Arid Environment

New dances but I fear for United – they’re still woefully short in places

New beginnings, new eras and new chapters. The hope, the optimism, the belief. That maybe this is the eve of something different, when we rid ourselves of the dark cloud that’s been hanging over past endeavours. Very quickly the lights go up, the curtain goes back and you see before your eyes whether the promise of pre-season was real or another false dawn.

So how reliable is pre-season? I had a variety of experiences and as many mixed starts to actual campaigns. My experience amounted to one golden rule before things get real: Don’t get injured.

The conditioning work is vital, not only to be fit for the season opener but to get as close to top gear as often as possible throughout the year. It’s the cornerstone the campaign is built on. Results aren’t the be-all and end-all but if you’re getting them, it brings a sense of harmony and keeps the camp a touch bubblier. If you’re not, they can be dismissed as vital minutes “under the belt” and we move on.

The schedule in pre-season can be a bit inconsistent by nature – you may train early the morning of the game and use the 45 minutes each player gets in the evening as part of the building process. However, some teams prioritize matches. In days gone by, Liverpool would normally play Tranmere and the result, even if fatigued, was a formality. Now pre-season games are huge money spinners, with teams generating enormous sums of money by heading for Asia or America.

There’s no one-size-fits-all. Some players just switch on for the pressure of three points and find it difficult to focus on friendlies. Then there are younger lads who dazzle in the banalities of pre-season but can’t handle the bright lights.

So where will Erik ten Hag and Manchester United be come 2pm on Sunday? While there is obvious intrigue, people seem to forget that United have been down this road before with a Dutch manager. Although Louis van Gaal’s time yielded an FA Cup, there was serious discontent at the lack of penetration, giving rise to the sort of language – boring and uninspired – rarely associated with ‘the Man United way’.

This is, of course, the Dutch way. I have experienced that way. A manager arrived with a dazzling CV. Five Eredivise titles on the trot with Ajax. I’ve seen this up close and personal and that didn’t end well.

The Ajax Amsterdam nursery is set up in a unique and melodious way, the whole club adhering to very specific values, from grassroots to first team. The manager only has to worry about the football pitch. And the dominance of such a large club in a league where only PSV offers meaningful opposition is the perfect environment to blood young talent. Mistakes will be made, there are errors in judgment from players learning to cope with men’s football. But in a fairly routine 3-1 victory, it’s easier to coach the defender who made the error that led to the goal than it is subsequent to a 0-1 defeat at home. The ferocity of the Premier League is no such place for lessons.

The Ajax culture is ball retention. The more you have it the less opportunity the opposition has to hurt you. Pep Guardiola has employed this Cryuff belief system but inserted his own values. He understands that in English football, when the opposition wins the ball back, they may not be thinking retention. If the jugular is exposed, a lot of Premier League teams will strike even if it means the possibility of forsaking possession for another extended period of time, chasing it or dropping back into a shape.

It’s what separates the Premier League. The pure cut and thrust. Ten Haag has to respect this.

Van Gaal learned the hard way — remember the very public Wayne Rooney meltdown on the King Power Stadium pitch during a 5-3 defeat? To effectively retain possession, the full dimensions of the pitch need to be utilized – you are at your most vulnerable in the seconds after losing possession.

Liverpool and Manchester City have developed counter-pressing to ease such fears but the presence of Fabinho and Rodri are the insurance policies every team needs. The extra cover is Van Dijk and Diaz. And, of course, if all that malfunctions there’s Alisson and Ederson.

In comparison to these standard setters, ten Hag’s United are woefully short in several areas. Possibly a 175cm (that’s 5’8”) Lisandro Martinez will help but, in reality, even if he can the support cast is practically non-existent. Maybe he will turn out to be a Cannavaro, Ayala or Puyol-type character but that won’t solve the issue of the unreliable Varane.

Counter-pressing works when the players are rewarded with winning the ball back high up the pitch and creating chances. But it takes everyone to buy in. If one person is half a step late or daydreams for a second, then it’s sunk.

I fear for United if they attempt this because there’s nothing more demoralizing as a player than to press and get no reward. The Godfather of Gegenpress himself quickly saw this and had no plan B.

Maybe the practical alternative is counter-attacking? Similar to Solskjaer’s time in charge. But we’ve seen how limited this is.

One thing for certain – this will take time at Old Trafford. A long time, but little markers of improvement are a must. Indicators that the new manager has the measure and scale of the issue and is making incremental progress.

The holy trinity in any football club is the owner, director of football and manager. All three have to have chemistry, a vision and total trust in each other. The manager informs the DoF who and what he wants. If the specified player is unavailable, then there’s a template of what attributes Plan B requires. Asking for a Trent Alexander-Arnold-like full back – and being handed an Aaron Wan Bissaka for example – is the type of misstep that can’t happen ‘upstairs’.

This is a breakdown that has contributed to Manchester United’s decline. The type of decision-making that drove Jose Mourinho over the edge. A manager has to feel he’s in control, and that the DoF is working hard for him.

The new manager will have delivered a list of players he needs replacing to implement his goal. This has to be strictly adhered to. Very subtly moving on players whose faces no longer fit. When I was at Crystal Palace, Liverpool and Michel Edwards sold us Benteke and Sakho for a combined £60 million. This is the wizardry and genius John Murtough, the director of football at Man United, needs. The ability to identify the targets that are under-valued or, at the very least, not over-valued. Liverpool found Southampton very fertile territory in this regard. The final piece of the trinity is the owners. But let’s not go there yet. The season is but a pup.

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