Once again changes were made to the line-up for the latest match in the International Champions Cup against Inter Milan. Anders Lindegaard started the game in goal, Ashley Young continued his resurgence as a wing-back on the left-hand side, and the trio of Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Juan Mata were the spearhead of United’s attack. After much discussion over the captaincy this week, Darren Fletcher wore the armband in Washington, DC.
Despite the lack of goals and the underwhelming scoreline, Louis van Gaal hailed his side’s performance as the ‘best match’ on tour so far. The conditions were comparable to the first game of the tour against LA Galaxy and without the restrictive heat, United were able to return to the level of performance that was so impressive in their 7-0 win. Against a much higher level of opponent, United were still able to dominate possession and the short, sharp passing was evident throughout the game. Much of it was one-touch and passed through the lines of the Inter Milan defence at an impressive tempo, although it didn’t lead to the breakthrough in the first half of the game. Once again the relationship between the front two with Mata, Herrera and Fletcher behind them was a joy to watch, and each has their own role within the set-up. Just like against Roma, Rooney and Mata are able to interchange seamlessly, and with Fletcher providing steady cover in the deepest lying position in midfield, Herrera is also able to get forward and influence attacking situations.
Out of possession United were also impressive. Again, as the conditions were more conducive to competitive football, United were able to press their opponents high up the pitch and win the ball back quickly. This forced Inter Milan into several long balls from back to front, and due to United’s system, the three central defenders were able to control the long balls and deal with them without any rea difficulty. Pressing the ball in such a manner also benefits the control of possession. It seems like stating the obvious, but by retrieving the ball so quickly, the opposition are unable to rest and the constant pressure United can create through controlling possession in the opposition half of the pitch is what causes this system to dominate the tempo of the match.
It has been standard procedure during this tour for van Gaal to make several changes at half time, and he did the same against Inter Milan. Luke Shaw was given 45 minutes despite van Gaal’s criticisms of his fitness, Wilfried Zaha was given his first opportunity of the tour in an unfamiliar striking role, and there were yet more opportunities for the younger players, with Michael Keane and Tyler Blackett coming on at centre-back.
While the personnel changed, the system didn’t. The impressive thing given the difference in line-up after the break was the way the team in the second half was still able to dominate possession, and the desire and energy to press the ball and win possession back immediately remained throughout the 90 minutes. There may not have been as much flair as in the first half, but its clear that the entire squad understands the philosophy of the new manager.
It was interesting to note the role of the wingers in this current system. As the 3-5-2 that van Gaal is opting for does not operate with wingers, Nani, Zaha and Young have all had to change their game in order to earn a place in the team. Of course Antonio Valencia will also have to adapt but it is easy to see that he can find a home at right wing-back given his exposure to the right-back position in recent seasons.
Ashley Young has operated as both a striker and a wing-back on this current tour, and he deserves credit for his willingness to work and learn from the manager in order to remain at Old Trafford. Many fans felt he would have been one of the first names leaving the club this summer, but following two goals against LA Galaxy as a striker, and two back-to-back appearances as a wing-back, it is clear that he is doing enough to remain under consideration. He will never been considered as a first choice player for this team, but given his attitude and level of performance during pre-season, he may well prove to be an able deputy should injury befall our first choice starters.
Nani was in a similar position to Young at the start of the pre-season, but has unfortunately gone the opposite direction. He has been deployed as a striker and been virtually anonymous, and after coming on at half-time against Inter Milan he was substituted with 15 minutes to go and replaced by Javier Hernandez. That in itself looks ominous for the player who may just have used up his last chance at Manchester United.
The final player that briefly impressed was Wilfried Zaha. It was his first appearance under Louis van Gaal, and he was also given a striking role which was unfamiliar to him. He was positive through out, showed blistering pace, and was a threat on multiple occasions. It was baby steps for the former Crystal Palace man, but what was impressive was his desire to receive the ball on the half-turn and run directly at the Inter Milan defence. At times this system can appear to be very narrow, and Zaha offered a threat both in behind and into the wider areas. There is definite talent there, it just depends whether or not Zaha can get his head right and achieve something at the club, rather than taking the easy option and ultimately being deemed surplus to requirements.
So what have we learned from this latest excursion on tour? United are showing real promise in this new system, and it allows the technically gifted attacking players to dominate the game. There appears to be a real understanding of how to make the system work for you, and the energy levels and desire within the squad is plain to see. Against good quality European opposition the football that is being played is probably just where United fans, players and coaching staff want it to be at this stage of the pre-season preparations, and it is now just a matter of working towards that first week of the Premier League season. Just two and a half weeks left now.