From 7th place finishers, to pre-season Champions. Life as we know it has been restored.
Louis Van Gaal warned prior to Manchester United taking the field against Los Angeles Galaxy two weeks ago that it may take up to three months before his team plays up to standard, and play his style of football. Not having his full team yet and some players just returning from World Cup duty, three months seemed like a optimistic goal.
United would proceed to playing five matches in the United States, winning all of them, with their last a 3-1 beat-down of Liverpool in the Final of the International Champions Cup, where the winner brings home a $1 million bonus. In comparison, last season’s Capital One league Cup winner Manchester City won just a little over $160k in earnings. United finish their pre-season tour with four wins, zero loses and a draw, which they eventually won in a penalty kick shootout. They beat teams such as Inter Milan, Roma and Real Madrid on their route to winning the Cup. And out scored opponents 16-4 in their time on US soil. Pure domination.
As expected, this wasn’t your typical “friendly”. Van Gaal send out the best XI he possibly could pick, and didn’t think twice about fatigue, which was evident eight minutes into the game as Antonio Valencia, who coming into the cup final, has been the only United player to start every single game thus far, and has played in 197 minutes already on tour, got a leg injury and had to be replaced by Luke Shaw.
United once again used a back three of Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. The only wrinkle this time around was, Smalling was playing as the middle central back. And was tested early on by Raheem Sterling but Smalling held his ground very well, despite Sterling arguing for a corner kick, the referee Mark Geiger, and rightfully so, awarded a goal-kick. However, moments later Sterling came attacking again, this time going at Jones who got beat and took Sterling down. Easy call and Steven Gerrard easily made it 1-0 Liverpool.
That 14′ minute goal by Gerrard, giving Liverpool the lead was the first time this pre-season that United has trailed. Four games and beating some of the Worlds biggest clubs, and yet 14-minutes into the night, Van Gaal found himself in a position he has yet to be in.
Manchester United fought. And kept fighting. It was clear, this wasn’t last March, when United just fell over for Liverpool and let them do whatever they’d like, and toy with them, on their way to a easy 3-0 win at Old Trafford. United was in this til the very end. Ashley Young kept pushing forward, Luke Shaw kept pushing forward and Chicharito was getting close on connecting on a ball as he did against Real Madrid that sealed it.
At half-time, Van Gaal made some changes. Evans and Darren Fletcher off, both, not exactly having their best games on tour, possibly due to fatigue, replaced by tour starlet Tyler Blackett and Tom Cleverley. And with that momentum changed. United was winning more battles. They started pushing forward move. The pace was real. This didn’t seem like a friendly. It seemed like a big club was down 0-1 to rival Liverpool.
And then it happened.
Chicharito perfect cross finds Wayne Rooney, who easily just redirects past the Liverpool keeper and with 35-minutes remaining on the Sun Life Stadium clock in Miami, we had ourselves a good old style all-English dog fight. Just two minutes after Liverpool kicked it off back into play, Juan Mata blasted a untouchable ball right into the net. United was up. Van Gaal was up.
Liverpool seemed to wave the white flag shortly after the Mata goal, sending off most of their stars to the bench and replacing them with kids. It was clear though, the message was send and was heard loud and clear. Manchester United was back.
To their credit, the replacements Liverpool brought in did give an honest fight. They wanted to be the hero’s that brought their team back. But it was United’s substitute, Jesse Lingard, who has yet to appear in a Premiership match, who scored. A pretty one-timer shot with moments remaining. Killing off any hope Liverpool may have had and earning his team a $1 million jackpot, but more importantly, earning another chance to prove himself to Van Gaal.
At the end of the night, as United flies back home on the red eye smiling, Liverpool will downplay this loss, and so should United. It is still a pre-season match. It still doesn’t count for much. It is a good building moment for the club and has earned some players extended looks. A successful tour for sure.
If Van Gaal still believes in his three-month timeline before the team can truly excel, then this team could get scary good.
Wayne Rooney won the Player of the Tournament award.
In the five matches, 362,000 fans came to see United play.
Ashley Young was the most impressive player on tour. Young has received a lot of criticism, and rightfully so. But now it’s time to give him the praise he deserves. By no means do I think Young has earned a regular-job with United, but his performance in the five matches has shown that he does deserve a real chance under Van Gaal. Young looked great. Stats aside, the most impressive about his game was his pace down the wing and him going at defenders. When he was struggling and lost confidence, he’d be too quick to pass when confronted by a defender, now, full of confidence, he attacks them.
The best youngster on tour without a doubt was defender Tyler Blackett. A very poise and calm defender. High football IQ player, always in the right spot and a quick thinker. He very rarely made mistakes when playing and Van Gaal tested him quite a bit. Blackett played in each game. What if I told you, 4 of the 5 of his appearances United didn’t allow a goal? Only the two late goals by Roma the team conceded with him on the pitch. And one was a long mid-field blast that beat a sleeping Ben Amos. Blackett came in at half-time against Madrid and again tonight with the opponents already on the scoreboard.
Wilfried Zaha showed flashes. But did he show enough? I don’t think United should give up on Zaha yet, but there really doesn’t seem to be room for him on this squad. Another loan deal very possible but selling the player isn’t completely out of the equation either.
Another disappointing player: Nani. Did nothing to showcase himself.
David De Gea in mid-season form in August. Only allowed 2 goals in 270 minutes of play, and both were penalty kicks. Bale (Madrid) and Gerrard (Liverpool).
MOTM and Tournament: Wayne Rooney