Another new Manchester United? Breaking down the differences from the 2018/19 season…

Manchester United fans have noticed a few differences in the team so far on their current pre-season tour. Winning four games from four, the team has looked fitter and has played with greater intensity than before. The addition of new players to the squad, either from other clubs or the reserve team, has once again got supporters excited for the coming season. Let us now take a look at the main differences that have been evident thus far.

Rest, much more of it.

Only a handful of United players had international commitments over the past summer and many of them only had a few games to play. Compare this with last year when a significant number of United players participated in 2018 FIFA World Cup, and one begins to see why the club have been able to select a touring squad that is superior quality to the one chosen last year. The individual players have looked in far better shape than they did last season and this has had an unsurprisingly positive effect on the team as a whole.

Many of United’s key players had to miss parts of last year’s tour, owing to their nations progressing to the knockout stages of the World Cup. Champions France, third-placed Belgium and fourth-placed England all boasted key members of United’s first team, who had to miss the majority of pre-season as a result of making it into the semi-finals. Many of these players, including Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku and Jesse Lingard, played in the majority of the seven games their nations played at the tournament.

All this, of course, was achieved after a gruelling 2017/18 season with United, which ended in defeat to Chelsea in the FA Cup final at Wembley. This summer, however, only Alexis Sánchez, Diogo Dalot, Marcus Rashford and new signing Aaron Wan-Bissaka played tournament football, while the others all played in friendlies and qualifiers for UEFA Euro 2020, which takes place next summer. Wan-Bissaka played in just a single game for England’s U21 squad at their European championship before signing for United.

He joined up with the squad soon afterwards and even managed to play in the first game of the tour. Rashford, who battled an ankle injury until the season’s close, was again injured during the UEFA Nations League although he has seemingly returned to full fitness since. Dalot participated in the under-20 World Cup with Portugal and his involvement also ended in the group stages. He played the full 90 minutes in two of the three group games.

Sánchez meanwhile, suffered an injury as Chile finished in fourth place at the Copa America and has since gone on his end of season break. United hope that he will return rested and free of his latest injury, as he looks to save his career at the club. United’s two most important players also enjoyed breaks that saw them come back refreshed and ready for the upcoming season. David De Gea looked uncharacteristically suspect from March onwards and perhaps needed a rest more than anything else.

Paul Pogba was even afforded an extended break after a taxing period in which he rushed back early for last year’s tour after winning the World Cup, while also becoming a father for the first time. All in all, the majority of United’s squad have benefitted from their end of season breaks, after a particularly deflating end to the season.

A fresh approach from Solskjaer and co.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer first took charge of Manchester United in mid-December 2018 in a caretaker capacity. He was later appointed as the permanent manager in March 2019, after guiding United to a famous comeback win over Paris Saint-Germain in the UEFA Champions League, all the while gaining ground on their top four rivals and progressing to the latter stages of the FA Cup after notable wins against Arsenal and Chelsea.

Solskjaer’s arrival at the club preceded a dramatic upturn in form for the team, who at a point was looking almost certain to finish in the top four despite having been 11 points off the pace when he took the reins. Solskjaer achieved this by making a few minor tweaks to the United team as well as the tactical plans that were already in place. These included using Marcus Rashford as his main striker and often playing Paul Pogba further forward in midfield.

Solskjaer has also experimented with a few different formations, using a 4-3-3, both with and without a false centre-forward, a 4-2-3-1, a 4-4-2, a 4-4-2 diamond and even a 3-5-2 during his few months as manager. Along with his coaching staff, which includes former United players Michael Carrick and Mike Phelan, Solskjaer also implemented one-off tactical plans in certain games in order to get the desired result. These include the counter-attacking strategies employed to get wins away to the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain.

This pre-season however, United have looked vastly different. This is likely due to Solskjaer being able to implement fresh ideas and approaches of his own, rather than having to work with those already in place. This has been demonstrated in United’s alteration to training methods, which were seen early in pre-season. The team has played with greater intensity so far in the tour games and the forward players have shown an eagerness to press high up the pitch, peg the opposition back and the won the ball back quickly.

Because these are merely non-competitive pre-season games, where players play a predetermined number of minutes with the aim of building up their match fitness, comparing the statistics to last season would be meaningless. On the evidence provided by the four games thus far, it appears likely that statistics relating to the number of sprints and ball recoveries made high up the pitch by United players are going to be much higher this season. This was highlighted in the most recent tour match, against Tottenham.

Despite United not performing as well as they had in previous games, Champions League finalists Tottenham Hotspur struggled to deal with United’s energy-intense pressing, being forced to resort to some brutal tackling, before eventually being narrowly beaten 2-1. With the naked eye, it appears as though this fresh approach has revitalised United, particularly as it draws a substantial contrast when compared to the United that ended 2018/19.

The team began to lose its way after the PSG victory, even succumbing to defeat against relegated Cardiff City on the final day of the Premier League season. In addition to the poor results, the team performed poorly, even during the matches they won. The home wins against West Ham United and Watford exemplify this. This is a far cry from what fans in Australia, Singapore and Shanghai have been treated to so far, as United have been deserving winners in all four games. Solskjaer will be hoping this continues into the competitive games next month. He certainly won’t be alone in that regard.

New signings

United’s two signings so far this summer have addressed two of major issues in the squad. Daniel James is an orthodox winger who can play on either flank. The Welsh international also possesses searing pace, which will prove to be an asset for when Solskjaer wishes to employ a counter-attacking strategy. At 21, he also has plenty of room for improvement and could also prove to be a bargain, having been purchased at a reported £15 million plus add-ons.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka meanwhile, is a defensively efficient full-back who possesses a good deal of pace. As a former winger, he also has significant technical ability when going forward. He is also 21 and is likely to replace the ageing Ashley Young as United’s first-choice right-back while Diogo Dalot, 20, is likely to become his deputy. These two signings have clearly been made with the future in mind, although they may be able to play significant roles right away.

Wan-Bissaka has been particularly impressive during the tour thus far, with fans even remarking that they haven’t seen an opposition player go past him. He also showed good recovery pace and stamina against Inter Milan, sprinting back after United lost possession before making a trademark sliding tackle on his opponent. James, with his raw pace and willingness to run, both with and without the ball, has proven to be a difficult customer for his opponents.

The speed he has added to the frontline has also supported Solskjaer’s United when playing on the counter. In the latter parts of each half, once United’s players have expended energy doing the early pressing, they’ve sat back and allowed their opponents a spell of possession. After winning the ball back, they break using the pace of James, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood and Tahith Chong to stretch the opposition defence. This enhances Solskjaer’s aforementioned counter-attacking strategies.

It has also been rumoured that more signings are on the way, possibly to address United’s soft centre of defence as well as their reliance on Paul Pogba for creativity from midfield. Romelu Lukaku has also been linked with a move away from the club and Solskjaer may seek to replace him with a striker who is better suited to the way he wants United to play, or to be the focal point of specific tactical plans. Whatever happens during the rest of the window, it’s clear that United have altered their transfer policies somewhat, and fans can expect exciting recruits who are going to fit the style of play Solskjaer intends to implement.

Academy players

Minutes have been given to a number of academy graduates who weren’t always in the first-team picture last season. Mason Greenwood, Angel Gomes, James Garner, Axel Tuanzebe and Tahith Chong have all been drafted into Solskjaer’s plans thus far. Tuanzebe is the oldest of this group at 21 and he spent the last 18 months on loan at Aston Villa, whom he helped to promotion to the Premier League via the playoffs.

The rest of the group are all still teenagers who come highly-rated out of the club’s academy and have previously been given a handful of competitive appearances each. All this, of course, comes after the recent promotions of Andreas Pereira and Scott McTominay within the first-team. Pereira, who recently signed a new deal with the club, bagged an assist against Leeds from a corner and impressed against Tottenham. McTominay, who was one of the shining lights towards the end of last season, has rarely put a foot wrong in any of the games, and also picked up an assist against Leeds after a driving run from deep in his own half.

To further emphasise the suitability of Solskjaer implementing these new ideas onto the club’s youngsters, all the goals scored by United on tour so far have either been scored or assisted by academy graduates. Tuanzebe was recently labelled “the future” of United by Solskjaerand has looked particularly impressive in his favoured position of centre-back, where he has had hardly any opportunities at United. The DR Congo-born player looks like the most suitable partner for Victor Lindelöf among United’s current centre-back options.

He has the potential to dominate physical duels much like Chris Smalling and he is not as brittle as the injury-prone trio of Eric Bailly, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo. His ball-playing skills are also excellent and perhaps bettered only by Lindelöf among United’s centre-backs. Bailly’s recent injury opens the door for Tuanzebe to be more involved, despite United seemingly looking to recruit another centre-back. For all his qualities and potential, Tuanzebe does not have that much experience in the Premier League, having only played a handful of games in 2017.

He also did not play these games at centre-back, so Solskjaer may seek a more experienced but equally suitable player to partner Lindelöf. Greenwood has been by far the best performer on tour out of this group. The 17-year-old looked a constant threat against Perth Glory, before scoring the opener against old rivals Leeds United, followed by the winner against Inter. He has also achieved most of this while playing on the right-wing, which is a position United fans were hoping would be strengthened this summer.

Gomes, 18, has looked typically bright whenever he has played and backed this up with the winner against Tottenham, his first senior goal for United. Fellow 18-year-old Jimmy Garner also opened his goalscoring account for the club, after replacing Luke Shaw as a substitute against Perth. Chong, 19, has been given opportunities on tour due to the absence of Alexis Sánchez and injury to Romelu Lukaku. He is a natural winger with loads of potential and while predominantly left-footed, he has been used on both wings thus far. He has shown flashes of his talent and will likely need more game time at a high level if he is to develop further this season.

Loan moves could be on the cards for Gomes, Garner and Chong, particularly if United manage to secure further reinforcements in the transfer window. These players have, of course, been used by Solskjaer during the absences of Sánchez and Fred from the touring squad. They are likely to find opportunities limited once the first-team squad is back to its full complement. It will then be up to them and the coaching staff of both the first and reserve teams to decide where they will play their football in 2019/20. United’s reserve team is due to play in the second division of Premier League 2, which is perhaps not ideal for the development of these players, who could be playing at a higher level.

In closing

It is easy to get carried away by just how much better United have looked so far. The remaining pre-season fixtures and weeks of the transfer window are going to provide more indications as to just how much this team has changed. Now that the squad has returned to Manchester, supporters have probably got more than they had hoped for from the trip to Australia and the Far East.

Written by Shiven Nayager

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