Staying up late most nights this week to watch my beloved Manchester United take on various ‘soccer’teams from the US -and Celtic- hasn’t been the most exciting of times if I’m perfectly honest. While the game against Celtic was entertaining the subsequent ones against Philadelphia Union and those other footballing titans Kansas City Wizards have been fairly dull and raised a few questions that a week ago I neither felt the need nor the inclination to address.
With Dimitar Berbatov producing the sort of performance everyone knows he’s more than capable of against Celtic, there were already murmurs of whether Sir Alex Ferguson may start him next season in a return to the old 4-4-2 formation that was once United perennial modus operandi. Then there was the game against Philadelphia Union, where despite playing well below-par United still managed to triumph- if you can call a friendly win in the US a ‘triumph’- mainly due to the poor quality of the opposition. Sunday night’s game against the Wizards of Kansas City was even more dissapointing than the one against Philadelphia as United succumbed to a side that had only ten men for half of the game. Of course this wasn’t a full-strength United side, mind you unless Wayne Rooney is on the pitch it never is, this was a team made up of reserves and youngsters. However despite this, a few questions have already been raised by certain sections of the press, in this game and the previous two.
Chris Smalling’s penchant for costly errors, which seemed to afflict him as soon as he signed for United, raised its ugly head against Celtic, which was quickly seized upon by the media as another example of a catalogue of mistakes the youngster has made in the past six months. Roy Hodgson joked that Smalling was “getting hismistakes out of the way” at Fulham, let’s hope from a United perspective he’s merely doing the same in pre-season. Although he’s hardly shone, certain apsects of Smalling’s game have impressed me, not least his arial ability and his obvious pace.
Kiko Macheda’s anonymous performance against Union-or is ‘the Union’, raised a few question marks as to just how much United can rely on him next season, while Rafael Da Silva’s and Mame Diouf’s, not to mention Darron Gibson’s, lacklustre displays against the Wizards- or is it just Wizards-had certain Fleet Street members doubting their ability to be first-team players this season.
There’s already a bit of semi-hype about Javier Hernandez’s debut and how important it will be. Now I for one don’t think you can garner too much insight into any players ability from a friendly game in a different climate, against barely professional standard opposition- no offence Celtic fans. Yes, you can judge a player’s fitness and see how well certain partnerships are developing but by and large I think their fairly pointless in terms of player assessment.
Two seasons ago in pre-season both Frazier Campbell and Chris Eagles looked great, scoring goals and giving the defences of Kaizer Chiefs, Portsmouth and Espanyol no end of trouble. Fergie rewarded both youngsters by showing them the Old Trafford exit not long after.
Last year’s pre-season saw some at Old Trafford arguing the case for Anderson to be given free-kick taking duties following a cracker against Boca Juniors- I know, it seems unthinkable now.
With news that Fergie’s undecided as whether to include Anderson and Owen Hargreaves in the squad he submits to the Premier League though, it gives the pre-season friendlies an added edge as it could well be a chance for one of the youngsters on the fringes of the squad to stake a real claim.
With each game being something of a subsitute merry-go-round not to mention some shocking refereeing its seems a bit harsh to try and judge whether someone is ready for the United first-team based on these outings. However with the clock ticking as to when Fergie has to make a decision on his 25-man Premier League squad and it still being uncertain as to whether Hargreaves and Anderson will be fit enough to be included, the previously ‘pointless’ friendlies could actually go some way to dictating United’s season.
While that may seem a tad melodramatic, whoever is chosen for the squad will no doubt play some part in the upcoming months. With Fergie’s preference of constantly changing his starting XI as well as United’s ridiculously bad luck with injuries- though not as bad as Arsenal’s before any of you Gooners start- it’s obvious every member of the squad will have an important role. Last season’s two-point title costing deficit had many United fans- myself included, lamenting every dropped point and wondering how failing against the likes of Burnley and Blackburn could have cost The Reds the title.
With two more friendlies, plus the Charity, sorry ‘Community Shield’- am I alone in dreading a trip to Wembley to see Chelsea bragging about winning both trophies?- before the season starts then four Premier League games before the squads need to be submitted, the next two games could prove vital to Fergie’s thinking. After all he may be reluctant to try and assess young players in the opening few league games, with every point being vital and weakened United sides failing to deliver in the past.
I just hope that with the heat, the added pressure, the poor refereeing and the brevity of some of their time on the pitch, some of the young United players out in the US manage to do themselves justice.
Read more of Justin Mottershead’s work on his blog ‘Name on the Trophy.’