Four days after the World Cup final and with 11 of their best players on holiday after their extended Russian exertions, Manchester United open their pre-season tour in Arizona on Thursday against Club America.
Tickets are half the price compared to when United played the Mexican giants in Los Angeles in 2003, with plenty still on sale as the 20-time-English champions play in North America for the fourth time in five years.
As with last year, Jose Mourinho’s men are using UCLA’s Drake Stadium as their training base. Further games will follow against San Jose Earthquakes in Santa Clara, AC Milan in Los Angeles, Liverpool in Michigan and Real Madrid in Miami on July 31 before the team returns to Europe and a game in Munich against Bayern on August 5.
With so many absentees, United need as many star names as possible to appeal to the crowds in several of America’s biggest stadia, but Alexis Sanchez, the club’s best paid player, was denied a US visa because of a tax offence in Spain.
Mourinho said that hoped the Chilean could get his paperwork sorted to join up with the team, but admitted: “We’ll start the season without [Romelu] Lukaku, [Marcus] Rashford and [Jesse] Lingard. If Alexis is not working with us for 20 days it would be really bad.”
United are set to start the season with Anthony Martial and Sanchez up front, two players who were not happy with how things worked out for them at United last season. Both are hugely talented and both need to improve and should seize any opportunities to play. Mourinho said that Juan Mata will also play in an attacking role.
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Players who didn’t reach the quarter-final stage in Russia including Spain’s David de Gea and Serbia’s Nemanja Matic will join up with the squad, but Mourinho is “worried” by the shortage of players for the start of the season and the decision to make United play the opening game of the 2018/19 Premier League season - against Leicester City on August 10 - 48 hours ahead of Unite'd closest rivals in some cases, has irked him.
United fans hoping for optimistic news about incoming transfers from their manager were left disappointed as the Portuguese admitted he “doesn’t know” how many more players will sign after the three summer acquisitions headlined by £47 million (Dh225m) Brazilian midfielder Fred. The 25 year old made the Brazil squad for the World Cup finals, but didn’t play any minutes with Real Madrid’s Casemiro and Manchester City’s Fernandinho chosen ahead of him. Fred will join the tour along with the two other new signings, third-choice goalkeeper Lee Grant and the injured right-back Diogo Dalot. Another Portuguese, the incumbent third-choice goalkeeper Joel Pereira, will be sent out on loan.
When Mourinho first spoke to the media in Shanghai two years ago, he struck a very different tone when asked about transfers.
"My board, my directors, did a fantastic job to do 75 per cent of the job I asked them to do," he said. "I asked them for four profiles of players, I gave them a few options and they did for me 75 per cent of the job and we just have 25 per cent to do before August 31." The fourth was Paul Pogba, who now needs to replicate his glorious France form for his club.
Mourinho still has a squad full of expensively acquired talent and it’s not like United signing big name players has reaped significant rewards in recent seasons. The club, who are open to offers for full-back Matteo Darmain and who sold Daley Blind to Ajax this week, would prefer stability over more sweeping changes.
Marouanne Fellaini and De Gea, who were both linked with moves away over the summer, have stayed while Mourinho is also right to believe that several of his charges should start playing to their full potential and be more consistent, though he had a bumpy relationship with several of them last season.
Positives can come from the tour, with Mourinho saying it will provide “a fantastic opportunity [for young players] to train with us and know what it is like to be a Manchester United player”. Those players include Mason Greenwood, a quick-footed 16-year-old attacking midfielder who has shown real promise, particularly with dead-ball situations. Angel Gomes, 17, is another highly-rated youngster who made his first-team debut at 16, becoming the youngest United player since Duncan Edwards. Gomes has captained England at Under 16 and 17 level, including a 8-1 hammering of Germany. The diminutive and versatile Gomes is similar in style to Mata.
Following the departure of his assistant Rui Faria, Mourinho also has three new coaching staff including Michael Carrick, who retired from playing at the end of last season.
The tour will also afford opportunities for players who are playing for their United futures including Luke Shaw and Andreas Pereira. Both have shone on previous United pre-season tours of America, only to fade, be injured or go on loan soon after.
United finished second in the Premier League last season, 19 points behind Manchester City. Fans expect a genuine title challenge after five seasons without coming close. They also hope for more entertaining football and a backlash won’t be far away if it doesn’t come.
Mourinho still holds the support from the majority of fans, but it dipped with United’s performances and limp Uefa Champions League elimination to Sevilla in March.
Last season started well but faded badly for Mourinho’s men and this term. This one must start well. It’s therefore understandable why United’s manager was so downbeat during Wednesday's press conference. But he is not the only manager missing star players and still has plenty of talented players to work with.
At least those players have five pre-season games to make their mark. And at least United will play their first game indoors. In Arizona, where the late July heat is known for its triple digit temperatures, that’s more heat Mourinho doesn't need.