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Manchester United Should Not Get Carried Away by Pre-Season Success

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - AUGUST 04:  (L) Darren Fletcher #24 of Manchester United and (R) Wayne Rooney #10 of Manchester United lift the winners trophy following their 3-1  victory over Liverpool in the Guinness International Champions Cup 2014 Final at Sun Life Stadium on August 4, 2014 in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Chris Trotman/Getty Images
Sam PilgerFeatured ColumnistAugust 5, 2014

There was a time not long ago when football observers paid scant attention to pre-season friendlies.

Your team would appear in one of these games and you might simply glance at the result in the newspaper the following day. They're usually played at a pedestrian pace with nothing riding on the result.

But these days, pre-season friendlies, fuelled by the rise of social media and fans starved of club football for the previous three months, command more interest than ever before.

A crowd of over 109,000, the biggest ever to watch the sport in the USA, flocked to see Manchester United face Real Madrid at Michigan Stadium on the first weekend of August. 

United beat the European champions 3-1 in Ann Arbor to progress to the International Champions Cup final against Liverpool, who they also beat 3-1. 

Once more United put on an impressive display to overcome their biggest rivals in a wet Miami with goals from Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard. 

It meant United got to lift a trophy and pose for the obligatory happy-team photograph. 

Five straight wins against stellar opposition in which United have scored a total of 16 goals and conceded only four constitutes a very successful pre-season.

Eleven days before the start of the Premier League, this has created an artificial and inflated sense of optimism around Old Trafford at the start of Louis van Gaal’s reign.

But the fact remains United have won no points, nor have they moved up the table or progressed in a cup competition.

They have gained a little momentum, but nothing more.

These results have been gained against half-fit and disinterested sides.

DENVER, CO - JULY 26: Wayne Rooney #10 of Manchester United celebrates his second goal with Juan Mata #8 during the first half of an International Champions Cup match against AS Roma at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on July 26, 2014 in Denver, Color
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

You can only play the team in front of you, but United defeated a weak Real Madrid shorn of almost half their starting line-up.

There was no Angel Di Maria, Karim Benzema, James Rodriguez or Toni Kroos. An unfit Cristiano Ronaldo only trotted onto the field for the final 16 minutes of the game.

There might have been a record crowd watching from the stands, but pre-season victories are never much to boast about.

This success and the feel-good factor of Van Gaal’s early days are obscuring the fact that the United squad remains desperately thin.

United lost an entire back four this summer with the departures of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Alexander Buttner, and have replaced only one of them. 

Van Gaal has been left with the distinctly fragile looking back line of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, guilty of another rash tackle to concede a penalty in the International Champions Cup final, and Jonny Evans.

The lack of defenders at United has forced the manager to use Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young as makeshift wing-backs.

The pair have enjoyed some early success in these unnatural roles, but it is unlikely it could be sustained throughout a whole season.

It would be the greatest achievement of Van Gaal’s long career if he turned these players into a title-winning defence next season.

There are just 27 days left for United to rectify this glaring weakness before the transfer window closes.

It is perplexing United have not acted more decisively so far.

Midfield is another area of grave concern.

LANDOVER, MD - JULY 29: Darren Fletcher #24 of Manchester United celebrates after scoring the game-winning goal in penalty shootouts against Inter Milan during their match in the International Champions Cup 2014 at FedExField on July 29, 2014 in Landover,
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The addition of the promising Ander Herrera has been welcome, but it is not enough to remedy years of neglect in this area.

With Darren Fletcher, Tom Cleverley, Anderson and Marouane Fellaini the only other central midfielders, United look alarmingly understaffed and exposed.

Incredibly, even Manchester City have strengthened their already impressive midfield more than United this summer with the arrivals of Fernando and Frank Lampard.

Since the United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward boasted to the club’s own channel MUTV, via the BBC, about their financial strength and how they would do whatever necessary to regain the title, they have done nothing in the transfer market.

Unless United now act on Woodward’s words and augment their squad during the rest of August, this pre-season success will very quickly look hollow and meaningless.

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