Anyone who has played Football Manager, or even has a few years’ worth of experience as a follower of the beautiful game under their belts, will tell you that pre-season friendlies don’t mean a thing. A 10 goal romping of a non-league side in the summer can be easily followed by a relegation campaign, or vice versa, a humbling defeat to a club a few levels below your own could lead to a season of unparalleled success.
Nowadays, the practice often has even less meaning than it used to. Many English clubs partake in pre-season tours, that create a mixture of intense training camps under foreign suns, regular access to game-time against varying opposition and a team-bonding exotic adventure, but the overall aim of friendly fixtures, at least in modern terms, appears to be to combine regaining fitness with business enterprises, especially if you are Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal, who have all been desperately trying to tap into the Asian market for some time, which rather coincidentally (or rather not) is the location for the pre-season tours of all three Premier League clubs.
As previously stated, for beating a lesser opponent as expected, there is little to be gained. But new Manchester United boss David Moyes will be concerned that his first official match in charge of the Red Devils ended in a rather drab 1-0 defeat, to the hands of Singha All-Stars.
[cat_link cat=”manchester-united” type=”tower”]
I don’t wish to supply you with a conveyor belt of clichéd hyperbole simply due to the fact the former Toffees gaffer failed to claim a win in his opening fixture at the Old Trafford helm. Not only was nothing on the line, but the team fielded was a long way short of United’s usually stellar cast; Ben Amos made a rare outing between the sticks, Tom Cleverley was fielded on the right flank, the returning-from-loan Fabio Da Silva featured at right-back and the Red Devils’ strike-force was composed of Adnan Januzaj and Danny Welbeck, whilst Robin Van Persie, Javier Hernandez, Nemanja Vidic, Ashley Young, Nani, Antonio Valencia, David De Gea and Wayne Rooney have all been absent from the first leg of the tour, mostly due to injury.
The media is already split with Moyesites shouting ‘Don’t Panic Captain Manerin’ as loud as possible, whilst the naysays have condemned the Scot and the lukewarm members of United’s second string, such as Anderson, Cleverley, Welbeck and Fabio, but my humble opinion lies somewhere in between.
The fact the Premier League champions failed to find the net against lesser opposition, despite the intense climate, is surely the biggest initial concern, but it would be wrong to suggest Sir Alex Ferguson never endured a pre-season defeat, or even a shock loss to a domestic or European minnow. There’s no need to reach for the self-destruct button just yet, but the United boss could do with adopting a harder line in the style of his predecessor, following a chaotic start to his reign ahead of an unpredictable year in the Premier League.
David Moyes has already been very vocal about being himself and not trying to emulate the former United boss, despite the criteria for his appointment being on the most-part centred around the glaring similarities of style, personality, philosophy and persona between the two, yet now is arguably the time to enact the methodologies of his predecessor more than ever.
It was only a matter of months ago since Ferguson banned two mainstream newspapers from Manchester United press conferences for suggesting in print that relations between himself and the want-away Wayne Rooney had hit an all-time low, following his absence from the starting line-up for the Red Devils’ Champions League clash with Real Madrid, and although the situation has evolved into something more serious than media speculation since, Moyes’ nice-guy approach has failed in putting the issue to bed.
His continual insistence that the England striker is not for sale is yet to convince the British press, whilst new managerial rival Jose Mourinho has played his part in maintaining the hysteria surrounding Rooney’s potential departure. Had the Scot adopted a more aggressive approach by preserving the status quo of United gaffers telling the papers what to report rather than suggesting it, perhaps Rooney’s future would not have cast such a darkening shadow over Moyes’ coronation to the Old Trafford throne, and the succeeding press conferences that have followed on the Asian tour.
Similarly, it may be time for Moyes to put his bulbous stare – the former Everton gaffer’s equivalent of the hair-dryer treatment that is yet to receive a nickname that so easily rolls of the tongue – into action. I can’t reiterate how much the 1-0 defeat will have less effect on the United boss’s tenure than any other fixture, but the Red Devils need to get into gear as quickly as possible. The Scot undoubtedly has his hold-ups about reading the riot act to a roster of players who all vastly outweigh him in terms of accolades and success, yet there are no rewards for niceties at England’s most coveted club, that has bred glory from a culture of fear-of-Ferguson style of man-management, gash in David Beckham’s brow line to boot – if you excuse the pun.
The fact there are no stand-out favourites for the Premier League title should be enough motivation for a club who are lauded for their unparalleled consistency to take advantage, but the United roster should be even more determined considering the coming season will be a title-defence, and on paper at least, it’s theirs to lose.
But if Moyes is not careful, and if he has not maintained Ferguson’s level of the utmost intensity, the campaign could well be over before it gets into full-swing. The Red Devils are well-known for their false starts to the domestic season, often dropping points during their opening fixtures, but there will be little room for error at the beginning of the incoming campaign.
In the first few weeks of the footballing year, United face Swansea, Chelsea, Liverpool, Crystal Palace and Manchester City, with none representing a certain three points for various reasons, and two being crucial six pointers. Should Moyes and his boys stutter, a face-off with Tottenham and Arsenal in a three-week period in November could finish them off by Christmas.
My suggestion is that Moyes needs to toughen up and show more of the Scottish aggression that earned him the right to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson. It’s a rare and unusual situation he finds himself in, promoted to England’s most successful club despite having never claimed a league title or auxiliary trophy, and taking up the mantle from a manager who will go down as one of Europe’s greatest, for not only the consistency he provided but also the sheer longevity of his reign at Old Trafford.
But this is not the time to step out of his countryman’s shadow. Moyes is desperate to distance himself from arguments that he is simply Ferguson-lite – younger, fresher, healthier, yet lacking in that vital ingredient that breeds achievement – nevertheless, if any campaign of his United career would require an impersonation of his predecessor, it’s the coming title-defence.
Amid the chaos at the Premier League summit, consistency from one season to the next will be one of the biggest advantages available to the Red Devils; although their spiritual leader has stepped down, the infrastructure, roster and philosophy remains the same, whilst Man City and Chelsea revamp and reinvent the wheel tactically and holistically.
The United squad has been thoroughly bred on a regime of discipline and intensity, and although it may be superficial to suggest a 1-0 defeat on a pre-season tour is a signal that the standards have dropped in the Red Devils’ camp, the club’s summer so far, in all departments, implies the new boss needs to grunt his teeth and provide a more convincing image that the Premier League champions aren’t lacking their competitive edge amid Ferguson’s retirement.
It may be a little soon for the hair-dryer treatment, but a Scottish stare of disappointment directed at the players, or an aggressive twang in Moyes’ voice when talking to journalists, with shades of Alex Ferguson and connotations of their shared undying competitive spirit, might be enough to get the United campaign in full swing ahead of schedule, ahead of a difficult year in the Premier League, where taking the initiative could be everything.