Ever year at this point we ask the same question; can United challenge for the title? Challenge rather than win it because a league campaign is nine and a half months long and a lot can happen in that timespan.
With a new manager and a renewed positive attitude around the club every United fan seems happy and optimistic as we start the season, and why not? We have a manager who is a proven winner and has done it before in England who is saying that he has the players he wants to rebalance his squad and that he wants to win. We all expect a change in approach, both in terms of playing style and tactics and stories coming out of the club suggest that players who felt stifled by Van Gaal’s regimented and disciplined methods feel freed and enthusiastic under the new manager.
In attempting to answer this question much will depend of course on United’s strength relative to others. In view of this we usually divide this piece into two parts; firstly a look at United’s squad strength and then secondly a consideration of the strength of those teams we anticipate will be in the running at the business end of the season. This leads us to a view on our chances.
Jose Mourinho had a clear view of what he wanted to in his words “re-balance” the squad when he checked in as United manager. He gave Ed Woodward 4 player profiles each of which has been filled. He has trimmed his squad a little and will almost certainly trim further in the next couple of weeks, but it is obvious that what Jose has done is to strengthen the spine of the team. Eric Bailly, Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic all play down the spine of the team, whilst Henrikh Mkhitaryan can also play their as a number 10.
For www.manutdtactics.com this is exactly what the team needed. Last year under Van Gaal, and this is not unique to his side but is a common feature, weakness even of possession abased passing sides, United often found themselves trapped in a pattern of passing in a u-shape around from fullback to central defensive and defensive midfield players and on to the fullback on the other side. The team would slowly move up the pitch doing this and compressing the play into the oppositions final third without disturbing their shape of being able to penetrate the opposition’s lines of compressed midfield and defence. Passing patterns were habitually side-to-side across the pitch rather than up and down the pitch. With the play compressed there was very little space for a player to receive the ball between the opposition lines and so on the rare occasions when the ball was played into these areas it was lost.
In his very first press conference as United manager Jose alluded to this problem when he identified that he wanted more and earlier vertical passes down the centre of the team and already this has been a feature of United’s pre-season. In the Community Shield we saw this with Zlatan Ibrahimovic the focus of many of these passes. He looked to be playing at half pace for most of this match and clearly lacked sharpness losing the ball often as a consequence but the intention is clear.
Reviewing the squad as a whole the defence is the area which perhaps has the most to prove. That seems strange to say given that we had the joint best defensive record last season, but much of the reason for that was the use of two rigid defensive midfield players and an overly cautious approach. The challenge is to repeat that parsimony whilst offering more going forward.
David de Gea continues as United’s undisputed number 1 with any thought of his loss to Real Madrid seemingly a thing of the past. Romero seems content to continue as his understudy with Sam Johnstone as our third choice keeper. We have no concerns here De Gea is one of the best keepers in the world.
In the fullback areas the return to fitness of Luke Shaw is almost like having a new signing after his long term injury lay-off. He is undoubtedly our first choice left back. Who is the back-up? Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo or the emerging talent of Cameron Borthwick-Jackson?
We could ask a similar question about the right back position. It appears that Anotnio Valencia is Jose’s first choice and his form in pre-season has been excellent but who is the understudy; Matteo Darmian or another merging talent, Tim Fosu-Mensah?
The exemplory De Gea, the returning Luke Shaw and bright prospect Tim Fosu-Mensah
At centre-back Bailly and Blind have played together consistently through the pre-season although it will be interesting to see if either of these two makes way when Chris Smalling United’s most consistent centre back in recent years is available. United have sold McNair to Sunderland which leaves Phil Jones to compete for a starting role here; he needs to stay fit and have a big season. The need for a big season is something you could also say about Marcos Rojo who can also feature as a central defender. Tyler Blackett’s star appears to have waned after a relatively unsuccessful loan season at Celtic last year where he hardly played.
In midfield it is difficult to be sure how United will set up. We have touched upon this in our Tactics News piece here http://manutdtactics.com/?p=6631 where we consider some of the options now available to Jose. One thing which does seem sure is that Bastian Schweinsteiger will leave the club. His undoubted class appears to be undermined by his injury problems and his calm, measured but ultimately slow playing style does not seem to be a part of Jose’s plans.
Michael Carrick continues to be a mainstay of our midfield with Morgan Schneiderlin being retained after a difficult first season. Schneiderlin needs to show that he can be more dynamic positive in lieu of his overly cautious style of last season when he for ever seemed to be passing sideways. We would imagine that Schneiderlin will be Carrick’s understudy whilst Fellaini will be Pogba’s. Also available of course is Anders Herrera, where does he fit in? He has featured regularly as a substitute in pre-season, so that might be the answer. Tim Fosu-Mensah is also a midfield option.
You could make a case for Mata, Rooney and Mkhitaryan being included in the midfield options, but Jose’s pre-season comments appears to suggest that he sees them as a hybrid of attacking midfield players or deep forwards. We wouldn’t disagree with him on this but the distinction is subtle and depends on your tactical emphasis.
In the wide areas United have Memphis, (another player who needs a big season after a difficult first year) on the left. He appears to be the understudy to Martial who by contrast had an excellent first year. Both these players are more like inverted wingers than wingers. Many see Martial as a player who should be played through the middle. He can play there but we feel that he is better suited to a wider starting role where his lateral runs can disturb defensive lines. Conversely if he was running inside to outside teams could just let him go as he runs towards the corner flag away from the goal, running outside to in they have to respond.
The right side appears less clear cut. New signing Mkhitaryan has featured here in pre-season and it is an area where Mata frequently featured under Van Gaal. The current incumbent however is Jesse Lingard. It seems unfair to criticise Lingard after his Cup Final winning goal or his superb solo goal in the Community Shield but he often fails to deliver an end product; his finishing is usually woeful and he often fails to deliver a meaningful pass. He has energy and drive however which always scares teams. Adnan Januzaj who may have featured on the right, left or through the centre has gone out on a season-long loan to Sunderland.
Up front Zlatan is the man with the excellent Marcus Rashford as an understudy. How good could he become learning from a player like Ibrahimovic? As indicated above Rooney adds strength here as a second striker with Jose indicating that he does not see Wayne as a midfield player.
How’s it likely to go?
It is widely recognised that last season several of the teams who would be expected to contest the title underperformed. With these clubs having regrouped nobody expects this scenario to be repeated. As a consequence the focus in pre-season has not been upon last year’s two front runners, Lecicester City and Tottenham Hotspur but instead on other clubs, most of whom have replaced their manager in the last twelve months. They are all expected to be better this time around leading to the view that this season will be one of the most mouth-watering, hotly contested Premierships ever.
We shall see, but in fairness to their performance last year we should first consider Leicester and Tottenham.
Out of respect we should start with Leicester City, the champions. Many people expect them to fade away as one season wonders, we are not so sure. They have lost one of their star performers from last year of course in Kante who has gone to Chelsea and for a long time they looked likely to lose Mahrez to Arsenal. Vardy flirted with Arsenal before commiting himself to the club. To replace Kante they have recruited Nampalys Mendy from Nice, a player who previously worked with Ranieri at Moncao. A like for like in terms of type, a lot will depend on whether he can match Kante’s levels of excellence from last season. Drinkwater is still there.
To supplement Vardy Leicester have signed the Nigerian Ahmed Musa from CSKA Moscow. He is lightening quick as we saw in the Community Shield and has Champions League experience, something which will be useful to Leicester this year. He is two footed so can play on either wing.
They have also strengthened in midfield with the purchase of 19 year old polish player Bartosz Kaputska and with a goalkeeper in Ron-Robert Zieler from Hanover as back up to Kasper Schmeichel and have signed cover at the centre of defence in Luis Hernandez who joins from Sporting Gijon. Leciester also have a handful of promising younsters of their own coming through, Ben Chilwell, Demarai Gray and Daniel Amartey; the later signed in January. They may need these players as one of the main challenges they face is how they will cope with an increased fixture list as a consequence of their Champions League involvement.
The other challenges are how they will cope with the mantel of champions, something not to be underestimated, and how well they rotate in response to a denser fixture list. We wouldn’t expect Leicester to win the League again but they will be a handful and may well finish in the top six. They had a very successful but predictable game plan last year and you feel that to be as effective again they will need to develop a plan B; the best have now had time to figure them out and devise a method of stopping them.
For a period last season Tottenham Hotspur looked like the most likely Premier League winners. They then fell away towards the end and were pipped to second place by north London rivals Arsenal. Despite this for many, ourselves included Spurs were the best team in the country last year, at least in terms of football ability. Leicester showed more character and so were worthy champions but Spurs were the more accomplished footballing side. Strong in defence, good in transitions and by far the best when needing to break down an opponent set up in a defensive shape. But like many Spurs sides over the years they need to grow some balls.
Pochettino might be the man to help them do that? He has built a strong side, technically accomplished and with a strong game plan they are tactically astute. They need self-conviction. They have signed Wanyama from Southampton who should fit in at the base of their midfield, (Dier who did well there last year is really a central defender) and Vincent Janssen from AZ67 in Holland as a back up to Kane. A lot will depend on how they cope with the extra games resulting from participation in the Champions League. If they cope with this or are eliminated from that competition at the group stages then they would be a good outside bet to win the league.
So on to the other leading contenders, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City.
Tottenham’s north London rivals. Arsenal are in a rut. They consistently finish in the Champions League places but whilst always seeming to be a couple of players away from a Premier League win they seem incapable of bridging that gap to success. Why? Many Arsenal fans point to Wenger, but that isn’t completely fair. Wenger is well suited to the culture of the club; a club that values stability, financial probity and incremental progress. The Arsenal board seem to love Wegner whilst the fans become increasingly impatient with the rate of progress, which is usually minimal. Transfer activity or lack of it is usually the cause of this frustration.
This summer is a case in point. One of the areas that Arsenal obviously need to strengthen to improve their chances is centre-forward. Initially it looked as if Arsenal were to sign Jamie Vardy from Champions Leicester City having offered the amount of his release clause. Putting aside the embarrassment of him turning them down their interest in Vardy tells a tale; he had a great season last year but he is a limited mid-range striker whose main attraction seemed to be his availability at a reasonable price. Then Arsenal moved on to an interest in Alexandre Lacazette but appeared unwilling to pay the asking price. At the time of writing they haven’t addressed there attacking needs. Frustration abounds.
Where they have strengthened is in midfield with the acquisition of Granit Xhaka from Borussia Monchengladbach, a player who excelled at Euro 2016; a shrewd signing. They need to keep Santi Cazorla fit. They also need to strengthen at central defence, an area where they aren’t anywhere near as strong as they seem to think they are. There is reported interest in Valencia’s Shkodran Mustafi who would probably be a good signing. When all is said and done Arsenal have a strong squad with minor weaknesses which could and should be addressed. Will they be? Probably not. Do they have a winning mentality as a club anymore? Probably not. Will it be same again? Probably.
This time last year Chelsea were defending Champions and most people’s favourites to retain their crown under our new manager Jose Mourinho. They will now be looking to put last year’s hugely disappointing campaign behind them under Antonio Conte. A lot will depend on how much their new manager wants to change and how quickly they can adapt to the changes he wants to make. In addition to N’Golo Kante signed from Leciester they have also signed Michy Batshuayi from Marseille. He is a strong forceful striker and may spell the end of Diego Costa’s time at the club. There is plenty of talk about other potential recruits but uncharacteristically Chelsea have been sluggish in the transfer market this summer.
This shouldn’t worry Chelsea fans because they have a very strong squad who just over twelve months ago won the league. They don’t need a lot and a return to form of Hazard and Matic would work wonders. Uncertainty about changes instigated by the manager aside we expect a very strong challenge from Chelsea this year.
Liverpool are not facing a new season under a new manager simply because they changed mid-season replacing Rogers with Jurgen Klopp. That gives the German an advantage in that he has had time to learn about the Premier league and review and then restructure his squad. Make no mistake this is now Jurgen Klopp’s team. Last year he managed to get them to two finals from a standing start and steered them to an 8th place finish but he was essentially working with what he inherited. There is great optimism around Anfield and a sense of a new beginning. But that’s nothing new, they have had a new beginning every few years over the last 26 years so why should this year be any different. Klopp has also developed a reputation as a nearly man, a specialist at reaching but losing finals, so the pressure is on and will increase if they don’t have a good first half of the season.
In fairness it’s difficult to call Liverpool’s season at this stage as they have made so many changes to their squad. They have signed Sadio Mane from Southampton and Georginio Wijnaldum from Newcastle United, both of whom have Premier League experience. They have also signed Ragnar Klavan and Joel Matip two experienced central defenders plus goal keeper Loris Karius from Mainz. 20 year old Marko Grujic was signed from Red Star Belgrade last January but was loaned back to the Serbs until this summer. None of these players stand out as game changers in their own right but Klopp, who has had a lot to say about United’s transfer activity, won’t care about that as he is a manager who places great emphasis on the collective and teamwork as evidenced by his reaction to Mamadou Sakho tardiness during pre-season.
Despite these signing Liverpool still seem to have a weaknesses at left-back and central midfield. Can Klopp gegenpress his way to the title? A lack of European distraction might help but will that be enough?
Last year we wrote this about Manchester City in our corresponding pre-season article,
“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”.
Much has and will be made of the potentially combustible rivalry in Manchester between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho. There is no doubt that Manchester City fans will be at least as optimistic about the arrival of Guardiola as United fans are about Mourinho’s arrival. City as a club have been planning for this moment for a long time from the appointment of former Barcelona men to guide the footballing side of their organisation to the construction of state of the art academy and training facilities this is the moment they have been building towards.
Guardiola will improve individual players and raise the standards of their game as he is unquestionably a World Class manager. The question is whether the Guardiola methods are applicable in the Premier League? They probably are but this is by no means a given and much will depend this year on how quickly players adapt to his method and how quickly he can adjust to the Premier League. Can he adjust? Pep is a fundamentalist with a “philosophy” if you will and he is unlikely to want to sacrifice his footballing principles but he will need to adapt.
City are another side who has been busy in the transfer market. Gundogan from Borussia Dortmund and Nolito from Celta Vigo, Zinchenko who stared at Euro 2016 arrives from FC Ufa, Leroy Sane from Shalke 04. They have also signed several players who have then immediately been loaned out, Aaron Mooy has gone to Huddersfield, Gabriel Jesus stays with Palmeiras until January and Marlos Moreno has been signed from Athletico Nacional only to be loaned immediately to Deportivo La Coruna.
Their latest recruit is John Stones from Everton, a player they have long coveted. He is a promising player but has defensive frailties, which is not good for a defender.
For all their resources City haven’t dominated a poor Premier League over the last few years in the way they should really have done. Is that a chance missed as others begin to improve? Let’s hope so.
For many people this is potentially a wide open championship. We would agree with that although we would still expect the race to have narrowed by April.
This however gives United a real chance. We are optimistic about this season because of this and because Mourinho has wisely moved to address United’s obvious areas of weakness. Add to that that the United team last year under Van Gaal was actually a lot better than many believed. We have a squad of technically strong players who were shackled by our previous manager’s rigid approach. This gives Mourinho a solid base from which to work and we feel he has instantly recognised that and what needed to be done to improve.
That doesn’t make United favourites of course but we feel it puts us up there with a fighting chance. If we can start well, build belief upon the current wave of optimism around the club we can build momentum. Who knows where that might lead us?