Manchester United have enjoyed a successful pre-season, putting in some good performances and scoring plenty of goals. I’m not for one moment suggesting that because we got a result against the MLS All Stars we’re going to breeze the Premier League, but over the past month we’ve been given a real taste of what could be to come this season.
The reason why we didn’t win the league last season was the injuries at the back. All teams have injuries which they have to deal with, but there’s not a lot you can do when nine players from your defense are all out at one time. With Van der Sar also missing for months, the players that did play in defense, whether that be Fletcher, Carrick, De Laet, Park or anyone else, didn’t have the calming and authoritative influence Edwin brings. Feel free to check the statistics comparing our injuries with Chelsea’s before tutting and rolling your eyes.
This season, as we have done in our recent title wins, we will be relying on a sturdy defense. Rafael and Jonny Evans should make the transition to first XI, filling in for the aging and injury prone Rio/Neville/Wes. Vidic’s long term commitment comes as a massive boost and there’s not a central defender in the world I’d swap him for.
Patrice Evra will come back from the shambles of a World Cup more inspired than ever to do well for us. The likes of Chris Smalling and Fabio should get opportunities, particularly if we do have a repeat of injuries, with John O’Shea filling in as ever.
The area we may struggle this season is midfield, particularly with the long term injuries to Anderson and Owen Hargreaves. Nani really started coming in to his own last season, with important goals against Arsenal, Bayern Munich and Tottenham Hotspur. This really could be his season to shine, particularly with the hysteria over Cristiano Ronaldo’s exit now a thing of the past, with him being able to become his own player.
Then we have Antonio Valencia down the other wing, with him a year further in to his United career, more settled and more confident. Only 5 players assisted more goals than Nani last season, only 10 players more than Valencia, and I imagine they will be even more impressive this season.
Park Ji-Sung is another player who will rotate with these two, particularly when we play a 5 man midfield for the big away games and Europe. Gabriel Obertan would also like to add to appearances from last season, but you imagine that will mostly be from the bench.
Finally, only 4 players assisted more goals than Ryan Giggs in the Premiership last season, showing that our veteran midfielder has still got it. I wonder, particularly given our short comings in the center of the park, whether Giggs will primarily be used as a central midfielder.
Darren Fletcher has gone from strength to strength over the past few seasons and it is his dynamism that we will again be relying upon. At times, he grabbed our players by the scruff of the neck and dragged them through matches, similarly to Keano in the past, and him being fit and on form is vital.
Towards the end of last season he started to look a bit burnt out, which is why we need the load to be shared better. You would like to think Anderson would come back at the end of September raring to go, but big questions have been raised about his attitude over the past year and his future with the club could be touch and go.
Owen Hargreaves is the only other player in this same mold, and again, you have to wonder whether he’ll ever play for us again, seriously. So in terms of that combative central midfielder, we’re struggling.
We’re left with Carrick, Scholes, Gibson and possibly Tom Cleverley as our remaining possibilities for the center. There are some fans that Carrick never won over but I’d argue he had a good three first seasons at the club. He has a good eye for the pass and can keep possession well.
However, last season was pretty woeful for the former Spurs man and I’d argue he was probably our worst performer over the course of the season. It was rare that he had a truly dreadful game but more often than not he didn’t contribute anything, or, enough at least. The ball would come to him, he’d pass it five yards to the right, to the left or backwards.
He wasn’t changing the course of the game, he was just letting it pass him by, and that was really disappointing. I like him, I think he’s capable and I hope his self-confidence can return this season. He had a good game against Chelsea in the Charity Shield and was looking forward instead of back when on the ball, so hopefully that is a positive starting point for where the rest of his season will go.
Given how sparse we are in the center of the park, his ability to raise his game could make or break our season.
Paul Scholes is a cut above and even at 35-years-old, can totally dictate the pace and domination of a game. On Sunday, with the best two teams in the country coming face to face, he was the best player on the park by a mile. Last season he scored in two derby days, against AC Milan, as well as winning goals against Wolves and Besiktas in Europe.
The only drawback is we can’t play him every game, given his age, and we don’t have anyone else like him or as good at what he does. We’ve seen Fletch showing his creative side more and more, but we can’t solely rely on him to tick all the boxes for midfield duties.
Then we’ve got the likes of Tom Cleverley and Darron Gibson. Cleverley enjoyed a good pre-season and got a great goal to his name. Ferguson previously claimed the midfielder would be sent out on loan, but changed his mind after a few pre-season games, suggesting he would be staying with the club. He was named Watford’s Player of the Season last year and definitely has a lot of potential. He’s only 20 and should be a starter in the League Cup and could get sub appearances in the ‘easier’ games.
The jury is still out on Gibson. He has a great shot on him, which makes you want to give him the benefit of the doubt, but his all round game is lacking. We shouldn’t forget he scored against Bayern Munich in the European Cup quarters, showing he doesn’t shirk away from the big occasions, and at only 22, the fact that he’s getting a few goals to his name from midfield in his first real season playing in the first team is pretty impressive.
Remember what Fletch was like at 22 (05-06 season) in comparison to now before giving Gibbo too much of a hard time.
Now on to our attack, which has the most exciting prospects for us to talk about, with Rooney, Berbatov, Chicharito and Owen the closest thing to a strike-force 4 since Yorke, Cole, Ole and Teddy. All the pressure was on Rooney last season in Ronaldo’s absence and thankfully he delivered.
Whilst other players did contribute to the goals there’s no denying that like with Ron in the years before, Rooney was our main man. Ideally next season we won’t be relying on Rooney so heavily, with the pressure for goals shared more evenly amongst our other strikers.
According to Opta, Berbatov created more goal scoring opportunities per game than any other striker in the league last season, whilst in terms of goals and assists, Berbatov contributed to 22% of our goals last season. Berbatov splits the camp and people aren’t going to change their minds on him just because I gush over him, but I think he’s a cut above and I’m looking forward to what he has to offer next season.
I think he might work more effectively with Javier Hernandez, young Chicharito, who could run on to Berbatov’s balls past the back four all day long. Whilst we shouldn’t get carried away, it’s really hard not to, after seeing these snapshots of him. At 22, scoring in a World Cup, against Argentina and France no less, is pretty impressive.
Then to go on to score in every pre-season game he played, including against Chelsea in the Community Shield, only heightens the expectation for this lad. He really does have the potential to be amazing and I’m trying to think when the last time I was this excited over a player was.
Then we’ve got Owen, who should get similar game time to last season, with his playing time mainly coming from starts in the Cup competitions and sub appearances in the league. He scored a 96th minute winner against our local rivals, a hattrick against the German champions in Europe and a goal in our 2-1 win over Villa in the League Cup final.
To think we got that for free on a pay by play contract is pretty good going. All he needs to do now is score against Liverpool and lift the Premiership trophy and I couldn’t be happier!
So, all in all, I will start this season like I do every season, with the belief that Manchester United will be champions. I still think we’re some way from our strongest team but we have enough there to be title winners. Chelsea bettered us by one point last season and I think that we’ve strengthened our team better than they have.
Our hopes depend upon Rooney, Nani, Fletcher and Berbatov playing as well as we expect them to, on top of an organised and disciplined defense. Roll on Monday night!
This article is written by Scott, who writes on the popular Manchester United blog, The Republik of Mancunia.