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Imagine that you’re appointed manager of Manchester United tomorrow morning. The world is at your feet. You have (statistically speaking) the best team in the world alongside Barcelona in club football and you have a phenomenally talented young squad that will win titles before it reaches it’s full potential.
You even have the luxury to consider whether your team will be improved by Wesley Sneijder or not. After all, your team has won four league titles in five years without a title-winning central midfield pairing. And what’s more, just last season your club has finally moved ahead of Liverpool in the league title stakes, winning their 19th title.
It may just be a dream for now (at least until Football Manager 2012 comes out), but the truth is that as Manchester United gear up to attack the 2011/2012 season at full-force (and if their 2011 Community Shield display is anything to go by, United’s opponents are going to find it harder to contend with them than last year), they are genuinely looking a stronger squad than last year, and may yet improve further.
This article runs to just under 7,000 words (10 of these and we’d have a book on United), so I’ve divided it into separate sections that you can click back and forth from. Or if you’re (wo)man enough, dive right in. It’ll be the best season preview you’ll ever read today (probably the only one you’ll be able too as well).
Manchester United – Tactical Preview
Although we only have pre-season games and the football lesson handed to Manchester City (aka Community Shield) to go on, there is a definite shift in United’s strategy, as much an evolution on last season as it is a self-belief that United’s methods of picking apart the Premier League and Europe are true and that they only need to be faster and stronger to make it work more often.
I wouldn’t say United have or will become obsessed with Barcelona – purely because they’re far more obsessed with winning everything, all the time, at all costs. Like an raging sea that finds a way around, over or through all obstacles, United are determined to win, and that will not change as long as Ferguson is in charge (more about Ferguson and his influence on Manchester United’s ethos).
So what have United changed – for a start, there’s a clear emphasis on upping the tempo of their game, both in their passing as well as their off-the-ball movements. This is part of the reason why viewers saw United improve after Cleverley replaced Carrick in the Community Shield – although Carrick wasn’t 100% fit, Cleverley was far better at pushing forward and making runs (even if he misplaced passes or mishit shots). It’s the same with the central defenders – one of the reasons why Evans is still in the side (and why Smalling is rated so highly by United) is because they are eager to push forward.
Attack is the best form of defence, and United’s mode of attack this season will be quick passing, high pressing, rapid movements off the ball to ensure that the team stays compact and retains possession while still moving forward and, with time, clinical finishing.
Increased Defensive Responsibilities
The two things they still need to work on are central midfield and the goalkeeper / center-backs trio. United’s defence has been phenomenal in the last 5 years but while Vidic and Ferdinand are excellent in positioning and anticipating, not to mention fairly handy in the air, they’re both not as good at going forward as they were a few years ago, and especially in Rio’s case the loss of pace suggests that they are going to be vulnerable. It may just be pre-season rust and the two will pick things up as the season starts, but with a newcomer in goal, Rio and Vida need to take on more responsibility in breaking up attacks and starting counters further up the pitch than previous seasons, when they knew that Edwin van der Sar would be there to shout instructions or bail them out with some fabulous goalkeeping.
The most exciting part about United’s defence will be seeing Smalling and Evans reprise their full-back roles from end of last season as well as the development of Jones, Rafael and Fabio. All five are young, defensively sound (with the odd exception – Evans) and good at going forward (see Smalling’s display against Manchester City). They’ll improve, and United will benefit for years to come.
(Still) Lacking In Midfield
Although there’s been plenty said about midfield, and United do have several players for the central midfield positions, they don’t have a pure ball-winner / passer in the Busquets / Essien / Hargreaves mould. Fletcher / Anderson / Carrick all bring value to the side but only Fletcher is any good at actively closing down opposition midfielders and breaking up attacks quickly, and he’s not 100% fit for the start of the season.
There’s hope that Pogba will get a role to play, but while United eye Sneijder (who would make Berbatov redundant in my view), they might want to re-focus and evaluate whether their younger players (Pogba / Gibson / Anderson) are good enough to succeed long-term in those roles or bring in someone else, like Moussa Sissoko (Toulouse, Ligue 1). Pogba is expected to develop in a similar fashion though, so we might see Fergie just sit back and let his younger stars grow into first-team starters in due course.
Manchester United – Team Preview
Having briefly looked at the overall tactical setup – of which we’ll be discussing plenty more of once the season starts – let’s look at each individual first-team player (as well as the manager), to see where they stand and what’s expected of them this season.
We’re going by squad numbers, mind you, not suitability for a first-team spot.
0. Alex Ferguson
A remarkable 25 years into his Manchester United career, Sir (Lord?) Alex Ferguson has silenced the loudest and harshest of United’s critics several times in the last two decades. As revealed by Barry Glendenning on this week’s Guardian Football Weekly podcast, every Guardian football writer who submitted their predictions for the 2011/2012 Premier League season picked Manchester United to win their 20th league title, a phenomenal occurrence considering that they’ve consistently picked United to not win in the last 5 years (4 titles, 5th missed by a single point / refereeing error / missed penalty – take your pick).
This has less to do with United’s 50m spending this summer and a lot more to do with the (grudging) acceptance that with Alex Ferguson in charge, Manchester United will always be more than the sum of its’ parts, and with the team (and team tactics) in constant evolution, United will use their experience, verve and mental strength (not to mention considerable talent and youth) to find a way to win when everyone else around them is losing their head.
It’s taken something special to stop Manchester United in the last five seasons, in Europe or in domestic football. Let me rephrase that – it’s taken something special to stop Alex Ferguson in the last five seasons, and it will take something equally special to stop him from winning his 13th league title with Manchester United.
1. David De Gea
Young. High self-belief. Driven to constantly improve. And remarkably for a player of his age, took his time to decide to move to a Champions League, title-winning club despite the money on the table. The long-range goals concession stat will be the monkey on his back for some time yet, and there have been calls from certain sections of the United fanbase to ‘protect’ him by playing Lindegaard in the opening few games.
United have a tough start to the season with Spurs and Arsenal to play against in August, but De Gea has survived City, and will improve as the games go on. It would be timidity to hold him back after making such a fuss about signing him, and one of the things you can safely say about Ferguson is that he’s anything but timid.
Can De Gea be the next van der Sar? His first goal would be to be the next Joe Hart – a young, first-choice, reliable top-level goalkeeper who can play for another decade for his club. The language will be an issue but he’s got the attitude to deal with it.
3. Patrice Evra
The outspoken left back who looks likely to be playing fewer minutes this season, not so much because of injuries but a direct consequence of ageing and the pressing need to give Fabio and even Evans more playing time. He’s understanding with Rooney and co is critical to his success going forward on the left flank but with Rio / Vida becoming slower, his absence at full-back is becoming more noticeable.
His experience will be crucial this season but it would also be interesting to see what else he can say to rile up the opposition fans – having had plenty to say in previous years.
Not my first choice to play against Barcelona if the chance comes around once again though.
4. Phil Jones
Given the #4 jersey in the Community Shield, Jones has been described by Gary Neville as ‘gold’ and ‘rock-solid’, a high valuation on a man who prides himself on being a perfectionist and values character and mental strength over ability. That’s not to say that Jones isn’t talented – he wouldn’t be playing for United otherwise – but that his mental attributes are so strong that he is seen as a long-term United defender.
His partnership with Chris Smalling at the U-21 level for England has been often spoken about and he’s also touted as a future England captain. High praise for the youngster but he has the challenge of needing to displace Ferdinand and Vidic from central defence. Helps that he can play as a holding midfielder, and I’m curious to see when Ferguson (if ever) actually uses that option.
He will get more games than people expect, simply because United’s transfer strategy and squad composition means that they have enough permutations to go out and compete in all competitions with a relatively strong team.
5. Rio Ferdinand
Still a classy defender, still a big injury risk and still a mouthy arse. Still mistrusted, and still the best defender at United (sorry Vidic). Rio’s professionalism and experience (and given his ‘stature’, his statesman-like nature) will be a great point of reference to the young United defenders – I honestly cannot think of any other center-back pairing in England as good and as respected as Ferdinand and Vidic for young defenders to learn from.
Hopefully he will stay fit this season – his contract is in place till 2013 and there’s every chance that he’ll do a Thierry Henry and move to the MLS for a swansong (it’ll help his ‘brand’ too), but as long as his back, calves and hamstrings can hold up to the rigours of the Premier League, he’ll be a first-choice for United.
7. Michael Owen
Most people expected Michael Owen to go this summer, but Ferguson obviously values his influence off-the-pitch on United’s young strikers, and on the pitch, few players are as positionally and tactically aware as Michael Owen.
Twitter has also transformed his image into a very likeable, intelligent and articulate footballer, and it’s easy to see that he’s a good influence on United’s younger players, something Ferguson has always valued in his time at United.
Plus he knows he’s not going to get it better anywhere else, he wants to win titles and if that means sitting on the bench or in the stands, so be it. It’s his choice, and even though Welbeck, Hernandez, Berbatov and Rooney are all ahead of him in the striker stakes, and Macheda / Diouf are more likely to get the Carling Cup chances than him, he may still get a game or two this season.
Scored twice in a game late last season to send millions of United fans into brief dreams of fulfilled potential, but the reality is that he is still very much a work-in-progress. More than anything else he needs to play in every game this season (or as much as he can physically handle), simply to help him improve his decision making and sharpen his passing / shooting even more.
His tendency to run around in circles expending energy needlessly has cost him in previous seasons, although United’s high-tempo / compact passing game will suit him a lot more than it will suit Carrick / Fletcher.
As we’ve been saying for several years, this could be Anderson’s season. At the very least expect him to score a few more goals.
9. Dimitar Berbatov
The forgotten striker from the 2011 Champions League Final. Ferguson’s subsequent reasoning – that he thought Owen was a better bet to score in the last few minutes than Berbatov – hid a far worse reflection of the player’s abilities: Ferguson doesn’t see him as a suitable part of the fast link-up play that United have started to favour over the previous season.
He’s an effective second option – and one that United had to increasingly rely on in the first half of last season – and he’s a brilliant player. Problem is, he needs to play regularly to be on top form, and if Sneijder comes in, United’s system will change to a point where Berbatov becomes completely surplus to requirements.
He has a season to go plus a 1-way contract extension option held by United, but you get the feeling that the Sneijder deal will decide his fate too.
If Berbatov stays, he’ll be a welcome part of a squad that pushes to compete for all four available titles, and after overcoming serious criticism of his first two years at United to be the league’s top scorer last season, you can expect him to adapt once again and keep performing at a high standard.
The only other option is failure, and Berbatov does not seem like the player to go down without a fight (he might be quiet but you should see how he transforms on the pitch when he is visibly angry).
10. Wayne Rooney
Has supposedly seen the error of his ways and is back to being United through and through (as well as the best-paid United player), but perversely after this summer’s spending and what happened last season, he’s less essential to the team’s success than before. He’s also unlikely to be fully trusted by United fans after the ‘public statement’ last season, but he is still United’s best striker and tactically miles ahead of most players his age.
His main challenge this season will be work on improving his understanding with Nani, Young, Anderson and Cleverley, and when Hernandez gets into the mix you might see an unstoppable United side where no single player is individually a world-beater but collectively as a pack lead by Rooney, they are worthy of being champions.
As long as he scores 20 goals a season and takes on more leadership responsibilities on the pitch (without, paradoxically, always being more involved in the build-up play), he can swear to the cameras as much as he wants. What? Fucking What?
11. Ryan Giggs
Another United player in the tabloids last season for all the wrong reasons. Journalists were ‘shocked’ to hear it was Ryan Giggs, the fans far less so. Maybe journalists, like football players and politicians, have become more and more detached from the common football fan.
Yes, no one expected him to do what he’s supposed to have done. Yes, she’s tried to extort money out of him, hence the judge granting the injunction (read all about the Ryan Giggs / Imogen Thomas super injunction). Yes, he’s a role model for young footballers – for his professionalism, preparation and fitness regime, not his skills in the bedroom (or in the hotel room). His personal life is his personal life – and speaking about personal lives, here’s a fun statistic to keep in mind (from the above-linked article):
Infidelity research estimates the % of married men having extra-marital affairs between 20% to 50%, which means that between 1 in 5 to 1 in 2 married folks raising hell about Ryan Giggs’ superinjunction have cheated on their wives.
On to Giggsy’s football – Cleverley’s return as well as Young’s signing are a double-blessing – United will not need to rely on Giggs playing as many games as before, although he may end up taking Carrick’s place given the manager’s love for his last OAP.
This is his last season – it would be great to have sign off with his 13th league title and his 3rd Champions League title. Either one will do for us. Both will not be enough for him, which says as much about his desire to win and his Manchester United DNA as it does about his (reported) off-field actions.
12. Chris Smalling
Convincing at center-back, thrilling at right-back. His momentum makes him near unstoppable on the flanks and although his ball-work isn’t as refined as that of Rafael Da Silva, he’s as good as John O’Shea getting forward (and managed to score with his foot instead of his arse), can cross and tracks back well.
He’s supposed to be Phil Jones’ long-term partner in central defence but for now it’s entertaining to see him maraud up and down the right wing.
13. Ji-Sung Park
A player whose United future is uncertain as his effectiveness decreases, as does his influence on the games he plays and as United give their younger players more and more time on the pitch.
However, he’s a testament to United’s increasingly stable and versatile squad, and may still get time on the pitch this season. Will he leave? With two weeks to go, it’s more than likely that he will stay another season unless a last-minute offer comes in. He will add experience and the all-important ability to play at a high tempo to United’s game, and given his exploits at international level (and for United in the past few seasons) he’ll be good value for a few goals too.
14. Javier Hernandez
Easily one of the best, if not the best, transfer signing last season. He shone at the World Cup but really came to life at Manchester United, starting with that back-headed goal and culminating in that early-bird opener against Chelsea that more or less confirmed the title.
He has become integral to United’s current style of play and as someone remarked last season, it’s his ability to make multiple different runs to elude markers and make space for himself and his team-mates that makes him so valuable to the team.
Plus the goals, of course, especially with his timing. One relishes at the thought of Hernandez and Rooney in full flow with two of Nani, Young and Valencia behind them playing week in and week out in the Premier League.
However, he still has room to improve, and to add more guile to his play (not his play-acting, which has blossomed) if United are to rely on him to outwit Barcelona’s defence.
A measure of his popularity – he was the fourth most popular name on the back of football shirts bought by fans last season.
15. Nemaja Vidic
The captain, the strongman, and the de-facto leader of United’s defence after Edwin’s retirement. Rated by some as the world’s best central defender alongside Gerard Pique at the moment, and he’s definitely in the top five if not in the top two.
He’s put his contract and transfer troubles behind him (after a new contract and being awarded the captaincy, mind you) and looks set to lead United into the new era. Needs to be more vocal in the absence of Edwin (and quite often, Rio), and has to organise the defence better to deal with crosses and set pieces. Marginal improvements needed, but they are necessary at a club like United.
Another trophy-lifting season for him? He’s already picked up the Community Shield, odds on to lift one that matters more by May. Will play a key role in grooming Evans, Smalling and Jones. Maybe he can teach Evans to defend without grabbing the opponents shirts all the time?
16. Michael Carrick
Michael Carrick brings considerable value to Manchester United, as confirmed by several bloggers (See this, this and this). He’s also been hailed the a future United legend by yours truly, albeit this was near the end of the 06/07 season where his contributions were, in my eyes, the crucial factor in United winning the league title for the first time in four years.
Somehow that’s not happened – plenty of reasons behind it, from Paul Scholes to Carrick’s ‘confidence game’ to United’s evolving style of play to Ferguson’s tactics. What’s true is that he’s a quality player, the best passer at United (and as I’ve said since 2007, as good a passer as Scholes, excellent interceptor in central midfield and helps retain possession like no other Premier League player can.
This excerpt from the above-linked to Michael Cox article sums it up perfectly:
He also ranks No 10 in the ‘most passes played’ table for the Champions League so far this season [2010/2011], and yes, he does play a lot of square passes – the seventh most in the competition. However, when you consider that the six names ahead of him on that list are Dani Alves, Xavi, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Xabi Alonso, the sideways criticism looks rather impotent.
But the key problem with Carrick is how he will fit within United’s high-tempo game. He’s shown that like Berbatov, he’s not one to adapt his personality or playing style, preferring to play to his strengths. How that blends with what’s required of United’s senior-most (and currently best) midfielder will shape his future at Old Trafford.
Manchester United’s best player from last season, and effectively the Premier League’s best player too – although Robin van Persie’s phenomenal scoring record (when fit) and Modric’s displays for Tottenham were also worthy contenders (Scott Parker, Samir Nasri, Gareth Bale and Jack Wilshere, sadly, weren’t).
He came of age two seasons ago in that explosive instant when he stopped time and skipped between two Arsenal players on the far right touchline, a move that still excites viewers after countless replays. He’s the real deal, as his price tag suggested and he will take on more responsibility this season for creating chances.
He needs to sort out a few kinks, especially in terms of being on the same wavelength with Rooney, and he will always be a bit of poser, but he’s a United player and a match-winner, and he’s committed to playing for the club for a long time. That’s all you can ask for, really.
18. Ashley Young
The new man on the left wing, with Ferguson realising that you can’t buy a successor to Ryan Giggs for 3m (bye bye Obertain), nor can you force a right-sided winger (Nani), an ageing CAM (Park), a striker (Rooney), an OAP (Giggs) or a young defender (Fabio) to run up and down the wing and create chance after chance for United.
United now have a specialist left-sided player, one who provides quality from set-pieces and cuts in from the left the same way Nani cuts in from the right, providing United with incisive pace and more match-turning ability.
Plus he seems to be a on a similar wavelength to Rooney and co – the advantage of bringing in a player at the right stage of their career, when they themselves want to improve for the football and not just chase the money. A good signing, and if he can combine well with the rest of the team for the whole season he will be a regular starter.
19. Danny Welbeck
Could he be the Hernandez of 2011/2012? He’s excited fans in pre-season, and there’s plenty to suggest that his loan experiences have polished him enough to get regular games for United. He’s got a dodgy first-touch (the outcome of hurrying through the motions) but he’s got an excellent attitude and a developing physique that suggests that he could be the tall, powerful, fast front man United have been looking for all these years.
He’s likely to be relegated to the bench once Hernandez is fit but he can expect to compete with Berbatov for the 3rd striker spot, although if you think about it, an injury here and a few goals there, and Welbeck could be a regular starter. Probably a season too early for that though.
20. Fabio Da Silva
Could we please get him more games this season? Love the twins, I don’t think anyone has had a single bad thing to say about their attitude or their potential (and Fabio has a deadly shot on him when he’s on song), but for the love of football, please let him play 20+ games this season. Oh, and fingers crossed that he stays fit.
21. Rafael Da Silva
United’s first-choice right-back, especially after John O’Shea’s retirement. His brother got a handful of games on the right towards the end of last season (primarily to give him much-needed game experience) and Smalling has acquitted himself admirably in the position as well but Rafael was excellent last season and will be expected to continue his good form this season too.
Key for him is to deliver on his considerable promise and show that he can physically handle the glut of games Manchester United typically have to play throughout the season. He’ll have Smalling, and his brother, angling for his spot if he can’t.
23. Jonny Evans
It’s a toss-up between Evans and Gibson as the least liked United player by the fans. Evans had a poor patch at the end of season before last, when his shirt-holding and lack of positioning threatened every United game he started. It turned into something approaching terminal illness when Jonny Evans, carrying an injury (a little-known fact), turned into Calamity Evans, being caught out of position and generally coming off as a less-accomplished defender than his potential suggested.
It got to a point where fans wanted him shipped out this summer, but it’s worth remember that at this age, and with the player carrying an injury and often forced to play through it when Rio was injured, a bad season is not all that it seems to be.
He’s added a new dimension to his game (or at least exploited it better) by going forward when the opportunity presents itself, whether it was at left-back at the end of last season (one of his most encouraging displays yet) or at center-back for United in the Community Shield match last week.
He desperately – perhaps not the best choice of words given what his performances look like – needs to cut down on the shirt-pulling and improve his positioning, and it may just be that the summer rest, coupled with a new-found outlet at left-back, helps him develop as a defender this season.
He can’t get worse (remember the rollicking he got from Ferguson?), and when he improves he will be a strong contender for a first-choice berth alongside Vidic, Jones and Smalling. United’s defensive future is versatile and secure.
24. Darren Fletcher
Cut down by a virus last season that has kept him out of pre-season and will delay his return to the first team. His absence last season was covered by Giggs moving to central defence (which didn’t work so well against Barcelona) and this season we’ll see Anderson and Cleverley take greater responsibility. However, no one closes down space and defends in midfield better than Fletcher, and over the last two seasons his attacking play has improved, although his passing is still out of sync with the forward players.
He’s going no where – and has turned from a mistrusted youngster to a highly reliable, experienced squad player. A shining light for the likes of Evans and Gibson? Not everyone can be a hero, and that suits Fletcher just fine.
25. Antonio Valencia
Back from a leg break and performed as if he’d never left. Provides dependability, width and a good cross from the right, and has enough in his repertoire to leave most full-backs chasing shadows. Is as good from the start as coming off the bench, where his speed and direct approach can seriously hurt a tiring defence.
He will be at United for a long time to come, especially given United’s workload every month which ensures that United’s three wingers will get plenty of games to prove themselves as the best of them all. Valencia, along with Fletcher, is the prime example of how United’s squad is so versatile and experienced, without players that love to hog the limelight or complain about being left out.
27. Federicho Macheda
Last season’s loan didn’t work out well for him and his career seems to have stalled after he burst on the scene with those late goals. He was given a chance at the start of last season but didn’t take it, and slipped back down the pecking order. This season with Welbeck back in the side, his job will be a lot harder.
He needs a season long loan at a Premier League club where he can play week in and week out, or even a Championship club, before standing a chance to play regularly for United. Lacked positional sense and patience at times last season, looked a bit out of depth, something that can only be cured through game experience, which he’s not going to get much off with 6 other strikers at United.
28. Darron Gibson
So disliked by United fans that he shut down his twitter account within hours of starting it due to the abuse hurled at him – or so the story goes. Scorer of good goals, but needs to develop several other aspects of the game. The difficulties of last season would have made him rethink his decision to stick around at United without playing often, and when Sunderland came in with an offer he was quick to jump at the chance of regular football.
Sunderland’s offered terms changed, and Gibson turned the deal down, leaving in the unenviable position of being open to leaving but not having any buyers. Along with Macheda he would benefit greatly from a loan deal. If he wants to play for United he needs to improve, and he needs regular football for that. If he wants a transfer (a la Obertan), he needs to display his worth on the pitch (or get lucky), and for that he’d need a loan as well.
He’s a better player than he’s made out to be, but since his only advantage over other players is his long-range shooting, he needs to develop before he can be a United player. One of few who could still be sold.
29. Tomasz Kuszczak
The player few expected to still be at the club when the new season started – and is most likely going to leave before the transfer window is over. Kuszczak seemed happy to duke it out with Foster / sit on the sidelines when Edwin was playing, but with Lindegaard coming in and United’s long pursuit of De Gea, it’s fairly likely that Kuszczak’s days at United are numbered.
It’s just a matter of finding a buyer, or a loan deal, or having his contract terminated. He’d be a good backup goalkeeper though, more reliable than, say, Almunia or even Doni, most famous for shipping 7 goals to Manchester United in the Champions League.
32. Mame Biram Diouf
A surprise signing by United at the time and reminiscent of Manucho, although he was later overshadowed by Bebe’s transfer. Has the mentality to play the United but perhaps whether he can further improve his technical abilities remains to be seen. Another player that you would think would get very little time on the pitch and would benefit from regular football at a lower club, although United have effectively said that they want to keep all 7 strikers at Old Trafford.
If he stays and plays, it’ll be interesting to see where and when. His future may be clearer by next summer depending on what happens to Owen and Berbatov, and how Welbeck and Macheda develop. It’s also up to him on how he performs in training, reserve games and in the first-team opportunities he gets.
34. Anders Lindegaard
When signed, he was expected to be United’s future backup keeper but has looked fairly solid and as capable as Kuszczak, if not more. Ferguson has clearly placed his trust in De Gea, so we’ll have to see how Lindegaard reacts over the course of his first full season at United playing second-fiddle to a young kid who can’t speak English.
He will get a chance to stake his claim for the #1 spot soon enough, and if he takes it well, it’s only good for the club.
35. Tom Cleverely
The media darling after his performance in the Community Shield last weekend, although he promised more than he delivered. There was some misplaced passes straight at opposition players, a few scuffed shots.
He’s not the next Messiah, but he has the potential to be a very good player for United and his attitude on the pitch is excellent. He’s had to work his way up the leagues (on United books but out on loan) and he’s a lot better for the experience.
He’s also most people’s tip to take up a regular starting role for United. If there’s no Sneijder and / or he gets enough games to improve, he just might be supplying United’s forward line for years to come.
40. Ben Amos
United’s third keeper last season and also their third keeper this season, if Kuszczak leaves as expected. Could benefit with an extended loan period – i.e. actual playing time, although he hasn’t been loaned out yet so it’ll be interested to see what United have in store for him.
42. Paul Pogba
Another youngster who has excelled in United’s youth system and is on the fringes of the first-team squad. An year or two worth of regular football from a place on the bench in my view, and it would be good to see how United determine the best way forward is for Pogba. Alongside Cleverley, Anderson and Morrison, points to a very promising longterm future for United’s midfield, especially considering that he is exactly the type of player (the tall, powerful box-to-box midfielder who can defend or attack) that United have lacked for a while.
May get a few chances in cup football if he stays, but the best thing could be to get regular football out on loan. Have to keep in mind though that when he was sent out on loan last time he returned fairly quickly, so whether a loan is good for him in developing or not is eventually up to the manager.
49. Ravel Morrison
Troubled off the pitch, highly gifted on it. The most commendable thing about Morrison is how he’s received positive reports from those working with him in recent months about a concerted effort to re-focus his life. He needs to work hard to be a Wayne Rooney and not a Jermaine Pennant, for lack of better comparisons. Will get few first-team chances but is also better off developing at United instead of going out on loan in an unfamiliar environment given his recent off-pitch troubles.
Manchester United – Fixtures Preview
United kick off with an away game to West Brom, who improved at the end of last season under Roy Hodgson, and have bought intelligently since. However that’s merely a warm-up to what next for United in August as they host Tottenham and then Arsenal in back to back Premier League fixtures. On the other side of the international break awaits another away game, this time to Bolton, before United host Chelsea (making it 3 of the top 5 in the first five games).
Then there is Stoke away and Norwich at home (the first relatively comfortable game) before United have Liverpool away and Manchester City at home, which means in their first 9 games United will face off against the five other sides that finished top 6 last season. If you look at the next two games (Everton and Sunderland), that’s 7 of the top 10 played in the first 11 games.
It’s a tough start and perhaps that’s the reason United’s pre-season has been designed to get them playing at peak performance early on in the season as witnessed by the Community Shield performance, where United’s fitness as much as strategy and talent ran roughshod over City. Also, getting the tough games out of the way early also means United don’t have to contend with these games around December (indeed, their schedule in December is mild compared to the first 9-11 games), when they are competing in multiple competitions and the games are compressed in a short period of time.
Although four of the five ‘top-6’ contests are at Old Trafford, United will still need to be at the top of their game to win. The upside – after 9 games United would have played all their title competitors at least once, and if they can win (or at least avoid defeat), there’s a good chance they’ll be top by end of October. It’s not too much to expect that United’s away form will improve, so a good start will see United ahead of competition early on.
Manchester United – Transfers Review
The departure of 5 experienced first-teamers / squad players would create a vacuum at any club. However, unlike Chelsea who didn’t recruit effectively nor had experienced youth to step up to the plate last season, United have both. Ashley Young has come in to fill the left-wing berth as a naturally left-footed player, a long-standing missing link in United’s lineup. Phil Jones comes in and will immediately challenge for a first-team slot.
Then there is David De Gea, who has some big, big boots to fill. It’s a measure of Edwin van der Sar’s stature that a goalkeeper of the ability and potential of De Gea has a question mark hanging over him.
United still have players that should be on their way – Darron Gibson probably should have left by now (although more for his own sake than United’s, as he needs games to develop into a better player), the same with Tomasz Kuszczak. And as much as Ferguson thinks he will need 7 strikers this season, Macheda (loan) and Diouf (transfer / loan) shouldn’t be at United either – they need to play games or be shipped out.
But all the talk surrounding United isn’t about outgoing transfers, it’s about that one player United are after – Wesley Sneijder. After turning away from Modric and Nasri early in the transfer window (neither club seemed willing to sell to United for a reasonable fee, and both players had other clubs in mind – Modric to Chelsea and Nasri to City), United have been quietly chipping away at the Sneijder deal for two months now.
The sticking point is Sneijder’s wage demands, and United have reportedly offered a very lucrative signing on fee / bonus structure spread over the duration of his contract to entice the Dutchman. Given that United have refused to budge on their position and with Sneijder talking more about a potential transfer, it’ll be interesting to see how matters transpire over the next two weeks.
In fact, just this morning United made it officially known that they were not trying to sign Sneijder, a clear indication that a) they have been pursuing him for a while and b) that wage demands have brought the negotiations to a halt. David Gill has said that things may change over the next two weeks, but it seems unlikely that either Sneijder or Inter will significantly reduce their demands, and it’s 100% certain that United will not increase their offer.
The key question is whether United really need Sneijder – and although we’ll never know for sure, his arrival will almost definitely mean that United will abandon their 4-4-2 formation, playing Sneijder in what has often been Rooney’s position, either as the second striker in a 4-4-1-1 or in a central attacking position in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Sneijder’s arrival would also make Berbatov nearly redundant at the club, as it would lead to United playing with a single striker more often than not, and creatively Sneijder would be asked to perform a similar role (i.e. unlock opposition defences) as Berbatov has been asked to over the past three seasons.
If Sneijder doesn’t come in, United still have a strong enough squad to succeed in England and in Europe – and they may need that defensive lynchpin discussed earlier as much as, if not more, Sneijder’s match-winning ability. At the end of the day, United will be playing many other teams than just Barcelona, and the squad composition needs to reflect a balance that suits United over the whole season, not just in one fantasy encounter. Will Sneijder be the missing link? A creative player in a team that already has plenty of creativity sounds like a strange choice unless a player is on his way out (hence the above point about Berbatov), and adding a midfielder who isn’t defensively strong to a defensively suspect midfield isn’t improving the squad.
If Sneijder comes, Berbatov (great as he is) should go. And United will still be a player short of what would be the ideal Manchester United squad. And no, we can’t get Edwin back.
Thank you for reading my Manchester United season preview for the 2011/2012 season. I hope you had as much fun reading this as I had writing this.