Football is changing. It has been the most popular branch of sports for long years, but nowadays it is beyond an area of interest. Investors ranging from US to China are becoming increasingly involved in the game. This year, AC Milan was bought by Chinese businessmen. Clubs such as Manchester United, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain are less recent examples of takeovers by wealthy investors.
A pre-season derby between Manchester United and Manchester City was among the latest examples of football’s changing nature. The match was the first Manchester derby to be played outside the UK. Houston’s NRG Stadium, which hosted this year’s Super Bowl as well, was the venue to host the derby in the International Champions Cup. Last night, United played its second match in the tournament against Real Madrid in California.
When United’s manager, Louis van Gaal criticised a pre-season tour in the United States on the grounds that long journeys will negatively influence the player’s fitness and performance. However, in this era of modern, industrial football, it is difficult to escape from the marketing side of the game. A pre-season friendly attracts tens of thousands of fans and these occasions provide also financial gains for the sponsors and the teams alike.
The two matches in the International Champions Cup are not fully indicative of the next season’s performance for Manchester United. Professionals like Mourinho, Guardiola and Zidane are well aware that building fitness is the essential point. Therefore, the most important indicator of United’s capabilities for next season will probably be the European Super Cup tie against Real Madrid.
This said, I think there were some hints we can take from United’s first two matches in the tournament. Although United won against City in their first match, last night’s performance against Real Madrid was more convincing to me. Thinking on player-by-player basis, Phil Jones gave some positive signals that he can be a reliant player for the defensive aspect of the game in the next season. It is most likely that Bailly and Lindelof will be next season’s defensive tandem, but with his versatility, desire and pace, Jones can well be a choice. I remember Alex Ferguson mentioning in 2013 that Jones could be the greatest player in the club’s history. It is unlucky that he suffered injuries after Ferguson’s departure, but he can reignite his defensive powers in 2017-2018.
A big question in my mind is Marouane Fellaini. Since he was purchased by David Moyes, I always felt that he is not the right player for Manchester United. If the void left by Paul Scholes is United’s greatest midfield concern, then Fellaini was just not the right choice. Nor was it the best idea to pick him as Carrick’s replacement. Fellaini, I think, was a reflection of Moyes’ failure to realise that he was managing a title contender back then, along with his introduction of assistant managers from Everton instead of Fergie’s assistants.
Fellaini, though, has been a cushion for both Moyes and van Gaal at times of desperation. He was called to the rescuewhen the team was troubled with injuries of various players both in midfield and attack. There were even times in van Gaal’s last matches when Fellaini played as a striker with the hope of scoring in the final minutes. But for the next season, there is definitely a need to reconfiguration in the midfield. Pogba, who is the obvious and safest choice, should be given a partner that can help him defensively and in commencing the attacks. Matic and Eric Dier seem to be the most possible candidates, but personally, Matic can be a better choice since he worked with Mourinho in Chelsea, and his versatility can be of more help to the team.
It is early to judge Lindelof and Lukaku, the only newcomers of the transfer window so far. Lindelof caused a penalty with a clumsy tackle last night. His objection to the referee after such an obvious penalty decision revealed that he needs to improve mentally as a United player. Mourinho and experienced defenders such as Smalling and Jones can help him. Lukaku, on the other side, scored against City from a pretty narrow angle after getting passed the goalkeeper with a nice little touch. He was sold to Everton when Mourinho was the Chelsea manager, but the player mentioned in his statements that he was the one who wanted to leave. Moreover, his relationship with Mourinho was positive at Chelsea according to his own words. At Manchester United, Mourinho has succesfully managed his relations with his former player Juan Mata, and I don’t think there will be any problems with Lukaku in this sense. Whether the player can shoulder Ibrahimovic’s goalscoring burden, however, is yet to be seen.