Manchester United’s friendly games in Japan gave an insight into the club as it enters a new era…
I’m a Manchester United fan but since I moved to Japan I’ve found myself paying less and less attention to their progress – at least until the final stages of the season when matches start to take on more significance and staying awake until or getting up at 4am is a little less difficult.
Last month, however, I was able to see them closer than ever before as they visited Yokohama and Osaka for a couple of games on their “tour” (Premier League teams no longer play friendly matches but instead opt for the Bon Jovi approach to pre-season games by putting on arena shows for the masses) and it was an interesting experience.
First of all it meant I was able to get up-close access during a momentous stage in the club’s history, as David Moyes began the unenviable task of following Sir Alex Ferguson as manager. The former Everton boss had only been in the role a matter of days when he arrived in Japan but seemed to be coping well, and if he matches his predecessor and lasts 27 years in the job I’ll always be able to say that I was there at his first game against another club (his first two matches were against “All Star” teams from Thailand and Australia).
I also witnessed in its all-consuming entirety the PR machine that has engulfed what was once a football club: Official paint partner? Check. Official Diesel Engine partner? Check. Vile-looking tomato drink partner, complete with cringe-inducing advert? Check. Considering the amount of effort that had gone into juicing every last yen out of the thousands who queued around Nagai Aid Stadium to buy all manner of official tat it was even more disappointing that the likes of Chris Smalling, Patrice Evra, and Robin van Persie couldn’t spare a few minutes after the games to actually speak about football.
Not all of the players were too busy though, and despite the fact that they say you should never meet your heroes one of the most obliging was Ryan Giggs. The left-winger-turned-midfielder-turned-player-coach spoke at length after the 3-2 defeat to Yokohama F.Marinos and was keen to stress the benefit of playing capable opposition ahead of the real season.
“They’re a good team,” he said of Yasuhiro Higuchi’s side. “I think every time we come to Japan – of course they’re in the middle of their season – it’s a test. And it’s a good test for us. Because you don’t want to go through pre-season winning every game 6- or 7-0. You need to be tested because we’re going to be tested in three, four weeks in the Premier League.”
After striking the dramatic late equaliser in United’s second game against Cerezo Osaka new-boy Wilfried Zaha – who is at the other end of the experience spectrum to Giggs – confessed he hadn’t expected either of the J.League sides to be as good as they were, but fellow veteran Rio Ferdinand was also unsurprised.
“I said to the lads before, I’ve never had an easy game in Japan,” he said after the 2-2 draw with Cerezo. “When we play against these teams they’re always good. Tactically very good, all very comfortable on the ball, so I think it’s really good for us to come here because we get tested.”
Ferdinand has of course seen one of Japan’s most technically adept players up close for the past year, and he expects to see further improvement from Shinji Kagawa this season – which kicks off on Saturday.
“He’s got a big part to play, a big role to play,” he said when the inevitable question about Kagawa’s standing in the team cropped up. “You saw today with a great goal. He missed a penalty – too much pressure, maybe – but no, he’s a fantastic player, we love having him here and I think this season we’ll see a big improvement from last season.”
Just how big an improvement remains to be seen, but with Wayne Rooney seemingly on the verge of leaving the club and no replacement immediately apparent it could well be that David Moyes agrees with Kagawa’s former coach Jurgen Klopp and sees him as the solution in the hole behind Van Persie.
He probably won’t be taking over penalty-taking duties though.