After a long summer drought with no club football, pre-season friendlies are a breath of fresh air. An excuse to unveil the new kits and showcase summer signings, these matches arguably set an early expectation of what supporters can expect from their favorite side.
From an American fan’s perspective, the matches are perhaps the closest some will get to watch their team play live. Not everyone can afford the trek to Manchester or North London; however, a short jaunt to Miami or Washington, DC is more reasonable.
This year in particular, however, World Cup withdrawals have rendered these fixtures inconsequential. In Manchester United’s case, champion Paul Pogba is on a much-earned holiday following a grueling five weeks in Russia. The Frenchman’s summer, while victorious, now comes at the expense of fans missing out on the midfielder opening the 2018/2019 campaign alongside his mates. For Belgian international Romelu Lukaku, his third-place win last month also earned him a much-needed rest.
With that being said, fans are witnessing a much different United lineup in the States. Three matches in, José Mourinho’s starting XI showed some unfamiliar faces, yet set a serious chance for youth recruits to prove they’re worthy of a first-team promotion.
Saturday’s loss against Liverpool in Michigan had fans and analysts wondering where to direct their discontent. The boss did not mince words in his 10-minute post-match presser, firing off insults in every direction and of course, failing to absorb any blame. Mou lamented the absence of his senior roster, belittled the experience of junior players, called on (read: begged) the senior players to return to training early and finally, wondered why any United fan would pay to watch his team play.
No one was safe from a classic Mourinho tirade. The Special One even chastised our beloved defender and rumored captain-elect Antonio Valencia for returning from summer sabbatical out of shape.
Mourinho’s frustrations, while tired and exaggerated, deserve some consideration. Pre-season outcomes should not be indicative of how the Red Devils will perform at the start of the new year. To direct a majority of the discourse around whether United can challenge Manchester City for the title or hold Liverpool to a third-place finish when all three clubs haven’t played a complete first-team roster since the conclusion of the World Cup is unnecessary.
If you’ll humor me, let’s take a stroll down memory lane. Mourinho’s predecessor, Louis Van Gaal, had arguably the finest pre-season in recent years. In 2014, the Red Devils won all six of their friendlies, beating dangerous teams such as Real Madrid and that Liverpool team who almost won the Premier League title that year. Returning to Manchester as International Cup Champions and a new trophy to display at Old Trafford, United were poised to have a strong domestic campaign. As time would reveal, perfect pre-season form does not translate into a Premier League title. Their first three matches, against Swansea City, Sunderland and Burnley, reaped a measly two points, and things only got worse from there. United would finish the year in fourth place, 17 points behind Mourinho’s championship winning Chelsea.
Tours often represent a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s a chance for clubs to expand their global brand, especially as there are untapped support in countries like Thailand, Hong Kong and of course, the United States. On the other, the results of these fixtures translate into material for analysts to determine the success of a club’s potential based on a junior varsity starting XI. United could close out their pre-season tour this weekend against Bayern Munich having won just a single match in regulation and with an incomplete team. Yet, the conversation won’t be that their World Cup delegates have returned from holiday ready for a 40-week long season. On the contrary, Mourinho’s post-match words will be the basis for many debates surrounding whether he has given up on a role for which he campaigned.
Pre-season tours outline the agenda for a fresh year ahead, including building relationships amongst teammates and outlining the rapport between players and staff. Despite their shaky run, Manchester United have no reason to show real concern about their title-winning hopes until August 10th. By the time the summer transfer window closes and José Mourinho is left to make do with what players remain, then talk of whether his reign at Old Trafford has ran its course can break ground.