Before Tuesday’s match in Miami, Ander Herrera called this preseason the strangest of his career. Most Manchester United fans would probably agree with him, as the club struggles through a less-than-ideal training camp ahead of a pivotal year. The Reds hope to improve on their second place finish in the Premier League (or at least avoid going trophy-less again), but will enter the new season without most of their top talent.
Twelve United players competed at the World Cup this summer, with seven advancing all the way to the tournament’s final weekend. Key guys like Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, and Ashley Young won’t return to training until August 6, ruling them out of the season opener against Leicester. That match is just more than a week away and most of the players José Mourinho would normally rely on are still on vacation.
With so many first-team regulars missing, the manager named a tour squad heavy on youth players and those looking to make a breakthrough after a season away on loan. Understandably, that’s led to some lackluster results.
A youthful side battled Club America to a decent 1-1 draw in the tour opener, but then followed that up with a dour 0-0 stalemate with the San Jose Earthquakes. Sure, San Jose are in the middle of their regular season, but they rank as MLS’s worst club and should have been easily beaten.
United have (mostly) looked better in the International Champions Cup. They overcame AC Milan in a marathon penalty shootout and ended on a high note with a 2-1 win over Real Madrid. In between, though, United suffered a 4-1 defeat to Liverpool in Ann Arbor. As Mourinho put it, his players simply ran out of gas.
That’s another big concern about this makeshift tour squad. Regulars like Eric Bailly, Alexis Sánchez, Ander Herrera, and Juan Mata are all playing BIG minutes this preseason. Hopefully this over-use will not lead to injuries or heavy legs once the real competition starts on August 10.
To make matters even worse, three first-teamers who could have helped share this load had to exit camp over the past week. Anthony Martial returned to Paris for the birth of his second child, robbing him of a chance to cement a starting place. At least he should be ready to rejoin the squad upon their return to Europe.
Nemanja Matić and Antonio Valencia, on the other hand, look likely to be out a while with injuries picked up in America. Matić will miss the start of the season after undergoing surgery, while Valencia’s status is still up in the air. Mourinho hasn’t said much about his starting right back, but the early signs don’t look good.
But it’s not all bad news. After an injury-plagued season in which he seemed to lose the manager’s trust, Eric Bailly has started all five preseason matches and won glowing praise from Mourinho. In particular, the boss appreciated Bailly’s willingness to step up against Liverpool on what should have been his day off.
“Bailly was not going to play,” Mourinho explained at his post-match press conference. “But when he saw that Smalling in the warm-up was leaving, he decided by himself he did not want another kid on the pitch. It is not fair to Alexis, to Mata, to Herrera, and the guys that are there.”
“He is a team boy,” Mourinho continued. “He is a great boy. He is an honest man, always ready to give everything for the team. That is why we have him, why we still have him, and why he is going to stay with us, because football teams need people like him.”
Those kind words for Bailly — who wore the captain’s armband against Real Madrid — have been a rarity from Mourinho on this trip. Much ink has been spilled on Mourinho’s sour mood this summer, but perhaps he just realizes what a disjointed preseason this has been and that it’s unlikely to help his Reds bridge the gap with Manchester City.
Mourinho should be cheered, though, by the news that Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, and Phil Jones agreed to cut short their post-World Cup break and will rejoin the team a few days early.
One silver lining to this preseason of uncertainty is United’s relatively easy start to the 2018/19 Premier League. The boys open with a home match against Leicester a week from Friday, before a trip to Brighton nine days later. Even without the injured and resting players, United should have six points on the board by the Tottenham Hotspur match at month’s end.
By then, Paul Pogba and the other late arrivals will have been back in training for three weeks and should be available for selection.
Ander Herrera is right — this has been a crazy preseason. But, thanks to the fixture makers, Manchester United still have a chance to shake it off and make a strong start to the coming season.