If Manchester United are looking for grounds for optimism heading into a Premier League campaign where the financial challenge to them is everywhere, then they might reflect on their record in those Premier League seasons which have followed a World Cup summer.
In three out of four, they have lifted the title and the single errant season, following the United States finals of 1994, saw them lose out by the narrowest margin to Blackburn. The general rule of thumb is that United’s England contingent troop home disconsolate and take it all out on the domestic opposition.
The notable difference this time is that only five United players of any nationality competed in the finals, of whom the Mexico striker Javier Hernandez has not even made his competitive debut, and judging by the performance in Sunday’s overnight 2-1 defeat to the Kansas City Wizards — the fifth-placed Major League Soccer side not even in existence when Blackburn lifted that silverware — the club have some work on their hands when they head back across the Atlantic on Friday. The caveat to any discussion of a game such as United’s in the Arrowhead Stadium — where the home side played 49 minutes with 10 men and still came from behind to win — is that pre-season results matter not one iota, but Sir Alex Ferguson’s acknowledgement in the aftermath that “the inexperience of the defenders showed in the first 15 minutes and we never quite recovered from that” is one which must carry some anxiety with him, tanned and relaxed though he is in a country where his regular homely radio interviews with Charlie Stillitano reflect its position as a second home for him.
The average age of United’s back four in Kansas of Rafael da Silva, Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Ritchie da Laet was 21 years and three months but, da Laet aside, its personnel are individuals on whom United need to be able to depend in the weeks ahead.
The £10m investment to bring Smalling from Fulham, to whom he was loaned back for the remaining five months of the season, is one that United would hope to reap dividends from, with Rio Ferdinand now absent until at least September 12, but the storybook signing of a player who two years ago was riding the bus from Maidstone to Whitstable for Isth
mian League Division One South matches has presaged a period in which he seemed to concede a penalty or an own goal at every turn.
The own goal Smalling conceded at Chelsea back in December was unfortunate, but another at Goodison Park, a penalty conceded at Hull and the capitulation to Craig Bellamy’s pace against Manchester City led his manager Roy Hodgson to joke that he was “doing Alex a favour by letting him get his errors out of the way for Fulham.” A further penalty conceded on his United debut against Celtic in New York last week did not overshadow an aerial quality that Ferguson said had surprised him, but it is clear that the 19-year-old requires time.
How much time Rafael will be allowed to demonstrate that the early promise which has made Ferguson evangelise so much about him is a question which Sunday’s defeat makes all the more shrill.
The 21-year-old’s shockingly poor performance revealed that his habit of diving in has not de
serted him, despite the harsh lesson Frank Ribery dished out in April’s Champions League quarter-final second leg against Bayern Munich at Old Trafford, when the Brazilian was sent off.
Ferguson insists there is no value in the transfer market and against the more challenging proposition of an MLS All-Stars side probably featuring Landon Donovan on Thursday, we are likely to witness Hernandez for the first time. The manager feels that the World Cup vindicated United’s pre-tournament move for a player who would have cost “two or three times the (£8m) we paid for him” had they waited.
It is certainly United’s fervent hope that a big display in the Premier League opener against Newcastle United on August 17 by the man who will carry his nickname Chicharito (‘Little Pea’) on his number 14 jersey will erase the impression that United’s modest activity in the transfer market — no money spent this summer while the noisy neighbours will probably have shelled out £130m by the close and Chelsea show intent — will leave them trailing.
Ferguson’s initial idea of allowing Wayne Rooney and the World Cup contingent — not back in training until tomorrow — to miss the start of the season already seems less appealing. Instead, he has dispatched his fitness coach Tony Strudwick back to England to accelerate the return of Rooney, Vidic, Michael Carrick, Patrice Evra and Ji-sung Park for the Newcastle fixture.
In his own way, Carrick is as vital as Rooney now. Sublime in the last title-winning season, a lost soul in the last campaign, his performances may dictate how the card will fall for United come serious combat, with Owen Hargreaves’ comeback delayed again and looking an increasingly forlorn hope with every setback in his fight with tendonitis.
Nani’s contribution on Sunday, in his first appearance since being ruled out of the World Cup with a dislocated collarbone, was encouraging though no-one is disguising that someone must step up and defy expectations if United are to retain their title.
“We do OK, but we don’t score enough to support the strikers and take a bit of pressure away,” the former captain Bryan Robson remarked yesterday.
If that’s what a club ambassador is saying then there must be some grounds for concern, but the football world felt the same concerns about United four years ago when Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo returned from the Germany World Cup at loggerheads and the levels of approbrium for the Portuguese saw a window of his house smashed in. United scored five on the opening day of the season, won their opening five fixtures and cruised to the title.