Man United's preseason and Jose Mourinho era are off to a strong start
It has been so far, so good for Jose Mourinho at Manchester United. First, a confident introductory news conference in which his comments chimed more with the mood of fans than David Moyes and Louis van Gaal. His three new signings (Eric Bailly, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic) have been welcomed, along with the suggestion of more players and the sight of Luke Shaw back in training.
David de Gea didn't leave and is back working under Emilio Alvarez, his goalkeeping coach at Atletico who noted, when De Gea was only 18, how he had mastered the key areas of goalkeeping, the physical, the technical, the tactical and "especially the psychological."
There's palpable relief from fans who won't be subjected to any more turgid Van Gaal United performances, plus the swirl of optimism from which every new manager benefits.
The club even tweeted a quote from Mourinho on Thursday, saying: "After 10 training sessions, I can say 'I love to work with these guys!' " It was accompanied by a picture of smiling faces from players keen to impress their new boss. Image matters, for now at least, and the fans are buying it.
In a poll on the United We Stand website, 55 percent said that they think United will win the Premier League this season. Not one fan voted for a finish outside the top four, where the team have ended up in two of the last three seasons.
Football managers arrive at a club in a position of strength; their first days can sometimes be their best. They've made no unpopular decisions. They've made no real enemies among players, staff or the media. They know they're wanted and they know that the hopes of millions of fans are invested in them, supporters who are pre-disposed to support the boss. Football fans being optimistic in July is nothing new and the success of Leicester has even fired up the hopes of the hopeless. Fans are as eager to see the new players as a child is to open a present at Christmas. Everything is possible.
The mood was similar in Van Gaal's first weeks on the job in 2014, when players spoke positively of their new boss. They were hardly going to criticise him, but the belief was real. In Michigan for preseason two years ago, after a victory over Real Madrid, a long-time club staffer thanked the Dutchman for getting the club back on track and injecting some much needed positivity. Van Gaal appreciated the comment but said there was still much to do. And there was, because the belief was misplaced.
United's players have yet to kick a ball but that changes in Wigan, 30 miles to the west of Manchester, where they'll play their first preseason friendly on Saturday afternoon. It was a game requested by Mourinho who was keen to see his players as much as possible.
United have sold out of their 6,800 allocation at the promoted Championship side, not that everyone has received their tickets in the post. The game was organised late, tickets were received late and not all have arrived in time. Welcome to the new football season, where things going wrong is part of being a match-going fan, and where rumours and facts about tickets and travel can be as believable as the transfer market.
The first league game won't be played for another month with an away match at Bournemouth, but plenty will happen before then as more players are expected to be coming and going.
Over 6,000 fans also applied for the Bournemouth game on England's south coast, yet the allocation was only 1,300 at the 11,400-seater venue, by far the league's smallest ground and the only one with less than 20,000 seats. They found out if they were the lucky ones this week.
To the hardcore, football is more than the game. At Wigan, they'll catch up with match-going friends they've not seen since May. It's less than a week after the Euro 2016 final, but the football season is well and truly back in cycle.
Conversations at Wigan won't just be about the new signing or whether they think Paul Pogba is worth £100 million or whether Wayne Rooney will feature so prominently this season, either, but what they're doing for the following games. Maybe 100 will travel to China on Tuesday for two games in Shanghai and Beijing against Borussia Dortmund and Manchester City. They'll be lost among tens of thousands of local United fans, for whose benefit the tour is being organised in the world's most populous country. For most of the travellers, it'll be their main summer holiday yet they're unlikely to come into any contact with the players they support.
There are more games. A trip to Sweden at the end of July to face Galatasaray, Wayne Rooney's testimonial vs. Everton on Aug. 3 and the Community Shield against Leicester City four days later. There will be more friendlies announced for United XI sides where the younger players will get a chance to impress. One, against Altrincham, the semi-professional club close to the homes of many of the United players in South Manchester, has been confirmed for July 22.
It's all too easy to forget that United are likely to have more rivals in the league this season than ever before. Even the poorest teams have become rich thanks to the new television revenues and stories linking AC Milan's goalkeeper with a move to Bournemouth are no longer the preserve of Football Manager simulations.
Unlike in the past, the smallest clubs don't need to sell any players to their richer rivals because they're already rich. The only pressure that Everton might be under to sell John Stones would be from the player himself, and only if he wishes to apply it. With the money also comes a rise in the standard of the clubs.
Compare the current situation with the Premier League 12 years ago, when the only realistic title contenders were Manchester United and Arsenal. Chelsea and Manchester City have become the beneficiaries of vast foreign fortunes and both have won the league since, Chelsea for the first time in 50 years, City for the first time in 44.
Arsenal haven't won the title since 2004, though they keep threatening each year, at least until March. Their neighbours Tottenham have finally got their act together too and finished second last season, their highest position since they actually won the league in 1961. Jurgen Klopp has revitalised Liverpool, who haven't won the league since 1990.
A new stadium move means West Ham United will likely average 60,000 fans in attendance next season, almost twice their figure only four years ago. It has the potential to make the Hammers one of the top 10 best-supported teams in world football. With players like Dimitri Payet, do you think they'll be happy with a mid-table finish?
With all the improvements come a rise in expectations. The seven aforementioned teams, plus reigning champions Leicester, will all be hugely disappointed if they don't finish in the top four. But something has to give; any manager who doesn't make the top four will be considered a failure.
And so the preparations must start. Preseason is key for the futures of several players, though some fans don't bother with any of the summer games given that the results tend to indicate little. Others completely avoid transfer speculation until the start of September when they see who their team have actually signed rather than been linked to. But most don't. It's all part of being a football fan.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.