0-1 vs Everton. 3-2 vs Fulham. 3-2 vs Southampton.
The season is underway, well and truly. Time to take a look at what Sir Alex Ferguson has on hand this season.
The transfer window is shut and we’ve seen a few interesting additions to the squad this summer. Robin Van Persie is undoubtedly the biggest of them all. A surprise scoop from traditional rivals Arsenal, Van Persie has been the best striker in the Barclays Premier League over the last 18 months. Having netted 48 times since January 2011, it’s not difficult to see what Sir Alex was looking at when he was going for the Dutchman. The widespread criticism of Sir Alex for splashing £24 million for a man who just had an year left on his contract was silenced after Persie scored four times, including a hat-trick, in his first two starts for the club. Rooney has competition now.
Shinji Kagawa is another crucial addition into the squad. The lack of a creative midfielder has been United’s Achilles Heel for the last couple of seasons, and in Kagawa, Sir Alex may have found just the man he needs. Bundesliga’s player of the season for 2011/12, Kagawa has a knack for delivering a good final ball and also scoring a fair amount himself.
Nick Powell (from Crewe Alexandra), Alexander Büttner (from Dutch club Vitesse) and Angelo Henriquez (from Universidad de Chile) are the other additions to the squad, adding a little depth. While Powell is a conventional box-to-box midfielder who likes holding the ball, Buttner has been roped in as a cover for Patrice Evra. Fabio’s departure to Queens Park Rangers on loan means Buttner is the second-choice left-back for Sir Alex. Angelo Henriquez is a 18-year old Chilean forward who has caught Sir Alex’s eye for his pace and flair. First team chances will be a rarity for him as he’s below RVP, Rooney, Welbeck and Chicharito in the pecking order for the forward-line.
There has been a couple of major departures from the club. One of them was Dimitar Berbatov’s move to Fulham for £4 million. The Bulgarian striker has been out of favour with Sir Alex since the capture of Javier Hernandez and the rise of Danny Welbeck. 12 league appearances over a whole last season left the once-SAF-favourite frustrated and one could foresee a departure well before it happened. While it’s tough to say whether Sir Alex will actually miss him, Berbatov will be sorely missed by the fans who were often left drooling by his dexterity and class with the ball. Ji Sung Park, who was a fan favourite for his stamina and work-rate, moved to Queens Park Rangers. While common thought goes that Sir Alex could’ve used him to add depth to the bench, few would argue against his decline as a footballer over the last couple of years. Park had lost pace and penetration abilities, and was rarely adding much to the squad.
FROM THE ACADEMY
Robbie Brady, Jesse Lingaard, Michael Keane and Scott Wotton are expected to be getting the most games for the Reserves and a few run-outs for the first team. All four were part of the pre-season tour for United and got to play a fair bit. Lingaard is a pacy midfielder who impressed against Ajax Cape Town and Shanghai Shenhua. Robbie Brady is used to playing as a left-winger, but United’s lack of depth at left-back might see him making an appearance or two there. Sir Alex used him primarily at that position in the pre-season games. His pace and movement are highly rated by reserve-team coach Warren Joyce. Micheal Keane and Scott Wotton are central-defenders who might have to make a few appearances given the injury-stricken defense line for United. Recurring injuries to Phil Jones and Johnny Evans have left Sir Alex with a headache and he might look towards the youngsters to bail United out on some occasions. Midfielder Davide Petrucci managed to raise a lot of eyebrows in the pre-season games with his accurate passing and brilliant vision. That being said, first team appearances seem difficult for the Italian as the midfield is already crowded.
A special mention for striker Will Keane, who was supposed to be making the leap this season. An unfortunate injury towards the end of 2011/12 left him facing 10 months on the sidelines. He had a fantastic last season and caught the eye of the gaffer, who remarked “The lad has strong potential. I’d like to get him into the squad soon.”
David De Gea looks set to retain his position as United’s chief custodian despite a strong challenge from Anders Lindegaard. The Spanish teenager’s shot stopping abilities and athleticism made a huge impression towards the end of last season, one which could’ve been a lot worse had he not churned out one stellar performance after the other in the last four months. A shaky start to his Premier League career might have resulted in a few creases on Sir Alex’s forehead, but he ended the season as a keeper who could serve United for a long time. De Gea’s accurate distribution pleased even the sternest of critics, but one prime weakness would still concern Sir Alex: set-pieces and aerial balls. Goalkeeping coach Eric Steele has his work cut-out this season as opponents will be looking to fire in a lot of crosses into United’s penalty box.
Danish keeper Anders Lindegard is much more authoritative in the box than his Spanish team-mate and is a decent shot-stopper to boot. It’s hard to pick between the two, but De Gea’s experience with Atletico Madrid edges him ahead of Lindegard. He’ll be keeping the Spaniard on his toes, and a healthy competition might ensure a higher standard, with both ‘keepers pushing each other to give their respective best every time they play.
Both are young, and keeping all constant, Manchester United have two very promising goalkeepers in the squad. Promise, though, doesn’t win matches. It’ll be interesting to see if De Gea and Lindegard can bridge the gap between potential and performance.
Nemanja Vidic is back, but Phil Jones, Johnny Evans and Chris Smalling are set to miss another month of action due to injuries. Hate it, but this was the most apt way of starting with the defensive personnel Sir Alex has. Frequent injuries made it very tough for Manchester United to field four proper defenders week-in week-out last season. Carrick and Valencia had to shift positions umpteen times. Injury to those three leave only Vidic and Ferdinand among the central defenders. Though Vidic’s return is a brilliant piece of news for Sir Alex, lack of depth might hurt them further into the season. The medical team has a tough job. Injuries early in the season don’t augur too well for the team.
Among those who are fit, it’ll be fair to expect Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra to be making the most appearances this season, given all of them stay fit. The Vidic-Ferdinand pair was instrumental in United’s league title hat-trick from 2006/07-2008/09, especially the last one where United kept 13 consecutive clean sheets. Rafael needs to improve a lot to stamp himself on the right-back position. Shoddy performances and impulsive decision-making left Sir Alex worried more often than not last season. He’ll be looking towards the Brazilian for a big-season if United need to make a serious title challenge. Evra, unfortunately, is showing signs of ageing. The 31 year old left-back has had a less than average last two seasons, and the capture of Alexander Buttner is a clear sign that Sir Alex is aware of his decline. However, he still remains the first-choice at that position, and would be expected to deliver more often than he has over the last 24 months.
Phil Jones is yet to find his best position. Having tried him at right-back, centre-back and central-midfield, Sir Alex would want him to be fit to place him where he does best. His attacking prowess and pace was in for high praise early last season, but some terrible errors at the heart of the defence gave a clear sign of his inexperience. We might get to see him playing across different positions once he’s back from injury. Chris Smalling was used at right-back and centre-back last season, and one doesn’t see any change this time around. The team could do with a tall defender like him, given De Gea’s evident weakness with crosses. Johnny Evans was by far the best United defender on show last season, given Vidic’s absence since November and Ferdinand’s sporadic fitness. Hence, his injury is a major setback for the team. Once fit, Sir Alex would like the defensive cover he’ll give the team.
A line-up of Kagawa, Carrick, Cleverley, Scholes, Giggs, Nani, Young and Valencia can make one believe that United have a fantastic midfield at hand. A deeper inspection will reveal, that it’s not exactly the case. There is a glaring lack of a defensive midfielder who can consistently break up opposition play. Someone like Chiek Tiote or Alexandre Song could’ve been pursued over the transfer window. None of the United midfielders possess the tackling quality of the said players, which is a cause of major concern. The defense isn’t as strong as it used to be, and the absence of a tackler might give Sir Alex a lot of sleepless nights.
Beyond that, it all looks fairly decent. The addition of Shinji Kagawa will plug another gap that United have had since Owen Hargreaves started his injury sojourn: a creative midfielder. The Japanese was one of the major reasons for Dortmund’s recent success and at a measly £12 million, he can be considered a steal. Kagawa’s eye for a pass and splendid first touch was one of the few positives in the otherwise scrappy first three games of the season for United. His link-up play with Rooney/Van Persie has been eye-catching so far. One can only imagine the prospects of him playing as a central attacking midfielder behind Premier League’s two best frontmen.
Carrick ended last season as one of the best English midfielders in the league. His passing accuracy and range was sensational as he rose up to become United’s engine after a disastrous end to 2011 which included crashing out of the Champions’ League group stages and a 6-1 loss to Manchester City. With the turn of the year, the England midfielder literally came of age and took the team’s pressure on his shoulders. Chalkboards from two of the best matches Manchester United played last season show Carrick’s accuracy and range.
Carrick’s consistency was, maybe, one of the very few reasons Manchester United could compete with City for the title. The last 4 months of the season confirmed Carrick as the best midfielder in the team and Sir Alex would expect Carrick to carry that form over a longer period this season. With only Scholes and Cleverley as his central midfield partners, it’s imperative that Carrick has a big season if United are to mount any semblance of a challenge for the league or Europe.
Last season was supposed to be the one where Tom Cleverley stamped his class, but a string of injuries reduced it to a mere blur. The young academy graduate would strive for a fitter 12 months if he has to book his place in the first team. The lack of quality central midfielders gives him enough scope to flourish and every Manc worth his salt would bet on him making it big as long as he stays fit. Paul Scholes’ decision to return from retirement couldn’t have been better timed. He came in January last season, and has been phenomenal since. Notching up passes like his heydays, the ginger-ninja made a big impact on United’s title challenge this season. Although he’s 38, don’t be surprised to see Scholes making an unusual number of appearances, as Sir Alex has realized he cannot do without the midfield master. Nick Powell could be expected to make very few appearances this season, as he needs polish to play in a league he’s never played before.
Nani, Ashley Young and Valencia would be looking to make maximum impact this season as they have the luxury of two world-class strikers to aim for, with their crosses. Nani’s class and ability to conjure up moments of genius has never been in doubt and his tally of assists stands testimony. That being said, his profligacy has hurt United more than once in the past, and should he retain the same form, it’ll be difficult for Sir Alex to continue with him next season. Antonio Valencia is easily one of the best wingers in the game presently, and the team won’t expect anything less than another stellar season from the Ecuadorian. Ashley Young was inconsistent last season, but that could be attributed to settling in a formation he wasn’t used to. His talent was there for everyone to see even at Aston Villa, and a season that doesn’t justify that, would leave Young disappointed.
Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Chicharito have to be one of the most exciting forward-lines in the world. One look at their respective ages, and you’d be pointing out Manchester United as a team to watch out for, especially in the final third of the pitch. Van Persie is the oldest among them at 29, and he’s coming in off the back of two fantastic seasons for Arsenal. Wayne Rooney, though in bad form, is still racking up goals for United while Welbeck and Chicharito will give the team a bench strength that most clubs would die for. Chicharito had a tremendous debut season in 2010/11, scoring 20 goals in the league. Welbeck, having served a loan spell for Sunderland in that period, joined United last season and immediately made an impact with his combination play with Rooney. Though both of them cannot boast of the statistical supremacy of their more illustrious team-mates, their pace can be a deadly weapon to unleash in the later stages of a game.
If the first three games of the season are anything to go by, Sir Alex is planning to play a 4-2-3-1 formation this season. The back four is a no-brainer if all of the defenders are fit. Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra will be given the task of keeping opposition attackers at bay. Evra’s form and Rafael’s aggression need to be channelized to perfection by the coach, should United plan to concede lesser goals than last season.
Cleverley and Carrick have been the preferred central midfielders so far. Carrick’s passing accuracy and Cleverley’s pace could act as perfect foils. Scholes would be the third choice for this position. As mentioned before, the lack of a tackler could be costly.
Valencia is a permanent fixture at the right wing given his consistency ever since he’s been captured from Wigan. His pace and accuracy of crosses would prove to be a boon for the strikers. The left wing might see Nani and Young being rotated. None of them have displayed the consistency that was desired, and hence, the one better on form would be playing the next game.
Now the remaining two spots, given the presence of four good strikers, would logically be reserved for them. Kagawa’s acquisition, however, incorporates the change in the conventional 4-4-2 Sir Alex is used to. He revels as the central attacking midfielder, and it would be a crime to play him anywhere apart from that. Any striker would be love to see someone of his calibre delivering those telling passes in the final third.
Robin Van Persie has been the Premier League’s best striker over the last two seasons. Four goals in his first three games for United puts him firmly as the favourite to play as a lone striker. Now where does that leave Rooney? Surely, he’s not making the bench.
Robin Van Persie’s two best games from last season shows that he likes taking his shots from inside the box.
Van Persie isn’t really of the Rooney mould who likes dictating play just from outside the box. Giving the Dutchman the striker’s position on merit is no blasphemy. Rooney, however, has another position he’d excel in.
It’s no secret that Wayne Rooney is at his best when he drops deep and gets to control the game from just above the midfield. He’s a decent passer in the final third too, as two crucial games from the last season would show.
Is this good enough to raise a case for a 4-3-2-1, with Rooney and Kagawa playing behind Van Persie and Carrick playing in the central midfield? When you have players of their class, leaving any of them on the bench could be suicidal. A combination of Rooney and Kagawa would also ensure better service for Van Persie to feast on.
Sir Alex hasn’t had too many formation issues over the last few seasons, but his two major additions will bring with them a few headaches. After 26 years at the club’s helm, he surely knows how to deal with them, doesn’t he? We, armchair pundits, can only wait in anticipation, as he plans the season in immaculate detail.
That’s that, then. Manchester City need to be dethroned from their position as the best in England, and one has to be naïve to bet against Sir Alex’s team mounting a serious challenge for what would be their 20th league title.