Manchester United returned to Old Trafford for the first time under Louis van Gaal for REUNITED 14, the final pre-season match before the new Premier League season kicks off against Swansea City on Saturday.
The manager named a line-up that included a blend of youth and experience, handing Reece James and Tyler Blackett a final opportunity to impress before the new season and Ander Herrera was given his Old Trafford debut. Once again van Gaal favoured the new 3-5-2 system, and in front of an expectant home crowd it was always going to be interesting to see how the Old Trafford faithful took to the new-look United.
The first half was a quiet and fairly dull affair, with United dominating the possession throughout and trying to impose themselves on their opponents. Valencia were defensive throughout the 90 minutes, but in the first half it is fair to say that United used the formation to their advantage in order to dominate possession so far up the pitch.
What was evident, despite the lack of quality in the final third, was the progressive nature of the possession. Under David Moyes the team was far too stretched from back to front, which allowed teams to break through United’s defensive lines on the counter attack far more easily. In this new system, with a high defensive line, United could impose themselves on the opposition with greater control over the entire match due to the shorter spaces between the players all across the pitch.
Against Valencia, the wing-backs played incredibly high up the pitch, and almost could be thought of as wingers in the first half. Reece James and Ashley Young were an attacking option throughout the first half and were right out on the touch-line on either side, stretching the game and making sure that Valencia were either leaving space out wide by not marking them, or creating space in the middle of the pitch by sending men out wide to pick up both wing-backs. They were able to push so far forward because of the centre-backs behind them. For the majority of the game the three defenders were holding a high line almost on the half-way line, and they were able to do so because Blackett and Jones were playing in the left and right centre-back positions. With both players being so comfortable defending in wider areas due to their experiences at full-back, United were able to hold such a high line and push the wing-backs on because the three centre-backs would be comfortable defending against counter-attacks. This all allowed the wing-backs to push on in the attacking manner we saw, which pinned Valencia back into their own half. The clever positioning of both Young and James meant that they were usually unmarked because neither winger nor full back knew when to mark and close them down, providing with the United side with an outlet down both wing almost constantly.
Once again Tyler Blackett was impressive for United, and his performances have improved with every passing minute during this pre-season. With injury doubts over Jonny Evans going into the first Premier League weekend, Blackett may well be given a starting place, and based on his performances over the last month, he wouldn’t look out-of-place in the team.
Thinking ahead to the weekend, United will need to improve. Louis van Gaal described the performance against Valencia as the worst performance this summer, and it is hard to argue with him. It is refreshing to hear a United manager be so critical of his team after winning a sixth match on the run, because this team needs new additions. It is interesting to note that despite the ability to control such large amounts of possession in the first half, United could not score or even create many clear-cut chances. While Ander Herrera impressed again, and Fletcher continued to show his workman like presence is still needed within the squad, neither player could provide the spark individually to break through the dogged Valencia defensive line.
The central midfield area was once again the area that showed it needs reinforcements, and although Marouane Fellaini returned to the side in the second half and scored the winning goal, he is not the answer to United’s problems either.
So to conclude on United’s pre-season efforts. An excellent tour of America; trophies won, despite only being friendly competitions its always nice to win than not; a new system adapted to with signs of potential and the winning feeling seems to have returned so far under van Gaal. New signings are still needed to take this team to the level it needs to be at to compete for the biggest honours, but I don’t doubt that the club knows that. It will be an interesting season, and one that I feel we are going into in fairly decent shape. The rest of the window will determine if that evaluation can change but right now things aren’t too bad under Louis van Gaal.
One final point about tonight’s game though, those fans who booed and cheered mockingly at Fellaini’s efforts should be embarrassed. He may not be the midfielder United fans want to see playing week in and week out, but while he is at the club you should support him just the same as any other. Ridiculous behaviour.