Louis Van Gaal was guilty of a sea of horrendous mistakes whilst manager of Manchester United. I’m still tempted to blame him for global warming and the rise of Nigel Farage. But not even I can find him responsible for United’s shambolic tour of China this summer. Indeed, perhaps we have him to thank for the fact that it was only supposed to last two games instead of three. The club have toured China and Asia before without major issues, but this summer the games were being played as part of the International Champions Cup, organised by Relevant. They assigned the games and chose the venues, even if United no doubt had veto over the whole thing. It would appear, however, that money trumped sense and the second game at Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium was always likely to be folly due to a dreadful pitch long before torrential rain turned the whole enterprise to a farce. Guardiola didn’t want to be there and neither did Mourinho. City even sent their groundsman to China ten days before the match was scheduled to be played to try and resurrect the appalling playing surface by p*ssing in all four corners, or something. Money ruled for both clubs and United have now lost valuable training time in a country that made much of the work Mourinho intended to do with his players impossible and that all-important match fitness. What a shambles. It may be time for common sense to trump the perpetual chase for dollars.
However, whilst I am unable to pin the Chinese debacle on Louis Van Gaal, none of you will be surprised to know that I have another axe to grind with the departed Dutchman. When Jose Mourinho was installed as manager he found himself faced with a pre-season which consisted of only three matches. THREE. After complaints about the demands of his first tour to the US, Van Gaal appeared to be well on the way to doing away with pre-season altogether. Who needs fit players anyway? The first of the three scheduled games was the opener in China, against a near full strength Borussia Dortmund side who would already be match fit, having played four times prior to the two clubs meeting. With only the City game and Wayne Rooney’s testimonial against Everton to follow before the Community Shield tie with Leicester City one wonders how on earth Van Gaal expected his players to be prime physical condition for the Premier League opener against Bournemouth. Aware of the issue, Mourinho squeezed in the hastily arranged Wigan friendly and a second game against Galatasaray in Sweden. With players who participated in the Euros this summer only just starting to return game time will be absolutely essential.
Even with the benefit of the Wigan game, Mourinho’s rag-tag bunch of wannabes, might-be’s and never-will-be’s were thoroughly humiliated by a far stronger and far fitter Dortmund side. Whilst Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s first goal for the club was a plus, there was little else to take from the game bar fitness. If it served any other purpose at all it was to remind the manager of the dross his squad still contains. So much for Van Gaal clearing out the ‘dead wood’. Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones in particular were thoroughly inadequate, as was Antonio Valencia at right back. None of this will come as a surprise to Mourinho if he paid sufficient attention last season. He has a bloated, desperately average squad which still needs a huge amount of restorative work. It is hard to imagine that all of the issues can be addressed this summer but, even with the promising Eric Bailly drafted in, it would be a tough ask to win the Premier League with this squad and, in particular, this group of defenders. The return of Luke Shaw is a huge plus, and he got extremely valuable minutes in China, but questions remain of the centre and right backs. Turning this ship around in one transfer window would be an astonishing achievement.
Of course, prospects would be a little brighter with a world class midfielder installed into the side. The Paul Pogba saga rumbles on, a never ending procession of claim and counter-claim. Some suggest that the deal is done and we simply await the official announcement. Juventus are certainly spending like the money is already in the bank. But others believe that United and Juve are yet to agree the terms of the deal and their is potential for the Frenchman to stay in Turin or move to Real Madrid. This writer’s hunch is that Real have neither the money nor the will to gazump Ed Woodward and the smiles all round as the club EVC appeared in China and Raiola in Miami, where Pogba is holidaying, suggest that the work is done. All that is left is for Juve to save face, give the impression that they are putting up a mighty fight to keep the player or extract the highest fee they can and to make a few signings to soften the blow. So contradictory is the reporting on the deal, however, that it’s just as likely that things are not as advanced as we might hope, that the whole thing could fall through and that I look a total chump. Standard. Meanwhile, Juve fans who argued vociferously that the player is hugely overrated and the fee for his services obscene suddenly looked very stupid when their own club agreed to pay over €90m for the 28 year old Napoli striker Gonzalo Higuain. Whilst the Argentine has been incredibly prolific in Serie A and his departure will greatly weaken Napoli, he is infamous for a temperament which often deserts him at the very highest level. It is a fee every bit as staggering as that which United might pay for Pogba.
Afraid of having their hearts broken if their club misses out on Pogba, United fans are getting their anger in at the midfielder in advance. An Instagram upload by the player on Monday with the caption, “We say it all, by saying nothing at all”, appeared to inflame some supporters who interpreted a fairly benign comment as some sort of cryptic two fingers up at them. “He’s taking the p*ss out of us”, was a common refrain. Strangely enough, a month ago, many of those fans were fellating Zlatan Ibrahimovic for being equally cryptic on social media prior to his move to United. It seems that arrogance is accepted and applauded in one player but not another. Curious. A few of the Twitterati speculated that in the picture, which shows Pogba and Mino Raiola laughing in a swimming pool, the latter is wearing a United shirt instead of trunks. They may be right, or it may just be a case of taking absurd interest in the deal and looking for clues absolutely everywhere. Who knows? Regardless, the whole saga is getting extremely tedious. Perhaps I’m wrong and the player may yet stay put or end up in Madrid, but if I had to bet my house on anything it would be that the deal is already in the bag.
In an outgoing sense, there has been little movement towards the Old Trafford exit door. Perhaps Ed Woodward is expelling all of his energy trying to acquire Pogba, or perhaps offloading a large number of highly paid but averagely talented players is proving difficult. How novel. Guillermo Varela left for Eintracht Frankfurt on loan. We wish him well.
The desperation in a section of the press pack to paint Mourinho as anti-youth at United, with little evidence to go on yet, continued this week as ESPN’s Richard Jolly filed an absurd piece making that very point based on nothing but his word that it was indeed the case. Those who politely questioned the validity of his article were immediately blocked on social media, adding another name to the list of journalists who are happy to write agenda-driven sh*te but aren’t willing to defend their assertions, most likely because they are well aware that the thrust of their argument is b*llocks. As I wrote in a piece for another website last week, Mourinho has taken as many academy graduates on tour as Louis Van Gaal did last summer and has sidelined three players in Varela, Wilson and Blackett who were also out of favour with his predecessor. So Richard Jolly, welcome to the Sachin Nakrani school of journalism. You’ll fit in well.
Finally, reports have linked Will Keane and Adnan Januzaj with Sunderland, newly under the stewardship of our nemesis before the last nemesis, David Moyes. If he could take Fellaini too, that would at least be a start in what should be his priority mission: to make up for the most dreadful nine months United have had to endure since the late 80s. Focus Dave. Take the tree.
Pre season has become a joke recently – more about the money than getting the players fit. Hopefully Jose will see sense and stick to Europe next summer.