Manchester United in Australia: big season ahead for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's team as fans won't tolerate more failure
United begin their pre-season preparations in Western Australia on Saturday when they face A-League side Perth Glory
PERTH // Manchester United’s supporters’ club in Perth is the real deal. Australia’s fourth biggest city is home to a huge number of Mancunian expats. United haven’t played in Perth, the most isolated major city in the world, since 1975, so as well as watching every United game on TV even if most are in the early hours, the Perth Reds have attended games when the team has played been nearby. In 2016, "nearby" meant Shanghai, a mere eight-hour flight away. In 2013 they went to Sydney after David Moyes had taken the reins. After the two games in their city against A-League Perth Glory and Leeds United, many of the Perth Reds will follow the tour to Singapore, "only" a five-and-a-half-hour flight away, for the third game of pre-season, against Inter Milan.
United fans haven’t looked ahead to a new season in such pessimistic mood for years. They were champions the last time they played in Australia, in 2013, and while nervous about life after Alex Ferguson, supporters had no idea how things would unravel under his successor. On their previous visit down under, in 1999, United arrived as English and European champions and were en route to becoming world champions. Ferguson was so relaxed about his side that he stayed at home – which the players didn’t mind as they took full advantage to enjoy Australian hospitality. Dwight Yorke actually fell asleep during the middle of a training session on the pitch at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
There will be none of that now. Still, the Perth Reds are keen to enjoy their moment in the sun. Over 12,000 watched United training at the Waca cricket ground on Thursday evening, with the proceeds going to charity. Games at the superb new triple-tiered 55,000-capacity Optus Stadium, which also hosts cricket matches, are expected to be near sell outs. The Perth Manchester United Supporters’ Clubs have organised events for seven consecutive days and they are full of enthusiasm. But the wider picture around United is a bleaker one.
The team finished sixth in the Premier League last season and were in the top four after only one of the 38 games. It doesn’t come close to sufficing for England’s biggest and most successful domestic club, but it’s what happens next which matters most.
Optimistically, United’s fast, young British signings, winger Daniel James and defender Aaron Wan Bissaka, could be as successful as Steve Coppell, Jim Holton, Gerry Daly or Gordon Hill, who were signed from smaller clubs before United last played in Perth. United were second division champions when they last visited this city. Even the greatest clubs can fall a lot lower than sixth in the top tier.
The existing, including the hard to shift, players will hopefully rediscover their form which dropped off a cliff towards the end of the 2018/19 season as United won only two of their last 12 games. They could resemble the winners that they were when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took charge last December. In the very best scenario, Paul Pogba’s situation – he wants to leave - will be resolved, David de Gea will sign a new contract, Alexis Sanchez will play like he did for Chile at the Copa America, Marcus Rashford will score goals, the defence will stop leaking them, Anthony Martial will find some consistency, Jesse Lingard will learn to use social media and the mood will be picked off the floor. Eric Bailly could become the player he has the potential to be, Marcus Rojo could go a month without getting injured, striker Mason Greenwood, 18, could make a similar impact to Rashford when he broke into the first team in 2016, defender Axel Tuanzebe, 22, who has captained United at every level except the first team, will become a competent first-team defender. Brazilian midfielder Fred, a flop in his first season, may be as effective in his second season as Victor Lindelof was in his. United fans hope there will be a more signings, too.
And the increased fitness which the players including Scott McTominay have spoken about with enthusiasm this week should be evident. Solskjaer maintained that his team ran out of steam down the home stretch last term because they weren’t fit enough for the way he wanted them to play.
It’s implausible that all of this will happen, but then nobody could have envisaged eight straight away wins when the Norwegian first took charge, including victories at Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea – who United play in the first league game of the season at Old Trafford on August 11 - and Paris Saint-Germain. Attitudes can change quickly. Those Barcelona fans roaring for the president to leave two years ago after the summer in which they sold Neymar were silenced after seven straight wins.
This United side isn’t Barcelona, though, and the worry, which is not unfounded given the slump in form towards the end of last season, is that United’s decline will continue. After so many failed signings and managerial changes, fans have little faith in the club’s ability to recruit the right players or for an attractive style of football in line with the team's finest traditions to be re-established. The worry is that, faced with ascendant and wealthy rivals like the Wolves side which beat United twice and drew once last season, sixth could become seventh or eighth next season. Everton, another threat, destroyed United 4-0 in April. That Everton were once considered part of England’s "Big Five" shows that football’s established order is not permanent.
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Solskjaer is not on the firmest ground and nor is his boss, Ed Woodward - at least with fans. Solskjaer is a club legend from his playing days and he deserves, but his limited managerial work raises doubts when things don’t go well. He needs support from Woodward et al otherwise he will be the latest manager to fail at Old Trafford. At least the two signings so far have been ones he has personally pushed for.
United’s match-going fans are patient and supportive, even with rivals Manchester City and Liverpool so strong. They know that the success couldn’t go on forever, but a poor start to the 2019/20 season would see things rapidly sour, and not just online where fans have protested against the club’s American owners, the Glazer family.
Dressing-room discord could spread as underperforming, unpopular, players turn on each other and their positive words will count for little if results are not good enough.
Friendly games are just that and United’s pre-season strategy has a commercial as well as sporting angle, but fans are desperate to see positive signs. Even they weren’t evident a year ago during utterly forgettable games against Club America, San Jose, AC Milan and Liverpool in the United States, plus Bayern Munich away.
The level of expectation is high at Manchester United and can only be satisfied by a vast improvement this term.
Updated: July 12, 2019 10:35 AM