SINGAPORE — The contrast between the start of Manchester United’s last two summer tours cannot have been more stark.
A year ago in Los Angeles, the first words out of Jose Mourinho’s mouth were: “The preseason is very bad.” This time in Perth, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer set a much more positive tone.
“It’s been very good so far,” he said with a smile — something that always seemed to be missing from the United camp this time last year. Already it has been a tale of two tours. More intense on the pitch but more relaxed off of it.
Last summer’s preparations didn’t work for Mourinho and he was gone five months later. Solskjaer will only discover whether he has got it right once the serious games begin, starting with Chelsea at Old Trafford on Aug. 11 but he is, at least, trying something different.
For the players, it has been tough. Solskjaer and his coaching staff put the post-March slump down to a lack of fitness with the sports science department reporting that running stats — including distance covered during games and the number of short sprints — dipped sharply after the impressive start to Solskjaer’s reign.
Fourteen wins from 17 games was followed by two from 12. High-intensity pressing and front-foot football only works when there is energy to do it. Three muscle injuries in the space of 20 minutes during the goalless draw with Liverpool at the end of February was a warning sign that the squad had hit a wall after switching their style of play halfway through the season. Simply put, Solskjaer says he believes they ran out of steam.
He has looked to remedy that with a preseason built around improving fitness. During nine days of training at the WACA cricket ground in Perth, the players took part in 14 sessions — including one the morning of the first tour match against Perth Glory. Each session has started with injury prevention exercises to guard against a repeat of last season’s problems and each player has been given an individual programme to follow in the gym devised by head of athletic training services Richard Hawkins and strength and conditioning coach Charlie Owen. Some of the players have admitted privately the changes “were needed.”
Jesse Lingard‘s stats — monitored by head of sports science Ed Leng — have been particularly impressive. He reported back to Carrington early having trained while on holiday. The training has been more intense than 12 months ago but the atmosphere away from the pitches has been far from it.
In LA last year, one staff member wondered why Mourinho was standing so close during an early morning chat before realising it was because he was trying to smell for alcohol. This time, staff members have felt relaxed enough to enjoy a drink the night before games. The club even put on a poker night for staff at the casino attached to their Crown Towers Hotel in Perth and gave players real £20k chips in exchange for a £10 buy-in to add to the fun.
The players, meanwhile, have spent their free time in the team room that comes equipped with a ping pong table and computer consoles. FIFA (obviously) is the game of choice while Andreas Pereira is the man to beat at table tennis.
On an afternoon off in Perth, a few members of the squad went shopping at Gucci. Paul Pogba and Victor Lindelof went to Cottesloe Beach. Because of the increased attention in Singapore they were advised to keep a lower profile and the day after the 1-0 win over Inter Milan, Pogba, Lindelof, Marcos Rojo, Juan Mata and David De Gea had a quiet lunch at the iconic Marina Bay Sands hotel.
It’s not all been smooth sailing for Solskjaer, though. After agent Mino Raiola’s public declaration on the eve of the tour that Pogba wants to leave the club, there was genuine concern the France international might not turn up for the flight to Australia. But he did and, to his credit, the midfielder has slotted back into the group and trained hard.
One source told ESPN FC he has been the “life and soul” of the trip — although the club have had to remain cautious and decided against letting him answer pre-authorised questions from local media at an Adidas event. In fact, it is Romelu Lukaku, rather than Pogba, who has caused the biggest headache for Solskjaer after an ankle knock ruled the striker out of the first three games of the tour amid interest from Inter Milan.
The Belgian was unavailable to play Inter but was spotted clutching one of their shirts as he left the National Stadium in Singapore. He wants to go but United want their money and there are serious doubts about whether the Serie A side have it.
Mason Greenwood, still only 17, has been one of the highlights after scoring his first two senior goals, including the winner against Inter. United have come to Australia and the Far East as much for commercial reasons as anything else but they have had to be careful about cashing in on their latest star. He was escorted out of stadium by a senior member of the communications team after his goal against Inter to make sure he wasn’t tempted to talk to journalists. In-house television channel MUTV didn’t get to speak to him either in an effort by the club to make sure he is not placed under too much pressure.
United’s tour started on the world’s most luxurious jet, a custom built plane that seats 88 first class passengers. The trip has taken nearly a year to plan with a dedicated team of six staff looking at every detail down to the size of the beds in the hotels.
Solskjaer, along with coaches Kieran McKenna and Michael Carrick and the rest of the backroom staff, have designed training sessions aimed at fixing specific problems encountered last season. He can only hope it has provided the right platform for a better season than the last.