Season Preview 2013-14: Part 1
Can we challenge?
With a new manager in place there are additional questions to ask this year, but the central one remains: can United challenge for honours in the coming season? This year we have split the season’s preview into two parts. This part is a general overview looking at our strength, newcomers and the other challengers; the second article will look at what David Moyes’ United side might look like.
As we enter a new era, David Moyes won’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. Last year wasn’t a vintage year for United or the Premier League in general, but we are still Champions. As such we don’t expect radical changes.
United will have to improve if they are to stand any chance of retaining the Premiership. We also expect other teams to improve. In response to this likelihood, and by way of announcing the dawn of the Moyes’ era, we acknowledge the rumours about United’s desire to make a marquee headline signing. To date, despite rumours about interest in and bids for Ronaldo, Bale and Fabregas, that marquee signing has not materialised. So what of the current squad now?
When we previewed last season we identified that the squad was good but not great, with a good average strength, but with a lack of standout world-class performers. We also identified a problem in the centre of midfield. That problem has become more acute with the retirement of Scholes. Our comments from last year still hold true. We have added van Persie and there is no doubt he is world class, but Rooney has gone backwards and at the time of writing it looks like he may leave the club anyway. We feel that Kagawa, last summer’s other significant arrival, has the potential to develop into a world-class star and United really need a big season from him this time around after a year disrupted by injury and the settling in process. The midfield issue persists though.
Another problem area last year was that of the wide players. They all had a particularly poor year in 2012-13, contributing only one goal between them and a relatively low number of assists.
Well, we won the league last year so we can’t be all that bad. Over the summer lots of fans have been getting anxious about a lack of activity in the transfer market, but it is as well to remember that we really only need a couple of players at the most. The important point is that we get the right players. Another key point to make is that the age spread of the squad is good. We have a number of senior players who, whilst coming towards the end of their careers, lend vital experience, together with a significant number of players who are around 23-years-old or younger. Most of these young players should improve. We also have a good crop of junior players seemingly ready to step up to the first team squad after helping to win the National Reserve League in the last two seasons. Not all of them will make it, but hopefully some will. David Moyes has already stated that he wishes to stay true to the traditions of the club and give youth its chance; in his pre-season tour selections he has been as good as his word. Januzaj, the Keane brothers and Lingard are all knocking on the door.
Our defence is not as strong as it was for the majority of Sir Alex’s time as manager and still not as strong as it should be. De Gea is now established as the de-facto number one after he improved still more last year. United, however, conceded nine more goals than second placed City and rarely fielded the same centre back pair for more than a couple of games. This is one area of the team where you benefit from a lack of rotation. United had to rotate though, because of the impact of age and injury on Ferdinand and Vidic. Evans is the more experienced of the younger centre backs although neither he, Jones or Smalling can claim to have really established themselves as a first choice. The full back positions have been more settled now that the much-improved Rafael has proved himself. However, both full-backs, Rafael and Evra are prone to dropping a clanger from time to time. A more settled selection, based upon the younger players, seems to be the way forward.
The majority of speculation about new arrivals this summer has focussed on midfield reinforcements, with Moyes briefing journalists that he feels this is an area that requires strengthening. Most United fans would agree. Carrick had an excellent season last year and he is an automatic pick right now but many feel that we need a ‘shuttler’ or box-to-box ball winner to complement him. There has been alleged interest in various defensive midfield players including Strootman, Fellaini, Cabaye, Marchisio and Veratti, but to date none of these possible targets has been driven down Sir Matt Busby Way. This is a worry, as there still appears to be a significant weakness in this central midfield area.
Perhaps surprisingly many column inches have been filled with stories of United’s interest, and in the case of Fabregas, confirmed interest, in signing a different type of midfield player, one who is more attacking and creative. This appears to reflect the aforementioned desire to make a marquee signing rather than sign the type of player we actually need. Surely the priority should be a more combative player.
In the wide attacking areas Moyes will be looking for a significant improvement upon last year’s offering. Valencia, Nani and Young all disappointed. Welbeck and Rooney were both played out wide on occasions but neither is a natural wide player. United have already moved to strengthen this area. Zaha joins this summer, having been signed in January and then loaned back to Crystal Palace (see new arrivals below). Moyes may give opportunities to reserve team Player of the Year Adnan Januzaj who has featured in tour games this summer. United need far greater menace from the wide players; this in itself would take some pressure off the central midfield.
There has been much speculation about interest in Bale and Ronaldo at various times this summer, both of whom would clearly generate an increased threat. Bale appears to be Real Madrid bound and the arrival of Ronaldo is a long shot. Should neither of these two arrive, the challenge is for the current players to step up their game.
United scored plenty of goals last year and in attack we appear to have an embarrassment of riches, such that if the unsettled Rooney were to be allowed to leave it is not inconceivable that we would not look to bring in an additional player to replace him. Robin van Persie is the main man. Kagawa is an emerging force who now needs a settled spell playing behind van Persie to realise his obvious potential. Welbeck, (who only managed one goal last year) needs to show greater composure on the ball, you sense this is a big year for him. Hernandez is Hernandez, a natural poacher. He is always going to contribute a good number of goals without ever really seeming to do much else other than score. Of course that is enough if he continues to score, and in fairness his link play has improved significantly.
To date there has only been two new arrivals. David Moyes has openly stated that he would like to strengthen in a couple of areas. He says that he would like to give youth a chance. United have won the national reserve league in the last two seasons, so we can expect at least one or two from the reserve squad to step into the first team squad.
Of the two new arrivals, we would expect to see more initially of Wilfried Zaha. Signed in January, he is only now joining the club after helping Crystal Palace to gain promotion. He was the Football League player of the year last year and featured for England in this summer’s UEFA Under 21 Championship. A quick, lively right-sided wide player, he can also play narrow, but United could more sensibly utilise his abilities to improve their play in wide areas.
The second new arrival is Guillermo Varela, a 20-year-old Uruguayan right back. We would imagine that this signing would be very similar to last year’s signing of Alexander Buttner; a player bought speculatively for the future with the aim of keeping the established player on his toes. As such, and in view of the fact that he never actually featured in Penrol’s first team back in Uruguay, we would not expect to see that much of him this season.
We expect a similar tactical approach under David Moyes, a 4-4-1-1 in defence that will morph into 4-2-3-1 in attack. Differences will be subtle. We won’t say much more than that here as we cover Moyes’ likely tactical approach in more detail in another preview piece focusing specifically on that issue. The nature of the subtle differences will largely depend how Moyes sees the current squad and who he can bring in. The change of manager makes the season ahead a fascinating prospect.
How is it likely to go?
With the possible exception of Tottenham, we would expect all the sides at the business end of the table last year to be stronger this time around. Whether Tottenham improve will depend upon whether they keep Bale, and if they sell him, whether they use the money wisely. Chelsea, City, Arsenal and Liverpool will all improve, but we would anticipate that the eventual title winner will come from one of three, ourselves, City or Chelsea. At the time of writing we place United as third favourites although this could all change dependent upon activity in the second half of the transfer window, with the first half characterised by speculation and headlines rather than sealed deals. All the leading contenders are looking to the transfer market to strengthen to some degree.
Chelsea appears to be the team to beat. They improved through the course of last season with their strength being the ‘three amigos’ of Hazard, Mata and Oscar. Their weakness is in the defensive midfield position (where last year they used Luiz, essentially an attack-minded central defender) and the central striker (where they haven’t adequately replaced Drogba). In response to this second issue they have shown interest in the unsettled Rooney. United cannot really afford to let Rooney go to Chelsea unless we compensate by making a significant signing to offset the improvement that Chelsea would achieve.
The other factor to consider is the return of Mourinho. He is an obvious asset; an astute tactician who demands the best from those around him and does not hesitate to make decisions. Those decisions are usually based on his sound analytical judgement. A proactive manager during games, he is a natural winner. But success at Chelsea is not a given second time around; see this excellent article: http://sabotagetimes.com/reportage/a-man-united-fan-on-why-mourinho-faces-a-tough-second-stint-at-chelsea/
In many ways Mourinho’s success in his first spell at Chelsea means he is under more pressure to deliver, having set a standard, and he will need to work his magic to get the best out of the Chelsea old guard of Lampard, Cole and Terry. Despite this none of the other contenders can afford to let Chelsea build up a lead.
City underachieved significantly last season. Post season stories have emerged to confirm what many believed during the season, that the latter days of Roberto Mancini’s tenure as manager saw a disharmony in the dressing room to add to his often bizarre tactical and selection decisions. The new manager, Pellegrini, is a first rate coach, another astute tactician with a track record of dealing with big talents. He of course has to adapt to management in England and has already set some big targets with some straight talking in his early press conferences.
Unique amongst the potential title challengers, City have got their business done early. They have also bought well, bringing in players to address each of the areas where they fell short last season: Navas for width, Fernandinho as a mobile defensive midfield player, Jovetic as a no 10 (to replace Tevez) and Negredo as a target man to feed off the accuracy of Navas’ crossing). Behind all this they have a defence that many feel is the strongest in the Premiership. If Silva and Augero continue to deliver and Pellegrini manages to blend the old and new into an appropriate team pattern we would expect City to be there or there about. For more on City and their activity in the transfer market see this excellent article: http://thinkfootball.co.uk/archives/11066
Of the other contenders, Arsenal are the most likely to mount a sustained title challenge. They have a good group of young players who should only get better, but it was ever thus at Arsenal. One area where they do need to improve is up front where they have not yet satisfactorily replaced van Persie. There has been much speculation regarding their interest in attacking players this summer with interest in Rooney and Suarez reported. If they were to sign either of these players it would significantly improve their chances.
Talk of Suarez brings us onto Liverpool. They appear to be coming from too far back to mount a serious challenge for the title. They will be stronger than last year. After an abject first half of the season when they were over reliant on one player they bought well in January and they have added further to their squad this summer. Many Liverpool fans remain unconvinced about Rodgers: at best the team is still a work in progress.
As previously mentioned, Tottenham’s prospects depend on Bale, but also whether they can develop to rely less upon a single player. With this in mind it may actually be in their interests to sell Bale and re-shape their team. They have signed Paulinho from Corinthians to add quality to the midfield and the forward Soldado from Valencia, but the Bale question dominates.
We would expect United to challenge for honours again this season. We can’t be any more positive that that at this stage in view of the unknowns we face as we enter a new era. United need to start well, stay on the pace and demonstrate early that despite the change of management, it is business as usual and they can sustain a challenge without the ‘Fergie Factor’.
A lot will depend upon whether United are able to add to their midfield strength between now and the end of the transfer window. That issue is significant enough to be potentially decisive. Last year we won a number of games by the odd goal in a high scoring contest where we simply outscored the opposition; the 4-3 win at Reading is an obvious example but there were plenty of others. Whilst United generally came out of these games with a win, the performance was generally not convincing. The missing ingredient was control. Without a strong midfield we often failed to control the game and left the vulnerabilities of our defence exposed. In essence United got away with it. They cannot always hope to do so.
Our youngsters, both those who are already established first team squad players and those looking to step up from the reserves will improve, and so we expect United to improve naturally. We also expect Kagawa to have a more significant role and impact this year, but the difference could be addressing the weakness in our midfield. If we get that right United would have as good a chance as anybody.