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Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail

It’s an old adage, but one that has stood the test of time; you cannot expect to be successful if you do not get your planning right. That was the case at Manchester United last summer, as a shambolic pre-season tour threatened to derail Jose Mourinho’s preparations for his first season in charge of Manchester United.

This time around, Manchester United appear to have their house in order. After announcing the £75million signing of Romelu Lukaku last Monday, the Belgian forward was able to join his new teammates for the first day of pre-season training alongside fellow new boy Victor Lindelöf.

Mourinho’s first summer as United manager felt a little haphazard, a little disorganised. Starting with a single friendly against Wigan Athletic, United felt woefully unprepared for the new league season. While new signings Eric Bailly and Henrikh Mkhitaryan featured at the DW Stadium, many of Mourinho’s first United team were Academy graduates and squad players, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic was yet to join the squad following his exploits at Euro 2016. Of the 22 players fielded by Mourinho against Wigan, nine were to be loaned out or sold by the club in the following 12 months, including goal scorers Will Keane and Andreas Pereira.

The main event was set to be the tour of China. A tour organised during the previous season and approved by Louis van Gaal, United were set to play two matches in the Far East as part of their pre-season preparations. Designed to combat the length and the sheer amount of travelling during the overly commercial U.S. tour the year before, van Gaal had set his sights on this Chinese adventure before being removed from his position. Mourinho simply had to adhere to the script.

The whole thing was farcical. United’s first game was embarrassing. A humiliating 4-1 defeat to Borussia Dortmund was compounded by the fact that Mourinho was yet to fully assemble his team. Many of United’s international stars were still on holiday after Euro 2016 and time was running out for Mourinho to mould the group.

No need to panic, though. The second tour match would surely provide an excellent opportunity to continue such vital pre-season work, against stellar Premier League opposition no less! A Manchester derby in China was next. Commercially, it was perfect. From a footballing perspective, it could have been even more so. But despite the game being scheduled in the Bird’s Nest Stadium, venue for the 2008 Olympic Games, torrential rain left the pitch unplayable and the game was called off.

Having played just one match, United were forced to cope with plane diversions, switched training sessions and an abandoned press conference in a room with no air conditioning in which temperatures nudged 40 degrees centigrade. Having contended with farcical conditions from the outset, the cancellation of their second tour fixture was the final straw in what became the most shambolic pre-season tour in the club’s illustrious history.

After returning home, United had just two fixtures left before the Community Shield at Wembley. One match against Galatasaray and a testimonial for Wayne Rooney was not enough to prepare this group of players for the gruelling season ahead.

This time around though, things have been different. Manchester United have returned to the States for a lengthy pre-season tour that will give Jose Mourinho the right conditions in which to prepare his team. Not only have Lukaku and Lindelöf joined the touring party in time to complete a full pre-season with the club, with no major international tournament to serve as a distraction, several vital members of the first team will take part in the entire pre-season period. David De Gea, Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Marouane Fellaini and Matteo Darmian were all involved in Euro 2016 and so could only participate in a limited programme with United last summer.

As well as having a more complete squad working together for a longer period of time, Mourinho was insistent that United had a more thorough and challenging schedule ahead of the new season. Manchester United will play seven matches, including games against Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Manchester City, before competing against Madrid for the UEFA Super Cup in Macedonia on August 8th.

Not only will United have the chance to prepare for the new season against some of the best sides in Europe, Mourinho will be doing so with a squad that he has cultivated and shaped during his first year in charge. Just as he did last year, Mourinho has involved plenty of youngsters in his pre-season preparations. Unlike last year, the youngsters he has selected feel like part of the first team set up. Last year, the likes of Will Keane, Tyler Blackett, Sam Johnstone and James Wilson featured in friendly matches. This season, Mourinho has invited Demetri Mitchell, Scott McTominay, and Joel Pereira on tour, alongside Axel Tuanzebe and Timothy Fosu-Mensah who were involved last year as well. Many of the academy boys who played in 2016 have since left the club, either permanently or on loan. This year, having seen these kids in Premier League action at the end of last season, there is the feeling that Mourinho has invited them into the fold because he believes they have something to offer his squad for the forthcoming campaign.

While Mourinho is delighted to have secured the signings of Romelu Lukaku and Victor Lindelöf so early, the only cloud over Manchester United this summer is the lack of any further business. Mourinho wants two further signings to add balance to the group. Much of the frustration surrounding this issue comes from the acknowledgment that working with a group for the entire off-season will give every player a platform to perform.

That is both the hope and expectation for Paul Pogba. After reaching the final of Euro 2016 with France, Pogba’s protracted move to Manchester United was not confirmed until the 9th August, just days before the start of the Premier League season. Not only did Pogba not get a proper break between his final season in Italy and his return to United, he had to make his move to United without a pre-season to adjust to his new surroundings and teammates or prepare physically for another season of elite level professional sport.

Now though, Pogba returns to training with United well rested and in high spirits. This period will be crucial for the Frenchman, but those who watched him closely last season will be excited at the prospect of seeing Paul Pogba at his very best next season.

There is one final bright spark for Manchester United this summer, one that has been 12 months in the making. Last year Mourinho gave United fans a glimpse of Andreas Pereira in a central role when he played and scored against Wigan in that very first friendly. He was subsequently shipped out on loan to Granada where he played his first full season at the top-level. In a side that was roundly beaten almost every week, finishing bottom of La Liga, Pereira shined. United fans were hopeful they would get to see the Brazilian return to the side this summer and get a chance to once again play as a #8 or even a #6 alongside Paul Pogba in midfield.

In United’s first pre-season fixture against LA Galaxy, a comfortable 5-2 win, United fans got their wish. Elevated from no.44 to no.15, Andreas Pereira pulled the strings from a midfield position that gave supporters a glimpse of a player who was reinvigorated by his time away from Old Trafford. Looking like a new signing, the impressive Pereira could alleviate much of the creative burden that was placed upon Paul Pogba last season.

In fact, examining the case of Andreas Pereira gives you an insight into the difference between this year and last. Pereira was not the only youngster to feature last season, nor was he the only youngster to go out on loan. He is the most likely candidate to play a big role this season though, highlighting Mourinho’s intention to craft a squad that he can rely on and that can take United to the next level.

With Marcus Rashford a year older, a year wiser and significantly more muscular, Paul Pogba able to fully prepare for the season ahead and Mourinho able to shape the squad to his liking, Manchester United’s pre-season exploits feel different this time around. We have seven matches to assess the group before they head to Skopje, but having moved Wayne Rooney on and recruited well again, Jose Mourinho must feel as if he’s preparing his players as best he can. He’ll have no excuses this time, we’ll all be hoping for another vintage Manchester United year.

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