The Louis van Gaal era is officially underway at Manchester United, with the Dutchman watching his side grab a 7-0 win in a friendly against the Los Angeles Galaxy Wednesday night at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
The Galaxy are right in the middle of their Major League Soccer schedule, but for the Red Devils, this was the first stop on their United States tour.
Although reading into friendlies is never advisable, this match was intriguing if only to see how Van Gaal would line up United in his managerial debut. He's known more for a 4-3-3 formation than anything else, but with the Netherlands at the 2014 World Cup, he used a 5-3-2 that morphed into a 3-5-2 when the wing-backs pushed forward.
On Wednesday, he stuck with the three-man central defense, playing Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans at center back while using Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia as the left and right wing-backs.
It's quite a shift from what fans were used to seeing under previous manager David Moyes, and as such, United had moments in which they didn't look fluid. For the most part, though, Van Gaal's tactics worked well, with the club's new purchases—Shaw and Ander Herrera—seamlessly fitting into the team.
Before the match, Van Gaal commented that he won't start feeling the pressure until later in the preseason, when the Premier League campaign gets much closer.
"Your first match is always special when you are coaching in a new club," he said, via ManUtd.com. "But it's a match in preparation time. I think the game against Valencia at Old Trafford is more the match that I will feel the tension."
United lost in Moyes' first friendly, which proved in retrospect to be an omen for his season in charge, so getting off to a quick start is always an added bonus. The Telegraph's Mark Ogden contrasted how United looked in their first friendly last year with how they looked on Wednesday:
Only one game, but United's performance tonight is a world apart from the 1-0 defeat in Bangkok in David Moyes's first game..— Mark Ogden (@MOgdenTelegraph) July 24, 2014
Danny Welbeck waited all of 13 minutes before he opened the scoring. Juan Mata did very well to lay the ball off to the striker, who fired in a 25-yard right-footed shot off the post and past Jaime Penedo.
Adam Serrano of LAGalaxy.com noted that Van Gaal had talked up Welbeck coming into the match, and his faith was dutifully rewarded:
Van Gaal was very complimentary of Welbeck during the team's training session at the Rose Bowl last night. Seems to be a fan. #MUTour— Adam Serrano (@LAGalaxyInsider) July 24, 2014
United aren't lacking in attacking options, so having a strong preseason could help Welbeck carve out a more regular role in the lineup. Many fans have criticized him in the past, but he's a very good player when used correctly.
In the 41st minute, Galaxy defender A.J. DeLaGarza was judged to have handled the ball in the box, giving the Red Devils a penalty. Wayne Rooney stepped up and hit a perfect penalty kick to his right. Penedo guessed correctly, but the shot was placed so well that he had no chance.
Manchester United made it 3-0 in the first-half injury time with another Rooney goal. Welbeck fired a dangerous cross into the box that Galaxy defender Tommy Meyer completely whiffed on, allowing the ball to fall right to the feet of the England international. His attempted chip was saved by Penedo, but Rooney pounced on the rebound to walk the ball into the back of the net.
Matthew Tomaszewicz of The Shin Guardian wondered if Meyer will end up on SportsCenter's Not Top 10:
Sportscenter Not Top Ten right there.— Matthew Tomaszewicz (@shinguardian) July 24, 2014
The Red Devils looked very strong in patches, but the Galaxy offered little resistance. Los Angeles was lackadaisical, likely a result of having an MLS match in a few days. The Galaxy players were merely going through the motions and hoping to avoid injury.
On the other side, many of the United players are hoping to make a good impression on their new manager, as Serrano pointed out. Motivation wasn't an issue for them:
Soccer America's Paul Kennedy joked that the competition—or lack thereof—might not have been worth even traveling to Los Angeles for:
Van Gaal will be saying at the half, "We traveled all this way so we could face this?"— Paul Kennedy (@pkedit) July 24, 2014
Reece James added a fourth goal for Manchester United in the 62nd minute after getting on the end of a low cross by Ashley Young through the 18-yard box. Young put the ball on a tee for James, and he calmly slotted home his left-footed shot into the bottom right corner.
Twenty-two minutes later, James got himself a brace after hitting the ball into an open net and making it 5-0. Galaxy goalkeeper Brian Rowe did well to leave his line and stop an initial effort from Young, but the ball fell right to James, who side-footed a shot into the far post.
According to Ian Herbert of The Independent, James wasn't even on Van Gaal's team sheet before the match, but he had one of the best performances of the night:
20-year-old Reece James scores a second goal. He wasn't even on the team squad that van Gaal signed off. 5-0 #mufc— ian herbert (@ianherbs) July 24, 2014
In the 88th minute, Young scored United's sixth goal. Rowe once again did his best Manuel Neuer impression, but this time he was caught woefully out of position, leaving the English winger with an easy finish.
Young scored the Red Devils' seventh and final goal in the 90th minute, mercifully putting an end to the match.
Losing by seven is embarrassing for the Galaxy, but it was only a friendly, and their focus was clearly elsewhere. If Los Angeles puts this defeat on the back burner and gets to work in MLS, all will be forgotten.
Van Gaal will be extremely happy with his club's performance. United's later friendlies will give supporters a much better idea of what to expect when the Premier League season begins.
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Key Player Grades
Jaime Penedo: B-
You might wonder how Penedo could get such a high grade after looking at the score line. Without his performance, the Galaxy could've been down 5-0 at halftime. Penedo made a couple of big saves early in the match before United got on the board.
The 32-year-old got almost no support from his back four. Penedo could be culpable for Welbeck's goal, but you can't blame him for not saving Rooney's penalty, and Meyer's mistake gave his goalkeeper no chance.
Ander Herrera: A
United supporters have been crying out for a central midfielder to come in, and Herrera looks worth the wait. The 24-year-old was man of the match, spraying passes from midfield and helping to spark the attack. His through ball for Young's first goal was a thing of beauty.
It's still very early for Herrera at Manchester United, but it's hard not to get excited for his prospects at Old Trafford.
Danny Welbeck: A-
Welbeck ran into the right areas, created for his teammates and scored a goal. What more could you have asked of the 23-year-old?
As covered previously, Welbeck will have a lot of competition in the United setup, especially when Robin van Persie comes back. The most he can do now is look strong in the friendlies and convince Van Gaal that he deserves a larger role in the team.
He did exactly that on Wednesday.
For the Galaxy, it's right back to the league season. Los Angeles travels to Seattle on Monday night to take on the first-place Sounders. No MLS team has looked better than the Sounders, so that will be an extremely tough test for the Galaxy.
Manchester United continue their U.S. tour on Saturday against Roma in their first match of the International Champions Cup, which pits some of the largest clubs in Europe against one another. The Red Devils also have Inter Milan and Real Madrid upcoming as part of the tournament.