It is our tradition now to ask this standard question at the start of each season; can we challenge? We like this question because it isn’t too presumptuous. The point being that before the season starts none of the teams hoping to have a chance of winning the Premier League has any right to ask anymore at the outset. Things change over the summer, manager’s change, squads are rebuilt, some players have become sated by success, whilst the passage of time sees new players emerge and others fade.
The aim of this piece is to review where things are rather than make outlandish predictions. If you are expecting or hoping to hear us say that United will win the league then stop reading now. We will only go as far as to say whether we feel they have a chance, and that has been our position whether we have finished first or seventh the previous year. You aim to challenge and then see how things go.
We do feel however that we can go into this campaign with a sense of optimism. Van Gaal has had 13 months in the job and has done a lot to restructure the squad in that time. We are immeasurably stronger now than we have been at any time in the last two years and controversial as it might be to say so we would extend that to the last five years. It has been disappointing in recent weeks therefore to hear many fans dismiss our chances and express concern about the development of the squad going into the season. Yes we have areas of weakness, notably at centre back, and we lacked a 20 goal a season striker last year, but we are moving in the right direction even if not as quickly as some would like.
One repeated complaint last season was our playing style with many fans bemoaning the lack of “devil may care” swashbuckling football they associate with United. Van Gaal’s methods may be too scientific for some but we feel there was clear progress across the course of last season and an improvement in the entertainment value of the team’s performances towards the end of the season. Yes some will point to the fact that the quality of performances tailed off in the last month but there were reasons for that and prior to that last month we had seen glimpses of the future in a run of results which saw United win successive games and defeat a series of serious rivals for a top four spot. In that period United won when it mattered and won in style. That is where Van Gaal is heading.
The job of restructuring the squad is not complete and weaknesses in certain areas do give ongoing cause for concern. We would hope that before the end of the transfer window United will address those areas. We would have liked to see transfer business concluded in the close season of course but there is still just under a month to go so we live in hope.
One area of the squad where it seems impossible to make a definitive judgement on our strength is the goalkeepers. This is because the De Gea saga rumbles on, although it seems increasingly likely that he will leave. Van Gaal has advised that Valdes will leave. Currently that leaves new signing Sergio Romero, perpetual understudy Lindegaard and then Johnstone as the most senior of the emerging youngsters. If De Gea does move on where does that leave us? Romero is an experienced international keeper but it seems inconceivable that United would not look to sign another keeper.
In defence the full back positions seem to be an area of strength, Shaw had a disappointing year last year but improved over the course of the season and has followed this with excellent performances in pre-season. Newcomer Matteo Darmian already looks the part and then United have any number of “multi-functional” players to provide back-up to this pair.
Which brings us to the centre-backs. This is the area of real concern. We have lots of centre-backs of varying age, experience and ability but no one stands out as a defensive leader or world class player. Smalling has improved significantly and looks like first choice on the right hand-side. Rojo, a better player than many give him credit for being is probably our first choice on the left-hand side. Neither is a natural defensive organiser. Blackett and McNair are still raw, very much ones for the future. Evans and Jones have failed to improve. We don’t really share Van Gaal’s faith in Blind as a centre-back. The acquisition of a top class centre-back is a move that would seriously improve the side and a failure to recruit one this summer would be a significant error.
After years when the club failed to recruit midfield players we now have midfield players aplenty. To Carrick and Blind the options of Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastien Schweinsteiger as alternative deep midfielders have been added making an area of numerical weakness suddenly appear as strength. Further forward Herrera improved during the season and whilst he has attained an almost cult popularity amongst many fans is he as good as many think? He is versatile and struck up a good understanding with Mata but the summer purchases may provide him with a challenge. The same can be said of Mata, Young and Fellaini who all had a good season last year. The issue here is whether Van Gaal sees these players as good but not great players with the team requiring an upgrade to improve further. What we as fans need to remember is that to improve we have to make changes and if we don’t we will go backwards; we won’t even stand still.
Enter Memphis Depay. With Young having a good year last year we wouldn’t have identified a right sided attacking player as a priority. In pre-season Memphis has been played behind Rooney as a Number 10. Is this where Van Gaal will play him or is this a ploy to quicken up his decision making abilities? Only time will tell.
Looking at the forwards raises the question of formation. In pre-season Van Gaal has flirted with a 4-2-3-1 shape but he has made the statement that he will go with a shape which is “more or less” a 4-3-3. Whatever he chooses he is looking for pace in the final third. Losing Di Maria is a disappointment then but on tour when he was not available Van Gaal experimented with any number of quick forward players, many of them emerging youngsters. Memphis is quick, but so is Wilson, Lingard, Januzaj and even Hernandez, (returning from a year’s loan at Real Madrid). Young too can add pace in this area. Again we have options.
Then there is Wayne Rooney, “captain my captain”. He had a good year last year; played out of position he never complained and embraced the Van Gaal “philosophy”, in fact it appeared to reinvigorate him. He didn’t score as many goals as we or he would have liked but then he played a large number of games in midfield. The question is can he score 20 plus goals again? For that is what United need. This is the second area of the team where we have some concern and again as at centre-back the acquisition of another player would seem to significantly strengthen our chances in the season ahead.
How is it likely to go?
We have come across two views of last season, firstly some assert that it was too easy for Chelsea so the standards are low; this equates to everyone else is in transition. The second view is that after a number of years when the standards in the Premier League have been as low as they have ever been Chelsea raised the bar and everyone else needs to catch up. We favour the second view.
But it is a more complex picture than that. Arsenal are an improving force and we’d like to think so are United. City have been up and down over the last few years, good season, bad season, good season, bad season. We use the word bad in relative terms, they are a good side but have alternated between slight underachievement and slight over achievement. Liverpool as they tend to do look good when everyone else’s standards drop. It was always thus whether they are aware of this or acknowledge this or not.
Chelsea remain the team to beat. They are solid, organised and efficient. Not a lot has changed at Stamford Bridge over the summer; they have sold Cech to Arsenal, signed Begovic as a cover for Courtois and brought in Falcao after his disappointing time at Old Trafford. Chelsea should win this year if they keep their key players fit, notably Costa and Fabregas, and if John Terry can keep going. There is talk of Mourinho buying an alternative centre-back in the last few weeks of the window. That would be a good move.
As mentioned above we consider Arsenal to be an improving side. They have signed Cech and he will help them defensively. Cocqulin’s emergence last season has already helped in this regard. He is the kind of defensive midfield player they have needed for years. He isn’t the finished article yet though; his passing is an area where there is room for improvement and should he miss any of the season they could find themselves in the situation United were in last year whenever Carrick was missing. No surprise then that they chased Schneiderlin and their fans hoped to get Schweinsteiger. Double whammy then for Ed! Stories persist that Wenger is looking to bring in a top class striker, Benzema being the name most frequently touted. That could be a game changer.
The other change at Arsenal was Wenger starting to change his tactics in certain games. This didn’t go unnoticed last year and was remarked upon last weekend by Jose Mourinho after the Community Shield. Is this a more pragmatic Wegner? If it is they could prosper.
So to City. They have signed Fabian Delph a player who nearly had the courage to turn them down and Raheem Sterling, a talented player who has to date only proved that he can be an inconsistent frustration. Much will depend on the old guard, Hart, Kompany, Zabaleta, Toure, Silva and Aguero; the club appear to be treading water and waiting for Pep. Will he agree to come, has he already? Who knows but where does that leave Pellegrini? He looks like a busted flush and this may undermine a serious Championship challenge this year. But you never know. That pattern of good year, bad year, good year, bad year could point to another title but more likely it points to a set of players who whilst excellent when on their game don’t have the character to sustain that excellence in the way other Championship winners have. This could of course all change with late transfer activity, and City do seem to be active.
Tottenham finished last season six points behind United and when they came to Old Trafford in March they were still serious contenders for a top four spot. They have however mastered the art of finishing in the top six or seven without actually looking like qualifying for the Champions League. They have managed to secure Toby Alderweireld from under the noses of Southampton, but so what? We can’t see any serious improvement here; a side perpetually in transition, but it isn’t clear what they are transitioning to?
Southampton are a well-run club and people miss the fact that there recent (relative) successes are built on this rather than individual players or a particular manager. This allows them to consistently achieve to a certain standard despite various comings and goings. The question for them though is have they reached their level, is there a glass ceiling above them that they cannot break through? I have never forgiven them for ruining my first visit to Wembley in 1976 so let’s hope so! Jordy Clasie looks an astute signing.
Can Liverpool mount a serious challenge? This seems unlikely, in fact so unlikely that many bookmakers have Brendan Rodgers as the favourite in the first manager to be sacked stakes. They have lost Sterling and used the money to sign Benteke. Clyne, Milner and Firmino are good signings and Liverpool will be nobodies’ fools, but they have again changed a significant proportion of their squad and new players may take time to gel. Much will depend upon whether they can keep Sturridge fit and whether Coutinho plays well consistently and delivers in the big games.
Despite the Community Shield defeat last week to Arsenal we would still make Chelsea the team to beat. Defending Champions, Mourinho is a canny fox and will make them difficult to beat it the big games when it matters. Chelsea will also win the majority of the games you would expect them to win.
Arsenal have improved and will chase them, but so have we and City will not be far behind. We can’t see beyond the top four remaining as the top four but actually after Chelsea we don’t see a significant difference between ourselves, City and Arsenal. Whether pessimistic United fans want to believe it or not we are catching these other teams up. Whether any of these teams, ourselves included will have enough to seriously challenge Chelsea may depend on transfer activity in the last few weeks of the transfer window. If Chelsea get off to a flyer the rest can probably forget it but if United can make the right purchases in the next few weeks we could go from being a top four team to serious challengers. Unfortunately the same can be said of Arsenal and City.
Nevertheless United continue to move in the right direction and Van Gaal made us a better team by the end of last season than we were at the start. So you never know. We can challenge, but it would be a leap of faith as things stand to anticipate a title win.