Premier League side will likely find the going tough this season, but their new manager is having an effect on the players, writes Andy Mitten.
Players’ belief in Louis van Gaal is what Manchester United will like
Ashley Young spoke like a man on top of his game.
“If you look at the performance today and all the displays we’ve put on during the tour, things have gone well,” the Manchester United winger said.
Young had just scored twice in his side’s 3-1 win over Real Madrid on Saturday in United States.
“It’s a new system and a new way to play, but everyone has adapted to it and understands the manager’s philosophy,” he said of first-year manager Louis van Gaal’s alignment. “The formation gives us more time to play and more space and we’re all enjoying it.
“We’ve just played against the European champions, and even though it’s pre-season, I think we deserved to win.”
It was the performance against Madrid, more than the result, that was most impressive for the English Premier League side.
“The build-up to the first goal was fantastic,” Young said. “I think there were only two players not involved in and I’m definitely claiming the second goal.
“Wazza [Wayne Rooney] told me on the pitch he didn’t touch it, so I’m delighted to get two.”
After a disappointing season in which he was abused by his own supporters and gained a reputation for diving, Young’s stock fell considerably at Old Trafford.
Few United fans would have been dismayed to see the former Aston Villa winger, 29, sold over the summer, but they did not know what new Van Gaal had planned for the Englishman.
With a strength of personality that is similar to Sir Alex Ferguson’s, Van Gaal has made it clear that he is the boss at United and that what he says goes. There may be compromises along the way if it hinders United’s bottom line, and the club are unlikely to stop the exhausting, though lucrative, long-haul pre-season tours, but Van Gaal knows what he wants.
He has managed at the biggest clubs in the world in the past and knew he needed to take control of the dressing room from the start by making decisions designed not to please others, but to help United win matches by playing attractive, attacking football.
In Young, Van Gaal has seen a player with the pace and energy to fit his newly implemented 3-5-2 system.
The idea of such an attack-minded player being used as a defender can confuse opponents, since the 3-5-2 quickly switches to a 5-3-2 when United defend, but it has worked during the team’s three-week American tour, the finale of which is tonight against Liverpool in Miami.
United triumphed in games against Los Angeles Galaxy, Roma, Inter Milan and Madrid.
Over 300,000 fans have watched their games so far, underlining the club’s vast appeal in a country where the game has moved closer to the sports mainstream.
The crowd of 109,318 at the University of Michigan Stadium on Saturday was the largest for a “soccer” game in the United States. It was also the fourth-biggest crowd in United history and the largest since 114,500 watched in Barcelona’s Camp Nou 20 years ago.
European champions Madrid were part of that appeal, but United’s is based in the US and they have been invited back next summer, though they will try to improve upon the travelling logistics that have irked Van Gaal.
Several of Van Gaal’s players are playing for their United futures. Like David Moyes before him, the Dutchman, 63, wants to give existing personnel a chance and hopes that he can reinvigorate a squad he described as “broken”.
He has been coy when talking about transfer targets, though United are actively looking at new signings. Several of the players whose futures had been questioned can feel satisfied with the pre-season tour.
Tom Cleverley was made captain for the victory over Roma, a move which lifted his confidence, battered by mishaps last season.
With potential captain Robin van Persie not returning to pre-season training until tomorrow, and set to miss the start of the season, Darren Fletcher was captain against LA Galaxy and Madrid.
Man of the match against the Spaniards, the 30-year-old Scot, who had battled injury and illness in recent seasons, looked revitalised.
Shinji Kagawa performed well and provided an assist against Madrid for Javier Hernandez, another player considered a star in the many foreign markets that United court.
Both hope for more opportunities this season, though they will have to take them if they do come. That was not the case last season as the pair failed to reach the levels expected of United players.
New midfield signing Ander Herrera has settled in quickly and was man of the match against LA Galaxy. His English is already at a superior level to some of his Spanish-speaking teammates.
United will be judged by how they do against their main domestic rivals, rather than on pre-season results, but Van Gaal has reinvigorated the whole club.
One long-time member of staff told him as much after the game in Madrid. Van Gaal replied, “thanks” before returning to his obsession, football.
That obsession had led him to talking tactics in front of his players at 10pm, something the players have never experienced before.
“After Ferguson, it was more difficult for United, but they now have to rebuild a team,” Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said.
“They have signed good players, but building a team is not easy and the Premier League is a very competitive league. It will not be easy to win in the first year, because there are many competitive teams who want to win.”
Van Gaal told his staff that he wants to win the league this season. It is a big ask, but he is not short of the belief that it can be done. Crucially, neither are his players.
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