It was the 37th minute in a preseason friendly against Roma when new boy Ander Herrera played an ingenious through-ball, slicing open the Italian side’s defense and playing his compatriot Juan Mata in one-on-one with the goalkeeper.
Mata couldn’t apply the finishing touch but the play symbolized much more than a goal-scoring opportunity. It showed Manchester United is evolving, morphing itself away from the dreadful personality its team displayed last season en route to its worst-ever finish in Premier League history.
Herrera did what United did very little of last season: he created a chance through the middle of the field.
Flashback to last season when United was setting records for attempted crosses — we all know how that worked out. In fact, the match where they sent in an EPL-record 81 crosses was against Fulham, a side that eventually was relegated. United couldn’t muster a goal from any of them and managed a mere 2-2 draw that day.
Tellingly, other top European sides used the labored tactic far less that same weekend.
Bayern Munich – 11 crosses
Atletico Madrid – 17
Real Madrid – 19
Chelsea – 19
Juventus – 21
Dortmund – 24
City – 39
Dissimilar to many of his new teammates and David Moyes, Herrera knows the quickest way to any destination is in a straight line.
It’s Herrera’s play this preseason that continues to illuminate the fact United still need at least another few pints of new blood.
No one is denying this. Every message board or article comment section shows United fans clamoring for the next big purchase. Even manager Louis Van Gaal stepped on the toes of his public relations team to say the squad he inherited is “broken.”
United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward provokingly stated, too, United are prepared to break their own transfer record and spend as much as Barcelona and Real Madrid did on Luis Saurez (£75m) and James Rodriguez (£60m) respectively. Bold words from the man who missed out on Cesc Fabregas, Thiago Alcantara and Sami Khedira, among others last summer. And the less said about the last-minute purchase of Marouane Fellaini the better.
Still, even with the urgent need for new players United, more aptly Van Gaal and his coaching staff, are making the premeditated decision to stand pat.
Known for bringing youth to his first teams whenever possible, Van Gaal has said he wants to see what he has in his current squad before making any permanent and possibly costly decisions. Patience in football is rarity these days and should be applauded whenever possible.
The Dutch technician wants to see for himself what he has in a youthful core of central defenders, the academy products and which of his obscene amount of midfielders will actually be useful this campaign.
Van Gaal’s influence has started to take affect in his side already. United are 3-0 so far this preseason, and are outscoring opponents 10-2.
Not to be forgotten, a coach’s system can make a stark difference in a player’s ability and value. Antonio Valencia is more prized in Van Gaal’s 3-5-2 system as a winger who possess a high defensive aptitude in addition to his offensive skill, for example.
So for now, though it may feel like the protracted and unsuccessful move for Fabregas last summer, don’t concern yourself with reports that Juventus are stiff-arming United away from Arturo Vidal. With more than a month left in the transfer window Van Gaal is taking his time, something only coaches with bodacious self-confidence can do.
It’s likely the new manager will see what many of us saw from United last season – an elite side but one that possesses some massive holes on the team-sheet.
Van Gaal needs to see the faults before he can choose how to amend them. And unlike the majority of us, he has cabinets full of silverware backing his vision.
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