Man United: Has Ashley Young Been Our Best Player This Pre-Season?

Observations from a successful preseason and what I’m expecting from Van Gaal and his squad for the new season...
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Observations from a successful preseason and what I’m expecting from Van Gaal and his squad for the new season...

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Man United: Has Ashley Young Been Our Best Player This Pre-Season?

Interesting times lie ahead for Manchester United and their supporters under the expert tutelage of Louis Van Gaal. As I’m currently residing in America I have had the opportunity to watch United’s pre season tour at a reasonable hour and also managed to attend the final victory over Liverpool in Miami. It may have only been a friendly tournament, but beating AS Roma, Inter Milan (penalties), Real Madrid and Liverpool is no mean feat and the change in performance levels and general attitude of the players has been impressive.

Have Manchester United ever played 3-5-2 before? Not in my lifetime that’s for sure. I think it fits the squad at Van Gaal’s disposal for the time being, rather than some seismic shift of power across the club. Remember that Van Gaal’s trademark formation is 4-3-3 and with the current openness of the three at the back system I can only assume there’s not much chance of him playing this against stronger teams. LA Galaxy are not Man City, so I would expect to see a back four by the time the season begins, plus two or three new signings.

Van Gaal already looks and feels like a step in the right direction, not just in experience but also in the football that is being played under him and I think Giggs as assistant manager is an inspired choice and hopefully after Van Gaal’s tenure, Ryan will be taking over the hot seat. It would also be great to see Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt kept on in some capacity, though why any manager would entrust Phil Neville to coach Robin Van Persie I’ll never know!

Then when it comes to the playing staff, I think the fact Antonio Valencia was given a new contract before Van Gaal had even stepped inside Old Trafford speaks volumes for his worth to a 3-5-2 system though. Watching Valencia as an out and out winger can be frustrating at times, but as a wing back his incredible power and relentless engine will be a far more useful weapon than the ‘red card waiting to happen’ Rafael.

It’s also interesting that Van Gaal singled out Luke Shaw as ‘not fit enough’, even though he has just come straight from World Cup duty. How can the most expensive teenager on the planet not be fit? The fact that he’s already needling the club’s expensive new signing shows that he takes no prisoners; no matter the size of the fee. It’s also worth remembering that Reece James looked far more comfortable at left wing back and also scored twice against Galaxy, though I’m pretty sure I could have netted a brace against that buffet.

The new formation has seen the ‘Three Stooges’ a.k.a. Smalling, Jones and Evans let loose on the tour for the first time and from my viewpoint, Smalling could well be the odd man out. Evans is two footed and the most comfortable on the ball, whilst Jones may be a head on a stick and dives into too many tackles, but he’s also quick, brave and can play in a number of other positions. Smalling is out of his depth on the ball when closed down quickly, constantly found out of position and in my opinion should be used as a makeweight in the possible incoming of Thomas Vermaelen.

A huge plus on the tour was the sight of Tyler Blackett majestically strolling around on the left of the three and pinging the ball around like a veteran. Only 20 years old, Blackett is already far more comfortable on the ball than the full international Smalling. Signed as an eight year old, Blackett has played at left back throughout his twelve years at the club but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him breakthrough this season as a centre half.

I do still feel that with the loss of Vidic and Ferdinand, United still need to sign a couple of defenders. Hummels is the name on everyone’s lips and he would certainly be welcomed to the club with open arms. A truly outstanding defender, he would take over from Vidic as the perfect role model for Blackett and Michael Keane to learn from. Add Vermaelen’s experience at centre half and the fact he can cover at left back and we may well see Van Gaal jettison Smalling.

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Another change that I can envisage is Michael Carrick slipping into a back three as a sweeper/libero if we sign a new marquee centre midfielder. This may well be his best position in the future due to his superb reading of the game and passing ability. Carrick is by far United’s best passer and with those extra few seconds on the ball as sweeper we could see pinpoint passes to the feet of Mata, Herrera and Rooney to turn on and move forward with.

The midfield still needs a lot of work though but maybe not as much as first thought. One world class signing alongside Herrera would be a start, though who this will be is anyone’s guess at the moment. Nearly every decent player on the planet has been linked with the club this summer, though in my opinion Nigel De Jong would fill the gap short term before Strootman becomes fit. De Jong would hopefully jump at the chance to join the two Vans at Old Trafford and it’s not like the club won’t pay top wages. With Mata now playing in his favoured position as an out and out number 10, we can now see him dropping between the lines to help out his centre midfielders and keep possession in tight spaces.

The link up play between Mata and his compatriot Herrera is starting to take shape nicely. Rooney and Van Persie should be licking their lips at the service that should be flowing through the diminutive Spaniards. Fletcher skippered the team in America and he played out of his skin against Real Madrid and he’ll definitely be more than useful squad player this season. Where the current system leaves Januzaj is interesting. He may have been United’s only bright spark of last season but I can’t see him he starting too many games under Van Gaal. Then again, who would ever try and second-guess the Iron Tulip? He’ll probably make Januzaj captain, striker and goalkeeper for penalties.

With Rooney and Van Persie almost certain to start up front, what’s in store for the rest of the strikers? I feel that Hernandez and Welbeck still have a lot to offer the team and Van Gaal will have no problem dropping either of his big hitters up front if they are misfiring. He substituted Van Persie in the World Cup when they needed a goal, which baffled many. That was until his replacement Huntelaar not only scored but also set up the winner. Both Hernandez and Wellbeck play on the shoulder of the last defender and have plenty of pace to come off the bench so I would expect both of them to stay and start plenty of game time.

Players that could and maybe should go are Zaha, Fellaini, Cleverley, Kagawa and Nani. Somebody who was a dead cert to leave and seems to have pulled himself back from the precipice is Ashley Young.  He has been outstanding at both left and right wing back, plus scored two and made two against LA Galaxy as a striker. Versatility is a commodity that Van Gaal requires from all of his players, so I expect Young to have saved his own bacon whilst on the tour.

Nani has been, well, Nani! As much as everyone at United wanted Kagawa to succeed, it really hasn’t happened for the lad so he could be used as a makeweight in the Hummels deal. Cleverley and Fellaini really aren’t up to scratch and I can see them leaving along with Zaha.

That is only a possible three new additions to the current playing staff, so more out than in. I feel it could be time for the club to start blooding the youth team again, particularly from what I saw on this tour. Hummels would be the big marquee signing, but with Rio and Vidic gone, the club certainly need a big name at the heart of the defence. De Jong and Vermaelen shouldn’t be too expensive, leaving money in the bank for a sizeable Strootman bid in January.

Will United win the league this season? Doubtful, but you never know what the new manager is capable of. With the right mix of key signings and everyone playing to their true potential they have to be in with a shout of the top four at the very least. Van Gaal massively over achieved with the Dutch national squad at the World Cup, so let’s see if he can drag last season’s below average United squad up a notch or three. It won’t be hard to finish better than seventh!

Champions League football should be the realistic target after last season’s shocker. One thing is for sure though; all eyes will be on Old Trafford this season. I have a feeling that Van Gaal likes it that way though and will only thrive under the media scrutiny, something David Moyes appeared to be visibly uncomfortable with. Like Mourinho, Van Gaal was born for the big stage, so Old Trafford appears to be the perfect fit for a manager who seems to be relishing the new challenge. I think it’s fair to say an interesting season awaits The Theatre of Dreams in 2014/15.