Wayne Rooney remains a lynchpin; Ander Herrera brings much-needed midfield dynamism; more signings needed to create a title-challenging squad
There was a moment in the mixed zone after Manchester United had trounced Los Angeles Galaxy 7-0 in Pasadena when Wayne Rooney was asked about the criticism he received during England’s dire World Cup campaign. Instead of a defensive or irritated response, the 28-year-old smiled and offered a relaxed answer about how that comes with the territory, offering a glimpse of a player – and man – comfortable with himself.
Rooney had just scored twice against Galaxy and repeated the feat in the 3-2 win over Roma in Denver on Saturday. The first was one of those 30-yard humdingers that have become a Rooney speciality, the forward spinning and hitting a curled finish that was a pleasure to witness. But it was Juan Mata’s strike moments later that proved how vital Rooney can again be for United: from inside his half the Liverpudlian dropped a perfect pass into the Spaniard’s path for the latter to finish, illustrating what a fine all-round footballer Rooney has become.
The £28.5m addition from Athletic Bilbao was United’s most impressive player against Galaxy and one of the more disappointing against Roma. However, he was not alone on an afternoon in which Van Gaal blamed the heat and mile-high altitude of the Sports Authority Field venue, with the manager pointing to Juan Mata and Shinji Kagawa as also having off-days. As in the Galaxy outing, in training Herrera has impressed with his liking for the ball in any position and an ability to run play and make surges from midfield: all of which adds a dynamism United have lacked at the centre of their team for too long.
Herrera says: “Louis van Gaal is one of the best managers in the world and I am lucky to be working with him.” Van Gaal – and United fans – may already feel fortunate too.
The Iron Tulip moniker and the reputation that preceded Van Gaal spoke of a 62-year-old who had zero tolerance for fools. This has proved the case. During the tour players have talked about how strict the manager can be and how this is a good thing. Footballers, of course, will say little else about the man who decides if they will be selected for the XI. However respect is a two-way street and while everything is new and rosy and the team is winning, the good vibes will flow. But there was a surprising exchange in the post-Roma match press conference that suggested Van Gaal may not always treat all players as equals. When quizzed if Ben Amos was to blame for the Miralem Pjanic lob that beat the goalkeeper from 70 yards, he said: “I am nearly 63 years old and I run, when the ball is flying four seconds, 50 metres. What do you think?” It was delivered with a twinkle yet did pose the question whether Van Gaal would have been as flippant about his first-choice No1, David de Gea.
The central defender and central midfielder have been the big losers so far after the team’s visits to California and Colorado. In training before the Roma match, Smalling struggled to find form, a fault that had been evident in a lumbering display against Galaxy and once more subsequently against Rudi Garcia’s side. Cleverley, who is under particular pressure from Herrera’s arrival, was all smiles at Friday’s pre-Roma briefing as Van Gaal joked with the 24-year-old. He will also have walked a little taller when named as captain of the XI that took to the Sports Authority Field. Yet by half-time that sensation will have mutated into that sinking feeling that comes when just about everything that can go wrong for a player has. Cleverley was off the pace, ceded possession, missed tackles, and generally returned a display that must have disappointed Van Gaal.
“I watched the manager’s Holland team in the World Cup and from that I think I’m going to be his type of player,” said Cleverley at the pre-match press conference. “I have to show in training and, most importantly, games. I think there’s a place for me but I have to prove it.” He may have to start doing so, soon.
As illustrated by his tinkering with the tour schedule and complaints about the club’s commercial demands, Van Gaal is fiercely focused only on making United champions again. Can he do it next season, his first in charge? At the moment, when everyone is fit, the strongest XI may run something like this: De Gea; Smalling, Jones, Evans; Valencia, Herrera, Carrick, Mata, Shaw; Rooney, Van Persie. On paper this is not a shabby team, but it is no Premier League-winning XI.
There is a weakness at centre-back and right wing-back, in Smalling and Valencia, plus the inexperience of Shaw. Also, the squad lacks depth, as currently Cleverley or Darren Fletcher are next in line should either Herrera or Carrick become injured, while the erratic Welbeck and Hernández are the back-up strikers, though Kagawa is a reasonable deputy for Mata.
If Van Gaal can strengthen the squad in these areas United supporters may just become excited that a 21st championship could be being competed for come May 2015.