- Runs of wins against LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, Manchester City and Real Madrid ended by 1-0 defeat to Barcelona
- Mkhitaryan, Jones and Rashford have performed well, and new signing Lukaku has settled in with new teammates
'Unmissable': Jose Mourinho pleased with Manchester United's US tour, but work still to be done
The chartered 747 took off from Washington and headed east through the night across the Atlantic towards Manchester. On board were 100 employees of Manchester United, with the players upstairs in the business-class only jet. They had just lost 1-0 to Barcelona in the fifth and final game of the club’s seventh US pre-season tour in 14 years, the only defeat on a trip which saw victories over MLS sides the Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Salt Lake, Manchester City and Real Madrid.
The tour was a success, though the football was often as forgettable as the grey third kit worn by United against the Catalans, a strip nowhere near as striking as their red home strip or black away shirts.
New players Romelu Lukaku and Victor Lindelof settled in well, serious injuries were avoided, as was the drama of cancelled games and disrupted flights suffered in China a year ago. Jose Mourinho experimented tactically, starting with three at the back against Barca.
Unlike last year, Paul Pogba, increasingly the most important figure in the dressing room, has a full pre-season under his belt which should lead to a strong second season. Mourinho said he belonged "at the same level" as Lionel Messi and Neymar after the final game against Barca.
United’s lucrative tour, for which they receive substantial match fees, glad hand with many of their biggest Stateside sponsors and push their own official media channels, was marketed as "Unmissable". That was the word emblazoned along the side of the tour bus which took the United players to their training sessions, most of them at the pristine facilities of UCLA so admired by Mourinho.
The tour was also far better organised than United’s last visit to traffic-snarled LA and there were no two-hour journeys to train as there were under Louis van Gaal. But the five games were little more than glorified training sessions designed to ease the team into a long season. There were mass changes at half time, while LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake, the two MLS opponents, played their reserve teams before introducing more established players. It wasn’t a snub to United; they are in the middle of their regular seasons. Real Salt Lake flew to Portland for a game the morning after their defeat to United.
Amid the negatives of fast-shifting line ups and over-priced match tickets where a seat behind the goal in Los Angeles cost US$150 (Dh550) - four times the cost of a seat in Stretford End for a Premier League game – there was good news. Crowds were high with the 80,162 crowd packed into the FedEx Field in Maryland for the Barca game was the biggest, and United’s support in each of the cities they played is extensive and well organised.
Goalkeeper David de Gea will stay at Old Trafford and, as the Spaniard showed with six saves against Barça, mostly from Messi and Neymar, he is one of the few world-class performers at Old Trafford.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Phil Jones and Marcus Rashford were among other United players who performed well, as did Jesse Lingard. Some United fans cannot do without a scapegoat, an outlet to vent their frustrations. Lingard, who cost the club nothing, has been their target and there is a danger that with Wayne Rooney now at Everton and Marouane Fellaini performing the role requested by his managers, such criticism could intensify. Lingard is not Neymar, but he is a versatile player needed by every squad and he has already scored key goals.
For all the spirit and positives in the United squad, they are still lacking the star quality befitting their status. Going into the transfer window, Antoine Griezmann, who would have provided that, was the club’s principal transfer target, but the French forward decided to stay in Madrid. The addition of a less stellar, but powerful forward, Lukaku, was welcomed and the Belgian has settled in quickly alongside his friends.
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Mourinho boasts of Lukaku’s physical prowess and goalscoring record, his teammates appreciate him pulling defenders out of position, but United’s manager still wants two more players. His hard-to-beat team play friendlies in Oslo on Sunday and Dublin next Wednesday before a European Super Cup match against Real Madrid in Skopje on August 8.
That is when they will start being judged for real, with expectations high that they can mount a realistic title challenge. United are still in transition and still some way short of the best team, but little by little Mourinho is moving them in the right direction.