The reasons for Manchester United’s alarming slump in the final seven weeks of last season following Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s appointment as permanent manager are still being ferociously argued by the club’s fanbase. It is a debate that will only intensify if United pick up where they left off last term and start the new campaign badly. And yet, for all the questions that are being asked about a squad that has not undergone the change many fans expected, and for all the concerns expressed about Solskjaer’s credentials, transfers, the board and owners, it has been hard to detect any of that pessimism on this summer’s pre-season tour of Australia and Asia.
If anything, the mood has been buoyant, a far cry from last summer’s toxic trip to the US, when Jose Mourinho took a wrecking ball to everything in his sights and United’s season was in dire trouble before it had even begun. It is more than seven months now since Mourinho vacated the building but it has been interesting to gauge the feeling here that United fell away so badly towards the end of last season - and suffered so many injuries - in part because the team was simply not fit enough to maintain the increase in intensity demanded by Solskjaer.
Of all the extensive data amassed and dissected by a specialised sports science team led by Rich Hawkins, United’s head of athletic training services, in the fortnight the squad have been in Perth and Singapore, nothing has been more revealing than the news that the high intensity element of training has been up a staggering 50 per cent on the same two week period under Mourinho a year ago. “We’ve worked harder than ever to try to put things right,” Marcus Rashford, the United striker, said. “The sessions have been quite tough but, to be honest, I think that’s what we need, and if we compare it to this time last year we’re in much better condition.”
United’s players have covered 10 per cent more ground than at this stage last year. Two thirds of the sessions have been double training blocks and, in Perth alone, there were 14 sessions in the space of nine days. They even trained on the morning of their game against Perth Glory at the Optus Stadium. “The work ethic has been phenomenal,” said Hawkins, whose team, which includes strength and conditioning coach, Charlie Owen, and lead sports scientist, Ed Leng, work very closely with Solskjaer and his staff.
“Day one we had a meeting with the players and presented three key points that we wanted from them - to train with intensity, be committed to the process and when they have a chance to recover, to do it properly.”
For some, it was a bit of a shock to the system. For others, less so. “I’ve had a pre-season with Warren Joyce - he was mad!” said midfielder Scott McTominay of United’s former Under-21 coach. “He’s a top man but some of the pre-seasons we had with him were absolutely ridiculous. It’s been good to have one like that this year as well. The running, the training hard, is perfect but it’s the details that we’re trying to get right this pre-season.”
Luke Shaw agrees. “Pre-season has been very difficult but the sessions have been great,” the left back said.
Of course, anyone can get a player to run a lot but doing so within a wider tactical framework has been the focus. The way Solskjaer’s side implemented a coordinated, aggressive press high up the pitch against Inter Milan at Singapore’s National Stadium on Saturday was evidence of very specific work on the training field. It was more in keeping with what we have come to expect from Manchester City, Liverpool and Spurs and a world away from the leaden, ponderous, disjointed football United have mostly dealt in since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. The challenge now will be to keep repeating it. United travel to Shanghai on Monday and next up are Tottenham on Thursday, who impressed in a 3-2 win over Juventus on Sunday.
Mourinho’s most undeserving target last summer were the club’s young players, whom he as good as threw under a bus, but they have felt the love from Solskjaer and rewarded that show of faith with a string of performances that should puncture some of the disillusionment among fans. All seven of United’s goals on tour have either been scored or assisted by academy graduates. Mason Greenwood, who scored his second goal in as many games with a stunning strike in the 1-0 win over Inter, has been the standout. The 17-year-old is making the most of Romelu Lukaku’s continued absence but Tahith Chong has cut a similarly fearless figure and the likes of Angel Gomes and Axel Tuanzebe are also flourishing.
The needs of every player are being individually tailored. “We try not to be on top of players, hassling them with data,” said Leng, who joined United from the A-League side, Melbourne City, in June, having previously spent six years with Tottenham. “We are really streamlined with it but we want to find out what are their strengths, their weaknesses and then build individual programmes off the back of that. Essentially, we are trying to take them to the next level of performance.”
Jesse Lingard may have been reprimanded by Solskjaer over his lewd Snapchat holiday video but his statistics are understood to be among the most impressive and the manager singled out the effectiveness of his pressing against Inter.
Injury prevention is also key. The goalless draw against Liverpool in late February, when United lost three players to hamstring injuries in the first half, was cited as a warning about fitness levels. Each training session now begins with injury prevention exercises focusing on two or three key areas.
“Our key injuries we have had over the last few years have been groins and hamstrings,” Hawkins said. “So one of our aims is to ensure everyone is available for the manager on day one of the season so a lot of the focus initially in training is on those groin and hamstring areas.”
Time will tell if United are any better next season but, on the pitch at least, they have been making the right noises so far.
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