Defeats, meltdowns and Mason Mount’s ‘007’ - should Man Utd fans really be worried by pre-season?
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Surely, by now, after 135 years of professional league football, we all know not to read too much into pre-season performances. Surely we know to shrug off the disappointments and ignore the successes, because so little that we see in friendly football ever translates directly to the first competitive match of the season. Surely Manchester United fans should know by now? Apparently not.
As they went down 3-2 to Borussia Dortmund after an admittedly woeful defensive display, the internet has been awash with lukewarm banter and reheated memes. There’s André Onana screaming blue murder at a listless Harry Maguire, his eyes practically popping out of his forehead as he takes the former captain to task. Brandon Williams and Tom Heaton having a barney over who was culpable for Dortmund’s second goal. Young Omari Forson losing his cool up against Karim Adeyimi. And, for those truly desperate for “content”, there was a fifth goalless game for Mason Mount.
Mount, you see, is just a couple of games away from the hysterically funny “007” – which is when a player fails to register a goal or assist in their first seven matches. Jadon Sancho did it, as did Mykhaylo Mudryk at Chelsea, so of course this represents a rich seam of comedy for people who have been lobotomised, or who pay for a blue tick on Twitter. Which is probably less of a Venn diagram and more of a perfect circle, to be fair.
Even if football history wasn’t studded with examples of players who glittered after slow starts or who struggled after a promising opening act, the glut of 007 memes would still be ridiculous. Since when did anyone count pre-season? Mount is adapting to a new role, playing a deeper position alongside Bruno Fernandes. He has never played this position before at the top level, and to expect instant results would be absurd.
Mount, of course, famously left Twitter last season partly due to getting fed up with the abuse and vitriol directed at him on the social media platorm - the bulk of which came from supposed Chelsea supporters. Players are aware of this nonsense, and while this particular vein of low-yield banter may hardly be the most pernicious, the effect of such endless mockery must be wearying. On a human level, these jokes are dispiriting. On a comedic level, they’re simply irritatingly weak. A request to the would-be posters of the internet – if you’re going to be mean, at least try to be genuinely funny. It would help.
Anyway, regardless of Mount’s extremely relative struggles, one does have to wonder if all really isn’t well at United. The 3-2 defeat to Dortmund was preceded by a 2-0 loss to Real Madrid, and that by a rather striking 3-1 reversal against reality television stars Wrexham. When the results are juxtaposed with the images of goalkeepers bellowing lustily at defenders, it doesn’t strike the happiest note.
But, of course, this is pre-season. United’s defence was indeed dreadful against Dortmund and many individual errors were committed to rile up the respective sticksmen, but then removal of rust is one of the primary reasons to play these games in the first place. Besides, the most culpable players – Williams, Maguire and Victor Lindelöf – are unlikely to be first-team regulars for the coming campaign. This was not an entirely reflective performance. And anyone concerned by Onana’s antics probably shouldn’t be – cussing his defence into place has been a part of his game for years, and his team-mates will get used to it. Maguire, for his part, reacted stoically, if only because he knows he isn’t likely to have to put up with it for very long.
And let’s certainly not get on the back of 18-year-old Forson, who was wisely substituted after 36 minutes having completely lost his cool under provocation from German international winger Adeyimi. Miniatures headbutts ensued, handbags were waved, Erik Ten Hag did the right thing, and people with keyboards suddenly have opinions on someone who has barely ascended to adulthood, desperately trying to impress in the highest-pressure environment imaginable. Forson’s misfortune is that his teenage angst is televised – how many of us have cause to be grateful that we didn’t have our most intemperate adolescent moments played out on streaming services?
As for the performances as a whole, the loss to Wrexham was endured by a young team, few of whom will play more than a handful of League Cup minutes over the next 12 months. The defeat to Real did expose a gulf in class, but then that’s hardly the gravest sin for a side who have only just started to look like a proper top four team again over the last season. Both games also came on the coat-tails of a 2-0 win over Arsenal in which United were the vastly superior side – not that Gunners fans should worry too much, of course, given that they went onto beat Barcelona. Pre-season produces weird results and comes with ups and downs that aren’t reflected in the finished product.
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That isn’t to say that we can’t analyse players’ form, or debate whether Mount is settling into his new role well. Early indications are that a player who is used to being the number ten, the player through whom much of the play flows, is still finding his feet when it comes to playing a more passive role through the middle, allowing Bruno the leading creative role. It’s also worth noting that, when playing in that deeper, less familiar role, he might just be a little less able to score large volumes of goals, and will be in fewer areas from which he can pick up assists. Perhaps Twitter can throw up some of those context warnings below the lazy memes…