The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – Real Madrid 02/08/14
In this post, we will look at the key talking points to come out of United’s victory over Champions League winners Real Madrid on their pre-season tour of America. Please feel free to leave your good, bad and ugly points from the game in the comments section below.
• Comfort in possession
The sheer joy one experienced from last night’s display was epitomised by the complete polar opposite of the performance when compared to the dark days under the management of David Moyes. What was most noticeable to me was that every single player looked comfortable receiving the ball and was happy to take possession even if under pressure, safe in the knowledge there was an available option close by. It was especially pleasing to see this trait in our back three who were able to combine with our midfield to good effect as attacks were started from deep without the necessity for the long ball hoof that became synonymous under the previous regime.
• The resurgence of Darren Fletcher
When Darren Fletcher was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, the fear was that his quality of life would be severely compromised let alone be able to resume a career in top level football. His performances on tour have been outstanding with the caveat that it is only pre-season but his displays have reminded us all of the “old” Fletch whose game was based on energy and covering every blade of grass. Under the tutelage of van Gaal, (his confidence must have been boosted by being awarded the captaincy in three out of the four games) he also seems to have added a layer of creativity to his passing and a willingness to get involved with the attacking play which can be demonstrated by his role in the glorious 20 pass move for last night’s opening goal. Don’t get me wrong, United are still in dire need of a quality central midfielder with bite to compliment the skills and all round class of Ander Herrera but it is heart-warming to see a resurgent “football genius” put in performances that emphasise his importance to the club especially in light of the experienced players who have left the club since last season.
• Movement and one touch passing
Another striking aspect to the performance last night was the lightening movement displayed by the players. No one ever seemed to be standing still. Whoever received the ball had options all around them whether it was a progressive pass forward or a standard sideways pass as the midfield and defence looked to probe. The wing backs were asked to get chalk on their boots hugging the touchline a la Kanchelskis in the 90s and it helped to make the pitch look huge and created space for the likes of Herrera, Rooney and the sublime Mata to work their magic in the final third.
A noticeable point arising from the training sessions screened by MUTV has been the emphasis on one touch passing. The fruits of this labour were borne out by the crispness of the recycling of the ball against Madrid. Rarely did a player hang onto the ball past his first touch, it was all pass and move and at times it became mesmeric as a United team, after a year in the doldrums, blossomed into a gorgeous microcosm of everything that Louis van Gaal stands for despite only being under his guidance for a few weeks.
• The formation
When it was mooted before van Gaal arrived that United would look to imitate his Dutch team from the World Cup in terms of formation, I was highly sceptical. The likes of Evans, Jones and Smalling have been brought up on a consistent diet of four at the back and a change of system and style did not appear to be something that I felt they would easily adapt to. On the contrary, apart from the expected rustiness early on versus Roma, three at the back has worked wonderfully so far and as confidence improves amongst the players, its effectiveness will only improve as the season progresses. The genius of van Gaal (with undoubted input from right hand man Giggs) was to realise that United were top heavy with underperforming “defensive” wingers who could do a job but were not creative or consistent enough to supply the necessary quality under a strict and conservative 4-4-2 formation. To see Young, and to a lesser extent Valencia, reinvent themselves has been impressive and although tougher tests will come, the readiness of the United squad to embrace new ideas has been refreshing to witness.
After a sensational display of pace and creativity in the first half, the inevitable glut of substitutes that followed in the second period understandably had an effect on the game as Real came more into the game while rarely threatening. It was great to see the likes of Shaw, Lingard, Kagawa, Hernandez and Blackett recover from a slow start to blossom as the half progressed as they carried on the standards set in the first period. Especially pleasing was the wing back play of Shaw and Lingard who both attacked with verve and skill while not abandoning their defensive responsibilities. The link up play between Kagawa and Hernandez for the clinching goal was stunning as the Japanese international picked out his Mexican colleague with a beautifully weighted ball before it was dispatched in brave fashion to wrap up the three points. Many feel Kagawa could be sold this summer but his ability to play as a no 10 or no 8, means his abilities should see him retained as a useful weapon off the bench whilst covering in the case of injury to Mata and Herrera.
• Tom Cleverley
Poor old Thomas. While others have shone under the guidance of the new “trainer-coach”, TC23 has struggled in the pre-season warm up matches adding further fuel to the raging inferno from United fans who fail to see what he adds to the squad. He has been poor in possession, often caught dawdling on the ball while at other times his passing radar, although more progressive than his Wilkins like tendency to pass sideways, still does not have the necessary quality to hint at a renaissance under van Gaal. The drop in performance when Herrera was subbed at half time was startling and he must continue to work hard and hope the penny drops if he is to forge a long term career at the club.
• Wilfried Zaha
After a promising cameo against Inter the other night, not surprisingly Wilf failed to make much of an impact against the strong back line of Real, despite clearly having the faith of the boss after being sent on ahead of Hernandez following the withdrawl of Welbeck. Zaha clearly needs games after a disappointing season last year where he failed to impress firstly Moyes and then Solksjaer at Cardiff. Rumours of a poor attitude persist and one feels that a full season of football at a decent level will do the highly talented youngster the world of good as he looks to find his way in the game.
• Inexperienced centre backs
The experience gained by both Michael Keane and Tyler Blackett will be invaluable in the years to come as they look to make a decent career in football but their occasional and perfectly understandable naivety only goes to show the necessity for Ed Woodward to dust off his cheque book ahead of the new season. Being skinned by Gareth Bale as Keane was last night on a couple of occasions is no cause for embarrassment but there will be plenty more challenges to face this season and you would expect only one of the two promising youngsters to stay at the club depending on purchases. United need a strong centre back in the mould of Hummels or even Vermaelen if the Dortmund player cannot be prized out of the grasp of Klopp. Relying on youth in such a crucial position, while admirable and epitomising the van Gaal philosophy, would be a mistake in my opinion.
• Real Madrid hatchet job at Welbeck
In the opening period, Danny Welbeck caused the Real Madrid backline of Pepe and Ramos all sorts of problems with his pace, energy and pressing ability when out of possession. Their only answer was to respond as they have done in the past with late challenges and sly tackles away from the close eye of the referee. We hope that Welbeck’s injury which was confirmed post match by our trainer-coach to be something he had been nursing for a few days is not something that will keep him out for long as all eyes turn to the final match of the tour against Liverpool on Monday.
De Gea 7, M Keane 6, Jones 8, Evans 7 (Blackett 6) Valencia 6, (Lingard 7), Herrera 7 (Cleverley 5), Fletcher 8, Young 8 (Shaw 7); Mata 7 (Kagawa 7); Rooney 7 (Hernandez 7), Welbeck 7 (Zaha 5).