Author: Dave Shuttleworth
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There’s something a little bittersweet about going to watch United play in the pre-season. On one hand it’s fantastic to see the team you’ve supported since you were a boy in the flesh, yet on the other it’s a completely different level of intensity to what you usually see from the comfort of your living room, and therefore can position itself as a potential let-down.
I had my first such experience last night here in Durban after watching United take on Amazulu in their opening match of the preseason tour. This was most certainly an event to remember and has strengthened my resolve to take the 12:1 currency hit that the Rand has weighed down on us South Africans and visit the Theatre of Dreams in the near future. I can offer a few dozen kilograms of our moreish ‘biltong’ to anyone who offers to take on the role as guide for me when that does eventually happen.
One exciting aspect of pre-season is that it’s a great opportunity for the younger players to gain first-team experience; and that was one of the things that had me enthusiastic about the match, especially because following the youth and reserve team news has been made much easier with Twitter, blogs and MUTV (that this ease of access to information has brought upon overhyping and other associated problems is another story altogether). The pre-season also takes place during a time where transfer window spits out a few new faces to improve the squad (and more than a few rumours to match) so it’s an opportunity to see new and young players in action in a Google-Labs-style experimental setting and then evaluate those players and gauge whether they will bring about a couple trophies in eleven-or-so months time. Additionally, this year there was the potential bonus of seeing United test a formation that most feel would better equip them for European matches and some of the more intense Premier League matches – the much-hailed 4-2-3-1.
This was of course not to be as Ferguson, predictably unpredictable, decided not to start with Kagawa in behind Hernandez, instead going with a narrower 4-3-1-2, with Berbatov playing behind the strikers. This was initially quite confusing; it’s highly unlikely that United will ever play this sort of formation in the Premier League, as it reduces the natural width that United traditionally attack from. Soon however it became apparent that this shape was not what it appeared to be – Robbie Brady played high up the left, like the left winger he is, and provided the width. With Veseli – coming from Man City in January as a central defender but playing at right back, the shape could have been mistaken for a lop-sided 3-4-2-1 in the first half, especially as Amazulu seemed overwhelmed by the occasion (the keeper, upon being substituted, got to the bench and took out his camera and started taking pictures of the United players for the next five minutes!).
However, the very nature of these sorts of matches means that too much can’t really be read into the team’s ability to keep shape, the player’s form or fitness; though we can still reflect on those who stood out in the match and those who should have. Berbatov was pure class, and it’s pretty gutwrenching to witness how such a talented player like him just can’t fit into Fergie’s plans culminating in Berba making those comments as recently as last week. But the truth of the matter is that this game’s tempo was not nearly up to spec with Premier League matches, so Berba’s talent, vision and touch are amplified and therefore offer a misleading context for the true reason for his demise down the pecking order. It does show though that outside of just a striker’s role, his abilities could be very useful to the squad if he doesn’t end up leaving. If he does leave I’d think that Macheda will slot in as the fourth-choice striker pretty comfortably. Kiko won’t be getting too many minutes though if a 4-2-3-1 is used.
Aside from the Berbatov conundrum there was a fair bit to take note of. Anders Lindegaard was solid in front of three inexperienced defenders and Rio, although he wasn’t tested nearly enough as he could have been if Amazulu’s forwards had even a slight grasp of Newton’s laws of gravity! Jessie Lingard showed his potential in midfield, offering some deft touches and pinpoint passing, but even against the mid-table local side’s unintimidating midfield he still looks too slight to challenge for a squad place just now. A good, year-long loan in the vein of Tom Cleverley’s spells with Wigan and Watford, and some hard work in the gym over the next 12 months will do him a world of good. Ryan Tunnicliffe’s loan spell seems to have worked out well – he looked sharp and it’d be great to see him get more minutes on the tour. Ditto with Petrucci – he looks like he’s got great potential and was denied a cracker by the crossbar in the second half.
Hernandez seemed to be in the same form that he ended last season in – taking one touch to many or being heavy-footed with some of the balls that were played in to him. His movement and vision still look good though. Hopefully this tour will help him get back to the form he showed in his first season with United. Anderson looked very unfit – the sooner you guys get a ban on trans-fat in fast food restaurants in the UK the better for United’s midfield and Anderson’s arteries. This really could be his last reason in the red and gingham if he doesn’t sort himself out.
One problem United won’t have in two years time though, even with the departure of Ando, is a midfield crisis – we’ll have more in the squad than we’ll know what to do with, and if the shift to a 4-2-3-1 becomes a permanent fixture going forward we’ll be all the better for it. However with Sir Alex’s perpetual desire to run against the grain, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s got some other formation up his sleeve and that everything we see in preseason and try to take from it is null and void.