Of all the statistics gathered by Manchester United‘s backroom staff during the first two weeks on tour, one in particular stands out.
The high-intensity work that the players have been subjected to so far in Perth and Singapore is 50 per cent up on the corresponding period last summer when Jose Mourinho put his squad through their paces.
This is what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was talking about when he promised a fitter, more robust United this season; one capable of carrying out the demanding game plan he wants from his team.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has doubled Manchester United’s pre-season workload this summer
The feeling — some may say hope — at United is that Solskjaer’s approach was responsible for the dramatic upturn in results after he replaced Mourinho in December, but a lack of fitness was to blame for the players’ failure to maintain it during a dreadfully disappointing end to the season.
The goalless draw with Liverpool in February was seen as a watershed moment when three players — Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and Jesse Lingard — suffered hamstring injuries in the first half.
Solskjaer was forced to curb his approach and United were never quite the same again.
Tahith Chong (left) and Jesse Lingard (right) work with weights in the gym in Perth
Marcos Rojo (left) and Andreas Pereira (right) take a drinks break during a training session
In private, he was alarmed by the condition of the squad he inherited from Mourinho, who in turn blamed fitness coach Stefano Rapetti. In public, Solskjaer has vowed to whip the players into shape with good, old-fashioned hard graft.
‘I can still remember when I wasn’t able to walk down the stairs, you had to walk backwards,’ said the United manager recalling pre-seasons under Sir Alex Ferguson. ‘I don’t think we’ve had them there yet.’
Maybe not, but the emphasis has certainly been on increasing the high-intensity training so that United are better adapted to a higher press and more possession-based style.
It was evident in Saturday’s 1-0 win over Inter Milan at the National Stadium in Singapore. Young Mason Greenwood deservedly grabbed the headlines for scoring an excellent goal — his second off the bench in consecutive games — but Solskjaer was more delighted with the overall work ethic of his team.
United youngster Angel Gomes works on his core and strength while in the gym
The manager hopes the opportunity to put all his players through a full pre-season uninhibited by an international tournament will reap its own reward.
Other elements of training have been increased from last summer, overseen by head of athletic performance Richard Hawkins and carried out on the training pitch by the first team’s new fitness coach Charlie Owen.
There have been more sessions in total; 14 in the space of nine days in Australia, including one on the day United played Perth Glory.
The total distance covered by the players is also up 10 per cent according to the data gathered by a small army of coaches, sports science experts and analysts.
‘The work ethic has been phenomenal,’ says Hawkins. ‘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 well, do it properly.’
The United boss is promising a fitter, more robust side to challenge this season
Lingard is said to be prominent among the leaders in most categories. The England international worked under Solskjaer when he was in charge of United reserves and knew what to expect.
Luke Shaw is just finding out. ‘Pre-season has been very difficult, especially Ole wanting to make sure we work very hard,’ admits the defender.
‘But the sessions have been great and the match fitness is coming along nicely. The fans can expect a much better season than last.’
The emphasis of each session is always on running, even during tactical drills, with the aim of getting Solskjaer’s squad fit for purpose. But individual programmes can be adjusted to suit a player based on his own stats.
‘We try not to be on top of the players, hassling them with data, we are really streamlined on it,’ said lead sports scientist Ed Leng, who joined United from Melbourne City earlier this year.
Solskjaer hopes that putting all his players through a full pre-season will reap its own reward
Players are doing more gym sessions to toughen up their bodies, and taking part in injury prevention exercises that rotate daily between hamstring, groin and core.
‘Our key injuries over the last few years have been groins and hamstrings, so one of our aims is to ensure everyone is available for the manager on day one of the season,’ says Hawkins.
After a punishing 10-day camp in Perth, United had to ease off in Singapore and it will be a similar story when they land in Shanghai today for their final tour game against Tottenham on Thursday.
Greater challenges await when the Premier League season starts, but three wins in a row would suggest that the hard work is already beginning to pay off.
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