a good preseason playing as a wing-back so far, but he too was caught out defensively playing a position which is obviously not natural to him. There were many individual errors overall, but as a whole, the defense looked shaky, especially in the first half.
The system and formation seems fine; the question is whether the current players quite fit into it yet. Defensively, at this point you would have to say they don’t, although offensively, the players seem to work very well within the system. And with Robin Van Persie still to return and link up with Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata, the United attack should be among the most threatening in the league. The real tests, though, will come once the season is underway and opposition teams begin to exploit the current deficiencies in the back line.
Especially having watched the Liverpool game, you can expect every Premier League team to now press high and force the United center-backs to give up the ball time and time again; it nullifies the United attack and breaks the team’s rhythm. It would be hard to believe that United won’t spend more money before the transfer window eventually closes, though, and some of that money will surely go on a center-back or even two.
United look markedly improved since last season and are clearly heading in the right direction, but there are still wrinkles to be ironed out. Good results can sometimes mask the imperfections of performances, and that’s what United need to be careful of. You couldn’t tag the Red Devils as anything like title favorites or even major players in the race as things stand — not yet.
But you could realistically expect them to be inside the top four and having a small say on the periphery of the title race. And with additions still to come, depending on who those additions are, the ambitions will continue to be ever evolving. Then, when the final squad is set and the initial Premier League tests are passed, United’s true ambitions can really be set.