After last year, United fans can’t wait to get started – new season, new manager and a fresh start.

We went into last season with some trepidation; it was our first season under a new manager and suddenly all the certainties of Sir Alex’s brilliance were in doubt. Many, ourselves included, had some doubts about the man selected to take Sir Alex’s place, but were prepared to give him a fair chance. Others were less optimistic and ultimately they were proved right in their assessment.

The contrast between last season and this season couldn’t be more stark – most fans we talk to can’t wait to get started, and have an over-optimistic sense of certainty that we can put last year’s experiences behind us and return to glory.  Every year we ask the same question at this point: can we challenge? Of course we can put last year behind us and we would expect a significant improvement.  It is hard to say whether such an improvement will start with increased entertainment value of performances and extend to winning trophies. That is a more difficult question to answer. It will depend upon a number of factors: our rate of improvement; whether we are able to add and assimilate new players in the next few weeks; the strength of the opposition and the success of our tactics.

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We have a new manager, bold, dynamic and assertive; clearly a leader with the ambition, sense of purpose and expertise needed to get the club back to the top. But it will take time.  As United fans we should all pull together, support but be patient and enjoy the ride.  There is every reason to be optimistic.

Squad

For some time www.manutdtactics.com has identified that United’s squad is unbalanced. So it is reassuring to see that after only a short time in charge Louis van Gaal has come to the same conclusion. More than this, he has identified the same areas of weakness we identified in a series of articles towards the end of last season: a frail defence, a sub-standard midfield and a surfeit of creative forward players.

Fortunately he seems to be prepared to do something about this. Initially he announced he was going to take a good look at his squad before deciding who to buy and sell.  In the first instance, his decision to change United’s formation can be seen partly as a response to the unbalanced nature of the squad and especially the need to incorporate as many of our more creative and accomplished players into the team as he can. David Moyes signed Mata but then appeared to have created a problem for himself by trying to accommodate the Spaniard, Rooney and van Persie in the same side. Van Gaal is prepared to think radically to solve that problem.

Currently we don’t have issues with the goalkeeping position. De Gea is excellent and improving.  Lindegaard, whom we expected to leave in search of regular first team football is a more than adequate back up.

In defence our “defensive frailties” seem to have become a bigger issue after the departure of Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra. Buttner, Evra’s understudy, has also left. Luke Shaw has arrived to replace Evra, but tactical adjustments mean that we are looking for something more than like-for-like replacements. Interest in additional centre-backs is understandable if we are to play a back three. United currently have only three centre-backs with significant first team experience: Jones, Evans and Smalling. Two of these players are right sided but that won’t be enough over the course of the season when injuries and suspensions will come into play.  It appears too great a leap of faith to rely on youngsters Michael Keane and Tyler Blackett at this stage.  We need at least one more experienced centre-back. Darren Fletcher has been tried in this position and, when fit, we may see a similar experiment with Michael Carrick.

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The wing-back positions are key to the success of the new formation. Van Gaal has tried a wide range of players in these positions. The central question is what type of player will he choose – an attacking player who will be required to defend, or a defender who will also attack? This is the area which is perhaps the most undecided because all the players tried here so far are still learning the role. It is a significantly different role than that of full-back, with players needing to read the game from a higher position on the pitch, and to fulfil the responsibilities of defender, attacker and wide midfield player. We would not be surprised if van Gaal bought at least one player with previous experience of playing in this position before the end of the transfer window. To date, Reece James and Ashley Young have appeared most comfortable in the role, but Luke Shaw’s performances improved during our American tour in parallel with his improved fitness.

Midfield has been an area of weakness for a long time. But with Ander Herrera contributing a serious of excellent performances on tour and further rumours about interest in other players, things seem to be improving. The return of Michael Carrick will be welcome, as will a period of good health for Darren Fletcher. Tom Cleverley appears committed to working hard to improve his game and who knows what lies ahead of Marouanne Fellaini (not much at United if rumours are to be believed). It still feels as if we need more, however, with a box-to-box all-rounder being an obvious priority.

United is well served for forwards; in fact van Gaal has indicated that we seem to have too many. Mata, Rooney, Welbeck, van Persie, Hernandez and Kagawa can all play in a central advanced position. The 3-4-1-2 shape allows a choice of two from these six, with another being accommodated slightly deeper in the number 10 role. The selection issue becomes more acute with a 4-3-3 shape.  Several of these players can play wide of course, but only one would be utilised as a central striker.  Some of the forwards could operate as advanced midfield players (again as a number 10) but this does not seem to make the most of the qualities of this group.

This is probably the main reason why we are currently favouring this new shape, but another reason could be to do with the available wide players.

The performance of our wide players was woeful last year. Valencia has been tried as a wingback but hasn’t been convincing. Nani and Zaha have been tried as forwards in a more central role; they similarly have failed to convince. Adnan Januzaj showed great promise last year and it will be interesting to see where van Gaal deploys him when he returns from his extended, post – World Cup break. It is clear that if van Gaal wishes to retain the flexibility to change to a 4-3-3 shape he will need to keep attacking wide players who can demonstrate the flexibility to fulfil other roles.

How is it likely to go?

There was much talk last year about how competitive and exciting the 2013-14 season was. The best ever! It may have been exciting, but its competitiveness came from the fact that the leading contenders were evenly matched rather than their excellence.  The previous year United had won a disappointing season when the standards were relatively low. Clearly United dipped last year whilst others improved, but they did not improve significantly.

City won the league because Liverpool slipped up (Gerrard, literally). The reason Liverpool were in a position to slip up was that unexpectedly, Chelsea faltered.  Arsenal, after a difficult opening day, started well, bolstered in both quality and morale by the arrival of Ozil. But as in recent years, Arsenal faded.

Of course United went backwards and were nowhere to be seen. So what of this year, as United work to get back into contention?

As Champions, City are theoretically the team to beat. The bizarre Yaya Toure birthday cake saga aside, City are in a good place right now; all seems well in the camp. In the close season they have signed Bacray Sagna on a “Bosman”, Mangala and Fernando from Porto as well as a new keeper, Caballero, to challenge the vastly overrated Hart. They have also added Frank Lampard on loan from their own “sister” club New York City until January. The big questions are: is this enough and does the club have the mentality to retain a Championship? (They have never done so before).  Most of their recruitment efforts have been centred on strengthening their defence but the key to their season will be keeping key players fit, such as Kompany, Toure, Silva and Augero.

Liverpool relied heavily last year on their Suarez/Sturridge partnership. Suarez wanted out before last season and this year he has got his wish. Although a year older, Gerrard will be keen to make amends for last season’s (and his personal) disappointment.  Much will depend on how well the club has used the Suarez money.  Tottenham were in a similar position last year after the sale of Gareth Bale; Liverpool will hope that the transfer window will prove to be more successful for them than it was for Spurs.  Liverpool seem to have signed the entire Southampton side. In fact they have signed Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert. They have signed other players too –  Alberto Moreno, a left back from Seville, Javier Manquillo, a right back signed on loan from Atletico Madrid, Lazar Markovic from Benfica, Divok Origi from Lille and Emre Can from Bayer Leverkusen.  Is this a case of quantity instead of quality? With so many new players it may take some time to assimilate their new personnel and possibly a case of a step back to take a step forward next time. Will the step back leave them too far behind? Has their chance to win a title gone? Let’s hope so.

Arsenal’s confidence will be much higher this year, having finally won a trophy after all those barren years. They are also bolstered by new signings and will expect to mount a serious challenge for the title. The signing of Alexis Sanchez will have further boosted morale in much the same way that the signing of Ozil did last season. They have also signed Mathieu Debuchy to replace Sagna at right back, the goalkeeper David Ospina, Calum Chambers who can play as a centre back or a midfield player. In addition they have recalled Joel Campbell, the Costa Rican forward who was on loan at Olympiakos and did well against United in the Champions League. Arsenal can be expected to challenge for much of the season, but can they sustain it over nine long months? Much will depend upon how resolute they are in defence. Wenger isn’t known for defensive organisation – his best years at Arsenal arose in part via the formidable rear-guard he inherited.  Since then, when the going has got tough, Arsenal have generally gone missing. They have a skilful collection of players who should achieve more than they do. Doubts still remain as to whether Arsene Wenger is the man to provide much-needed increased resolve.

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So that leaves Chelsea of last season’s top four. Chelsea should have won the league last year – they underachieved. Despite the obvious weakness at centre-forward (Chelsea’s forward line scored pitifully few goals) they were the most balanced side. Mourinho played down Chelsea’s chances, saying that they were building for a challenge this year. Nobody believed his protestations that it was a year too soon; he was of course trying to take pressure off his side. But he was probably right even if he didn’t believe his own words. Mourinho has moved to address Chelsea’s weaknesses by signing Diego Costa from Atletico Madrid and re-signing Didier Drogba. Chelsea have also signed Cesc Fabregas to provide flexibility and creativity in midfield and Felipe Luis, a left back from Atletico Madrid. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois who was out on loan, has been recalled, also from Atletico.

Mourinho has had a year to work with his squad now and he will have improved them tactically. The win at Anfield late last season demonstrates how tactically accomplished and disciplined they can be. In view of this we would make Chelsea rather than City our pick as the team to beat.

In summary then, Chelsea are improving, Arsenal are improving but coming from further back than Chelsea and at a slower pace. City will probably be in about the same place. Liverpool have lost Suarez and seem likely to take a step back.

We should remember that United finished seventh last year so what of the teams that finished fifth and sixth; we have to overhaul them just to get into a position to challenge the top four. Tottenham and Everton both got the maximum out of themselves last time. Can they go further?

We would expect Everton to be at about the same level. Astutely managed and bolstered by the permanent signing of Lukkaku from Chelsea they will be a handful. They have also tied Gareth Barry to a permanent contract and signed Muhamed Besic from Ferencvaros and Brendan Galloway from MK Dons. Whether this will be enough to allow them to move up the table seems doubtful.

What of Tottenham? It seems against the natural order for Spurs to have two good seasons in a row and again they have had a managerial change. Mauricio Pochettino did an excellent job at Southampton and should do well at Spurs, but they have had a number of managers over the years of whom the same has been said. They have not signed as many new players as last year – only four – Ben Davies and Michel Vorm from Swansea, Eric Dier from Sporting and DeAndre Yedlin. What Tottenham need, and what they seem to have lacked since the removal of Keith Burkenshaw all those years ago, is stability. We are not sure if they will improve significantly, but they are a team to watch.

So in view of all this, where does it leave United?

United’s chances

After last season what do we have a right to expect? The short answer is: improvement. We can’t really expect more than that. With a new manager and a new tactical experiment there are too many changes to be certain what will follow. Van Gaal’s methods have served United well in pre-season games but are as yet unproven in the week-in week-out hothouse of the English premiership.

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Putting caution to one side for a moment, we would expect a significant improvement and hope for a top four finish.  Several players and the new manager have indicated that they are (rightly) aiming for the number one spot. It usually takes a few months for van Gaal’s sides to learn his methods after his arrival at a new club and if that is the case at United it is likely that Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal will be too far ahead to allow a serious shot at the top spot. That does not mean that we are aiming for fourth (as at least one of these may not stay the course) but we would be surprised if all three faltered.

A Cup win would not seem an unreasonable target if we gradually improve throughout the course of the season. That would be very welcome, and a satisfactory accomplishment if accompanied by a top four finish. In achieving a first, post – Sir Alex trophy, a significant Rubicon would have been crossed.

Of course we hope to be proved wrong in all this. United have a relatively straightforward series of opening games, playing teams who, with all due respect, an in-form United side would expect to beat.  So, you never know, if we get off to a good start, maybe we can challenge.