Winners and Losers from Manchester United's International Champions Cup Campaign
Louis van Gaal's debut pre-season as Manchester United manager was one to remember, with the Old Trafford club winning all five matches and triumphing in the International Champions Cup. However, for a number of players, there were differing fortunes, with the Dutchman now expected to make moves in the transfer market over the coming weeks.
Manchester United headed to the United States following a disastrous season in which the club failed to put up any sort of defence of their title as they dropped out of the Champions League for the 2014-15 season.
The futures of several players were on the line prior to the tour, with Van Gaal promising he would give all his players an "honest chance" before looking to make purchases. The former Barcelona and Ajax coach was true to his word and gave every member of United's touring party an opportunity to impress.
The highlights of the trip included the 3-1 victory over European champions Real Madrid, the opportunity to face former club stalwarts Nemanja Vidic and Cristiano Ronaldo and, perhaps most significantly, an impressive comeback against fierce rivals Liverpool. United came from one goal down to win 3-1 in that match, showing a level of desire that simply wasn't present last season.
While several players benefitted from working so closely with Van Gaal this pre-season, with a number likely to have rescued their Manchester United careers, there were also several squad members who struggled to make an impact and whose futures at the club could now be uncertain.
Winner: Juan Mata
Juan Mata, Manchester United's record signing, struggled slightly after his arrival at Old Trafford in January. The quality of Mata was clear. However, David Moyes' uncertainty with regards to how best to fit the Spaniard into the team saw the former Chelsea playmaker make very little impact on United's fortunes.
Wayne Rooney is not a natural number 10, whereas Mata is. When you look at how successful Mata was at Chelsea under the stewardship of Rafael Benitez, where he was named Player of the Year, it seems bizarre that Rooney would be preferred to Mata in that specific role.
Van Gaal has made no such mistakes.
Wayne Rooney has been moved back into the position where he started off his career at Everton, centre-forward, while Mata has been given the freedom to play just behind.
The results have been clear for all to see. Mata's creativity in the final third has been highlighted, as has his ability to link up well with compatriot Ander Herrera, which has seen United play a rather more continental brand of football.
Mata's first pre-season with United has been an injury-free experience. More importantly, it has given him a clear idea of just what will be expected of him in the coming season.
There was a worry among supporters that Van Gaal wouldn't be able to accommodate Mata in his previously favoured 4-3-3 system. However, the 3-5-2 system used on tour, which incorporates a number 10, has so far seen Mata flourish in a manner similar to how Jari Litmanen did at Ajax under Van Gaal's stewardship.
This leaves United supporters excited at the prospect of having one of the Premier League's elite players performing in his favoured role.
For one reason or another, Nani became a scapegoat for Manchester United's attacking failings last season, and it was expected he may well leave the club in the summer with Internazionale and Juventus both primed to make their long-standing interest in the player more concrete.
Given Van Gaal's willingness to give players a chance, as well as his history of getting the very best out of the players at his disposal, it was thought that Nani would excel on the tour of the United States.
This was not to be the case, with Nani once again struggling to build any level of consistency. Of course, this has not been aided by Van Gaal's use of a 3-5-2 system, which pushed Nani into the centre-forward role, a position he is certainly not well trained in.
The clear low-point of the tour came in United's match with Internazionale. Nani was brought on as a half-time substitute only to be substituted again in the 75th minute, having not added anything of note to United's attacking play.
With Ashley Young and Luke Shaw enjoying such positive tours, along with Van Gaal's confirmation to ManUtd.com that the 3-5-2 system will be persevered with, Nani has fallen even further down the pecking order at United. Van Gaal said:
It’s difficult to change the systems.
I had to start this system at once because we don’t have time to change it.
We only have three weeks before the season starts, so I have to use all my training sessions to implement this system.
For a player with so much natural talent it is a shame to see Nani struggling, especially after the outstanding start to his United career.
At this point, it seems unlikely the Portuguese winger will ever be able to gather the levels of consistency needed to star at Old Trafford, and with Teddy Cutler of The Independent reporting United's interest in Fiorentina's Juan Cuadrado, it is unlikely Nani's future lies in Manchester.
Winner: Tyler Blackett
The departures of Alex Buttner and Patrice Evra meant Luke Shaw was the only remaining natural left-back within United's first-team squad. However, Tyler Blackett was given his opportunity to travel with the squad to America and has not disappointed.
Blackett, who spent last season on loan with both Blackpool and Birmingham, has found himself utilised in a position he has seldom played in before, with Van Gaal using Blackett on the left-hand side of the central-defensive trio.
Physically, Blackett has the build of a central defender. As simplistic an argument as it sounds, when you are of Blackett's build, you are at an advantage, with it possible to improve the defensive qualities of a player through intensive, quality coaching.
Blackett has shown a significant level of defensive nous this summer, impressing in performances against AS Roma, Real Madrid and Liverpool and forcing himself into Van Gaal's thinking ahead of the Premier League season, as reported by Sky Sports:
I am looking at the defenders we have first. It is right that we are looking for defenders, because a lot of defenders have gone.
We have to replace them but I also like Michael Keane and Tyler Blackett.
[Blackett] can play at this level, but can he play match after match? I can’t answer at the moment.
Manchester United supporters are eager for Van Gaal to enter the transfer market to replace the experience lost in the forms of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, with Arsenal's Thomas Vermaelen and Dortmund's Mats Hummels the two names linked in most recent times.
Hummels is likely to be a pipe-dream for supporters, with Jurgen Klopp announcing that Hummels was not for sale in a report produced by The Guardian.
Vermaelen appears the more likely signing, with Arsene Wenger unable to clarify the defender's future. However, with Barcelona rivalling United for his signature, it is a deal that may not come off.
Van Gaal spoke during the tour of the importance of "human experience" as opposed to "footballing experience," and while Blackett isn't blessed with a wealth of footballing experience at the top level, he has proven this summer he is capable of defending well against elite forwards and certainly done enough to be given a chance against Swansea City.
Loser: Marouane Fellaini
Marouane Fellaini did not travel on United's tour due to his World Cup exploits with Belgium, and despite Van Gaal's decision to send Marcel Bout back to Manchester to work closely with Fellaini and compatriot Adnan Januzaj, there is a growing feeling that Fellaini's future is away from Old Trafford.
Fellaini endured a disastrous debut season. An individual, who, for some, characterises the disappointments of last season, suffered an early injury setback and never truly dealt with the pressure of playing in front of a twitchy Old Trafford crowd.
It was thought prior to the World Cup that Fellaini was surplus to requirements at Old Trafford, though his wages and relatively low resale value could hinder any potential move.
Van Gaal's assertion that everybody would be given a chance has passed Fellaini by, with the Belgian not flying out to the USA and the resurgent performances of Darren Fletcher and Tom Cleverley, as well as the exciting start made by Ander Herrera, have pushed Fellaini even further away from the first team.
In fairness, Van Gaal has done his best to keep Fellaini at the forefront of his thoughts when discussing the strengths of his squad to ESPN: "We deserved to win. We are in the right way and we're missing players like [Marouane] Fellaini, [Adnan] Januzaj and [Robin] van Persie."
It looked as if Fellaini would be set for a stay of execution at Old Trafford, with the Belgian likely to have one more year with United. However, Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis, in an interview with Italian radio station Kiss Kiss (via the Daily Mail's Simon Jones), says his club are interested in Fellaini.
The likelihood is a move to Napoli would be a loan deal with an option to make it permanent next summer. However, given Fellaini's lack of popularity among the United supporters, as well as links with Arturo Vidal and Nigel de Jong from Goal.com (via the Daily Mirror), it is unlikely that his departure would upset many at Old Trafford.
Winner: Ashley Young
As one of the most maligned members of Manchester United's squad, Ashley Young's transformation during United's pre-season tour has been nothing short of sensational; the former Aston Villa winger has arguably thrust himself to the forefront of Van Gaal's mind in terms of selection for the season opener with Swansea.
Supporters have long been frustrated with Young's lack of creativity and consistency on the wing, so much so that it was expected the player had no future at Old Trafford.
It was difficult to see where Young would fit into Van Gaal's system, whether it were 4-3-3 or 3-5-2. Despite featuring as an occasional wing-back in his days with Watford, it seemed unlikely that he would be defensively competent enough to take on the responsibility of a wing-back in Van Gaal's team.
Ashley Young has proven everybody wrong. Taking the mantle on either flank in Luke Shaw and Rafael's respective absences, Young has flourished in the wing-back position, blending both flair and energy to boost United's attacking threats as well as proving to be defensively reliable.
The highlight came in United's trip to the Big House in Michigan to face Real Madrid. Ashley Young was positioned on the left and scored twice as well as keeping Gareth Bale at bay.
Young's link-up play with Wayne Rooney has been encouraging, as has his energy in the latter stages of matches, which is crucial in such a physically demanding position.
Van Gaal appears to have transmitted a level of confidence to his charges that simply wasn't evident during the 2013-14 season and Young has arguably benefitted the most.
Young has gone from being halfway out of the exit door at Old Trafford to one of the first names on the teamsheet for the visit of Swansea.
Van Gaal's aforementioned preference to give players an "honest chance" has proved beneficial in the case of Ashley Young.
Loser: Rafael da Silva
Rafael da Silva is not a loser of United's pre-season per se but rather a victim of circumstance.
Rafael had been United's first-choice right-back for several years now, but he has struggled with injuries since breaking into the first team, much to the frustration of United supporters.
According to statistics, provided by WhoScored.com, Rafael's injuries limited him to just 19 Premier League matches last term.
There is no doubting the talent Rafael has at his disposal, with the only area for concern being his rashness in challenges in rather unimportant areas of the pitch, which can often result in either an injury or a caution.
Rafael was given the nod by Van Gaal at the beginning of the tour but a groin injury saw the Brazilian sent home for recovery.
United have struggled at right-back for two seasons with there being no natural back-up to fill in during Rafael's absences. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are often asked to play in that role, much to the detriment of the team's balance as well as their own individual development.
Van Gaal hasn't yet moved into the transfer market to recruit a right-back. However, the aforementioned link with Juan Cuadrado is obviously a worry for Rafael.
As are the performances of Ashley Young in the last three matches.
Young has found the role of wing-back suited to his talents, and with Rafael's injury and Luke Shaw's impressive displays on the opposite flank, it is likely Young will start at right wing-back in the Premier League opener against Swansea City on August 16.
If Young is able to continue his impressive run of form, it is difficult to see how Rafael will be able to force his way back into the team.