For their final pre-season game United returned home for van Gaal’s first fixture at Old Trafford and the first opportunity for most local fans to look at United’s new tactical approach at close hand. The new coach started with the 3-4-1-2 shape and handed Herrera his home debut. Shaw, the other new member of the squad, was not involved having picked up a minor injury. Valencia were also under a new manager in the person of Nuno Espirito Santo; they finished eighth in Spain last season but have just triumphed in the Emirates Cup tournament in London. Like United then they are a work in progress.

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This was a fairly unremarkable performance in the most part. United looked sluggish, almost half paced. Passing was slow and deliberate with players taking an extra touch and so too long to move the ball on to a teammate. This pattern was only broken up by players attempting overly ambitious forward passes on occasions when an easier option was available.

Valencia worked hard, set up in a rough 4-4-2 shape, they defended in depth but whenever they won possession they looked to break with positive running off the ball, often into the spaces between wingbacks and centre backs or behind the wingbacks. These efforts were thwarted by regular interventions by United’s back three of Blackett, Jones and Smalling. The performance of these three was perhaps the highlight of United’s evening. Blackett looked confident, Smalling looked composed and Jones looked determined.

The only other remarkable features of the first half were a single move of first touch passing, (the only time United quickened the pace of their game and the only occasion when they reproduced the quality of passing and movement seen in tour games), regular and deliberate cross field diagonal passes towards advancing wingbacks, (a clear attempt to use the full width of the pitch and stretch the Valencia defence across the field) and a missed penalty. Rooney “won” this penalty after just such a diagonal pass and a first time cross from Young with a defender “nudging” him in the back. Unfortunately he hit the post with the rebound bouncing to safety.

Van Gaal didn’t make any half time changes and was rewarded after four minutes of the second half when Fletcher side-footing home with a shot through a crowded area after a free-kick. The pattern of the game largely remained the same thereafter until the inevitable substitutions. Firstly on the hour; the shape remained the same, and then again with fifteen minutes to go. Valencia took control of the game for a short period after these substitutions as United adjusted.

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The second tranche of substitutions came after Valencia had equalised with a shot at the far post following a blocked free-kick. This saw the introduction of Januzaj, (played as one of the two forwards), and Fellaini. Fellaini did well here despite the ironic and unfair cheering of his every touch by some in the crowd. He kept it simple, passed early, pressed the opposition successfully and forced a defensive error that created a simple chance to score. This was his first goal for the club and sealed United’s sixth victory of pre-season.

Now let the real contest commence.

  • This game had the feel of a training game, being played at a sedate pace. Passing was slow, often deliberate or in the case of passes forward towards the final third overly ambitious. Van Gaal commented afterwards that this was United’s poorest performance of the pre-season. He was right and that was disappointing given that it was the first game most match-going fans have had the opportunity to see.
  • Valencia were well organised, defending with two banks of four. They posed the question many teams in England will pose when visiting Old Trafford, defending in depth and looking to hit on the break.
  • Valencia looked at their most dangerous and United at their most vulnerable when the visitors looked to break in wide areas, asking questions of the wingbacks.
  • United are still learning this system, the centre backs looked fairly solid here but wingbacks clearly have the most to learn. They need to work on the balance between attacking and defending and on their positional relationship with the back three.