We ask this same question every year with the emphasis being on challenge rather than win. In preparation to write this piece we have re-read what we wrote last year and we are struck by the similarities to the situation time around. Last year there was renewed optimism around the club; optimism seems renewed again after victory in two major cup competitions last season and a qualification for a return to the Champions League. Last year we talked about Jose re-balancing the squad and particularly the spine of the side with the signing of four new players; this year we have only signed three, all for the spine of the side but at the start of the summer Jose talked about the list of four areas of the squad he wished to strengthen to re-balance the squad and side.
The big difference this year of course is that we don’t have a new manager. Jose has a year under his belt at the club which means he largely has a squad that knows him and that he knows. That is a big difference and a massive advantage over our position last year and United also have a degree of momentum to add to that optimism all of which mean that the heart, and Jose record in the second season of his tenure at all his clubs tell us that we can challenge. But what does the head tell us. That is what this piece is all about. That is always a function of our strength and the strength of others, so first lets look at our own squad strength before turning our attention to our rivals.
There is no doubt that goalkeeping is a strength area at the moment with United having the services of the Spanish and Argentine number 1 at their disposal. We would expect De Gea to remain United’s undisputed number 1 but Romero showed himself a very capable keeper throughout our Europa League campaign and seems content to stay at the club talking in glowing terms over the summer about my friend David.
United’s defence did exceptionally well last year conceding a miserly 29 league goals. That is exceptional and remarkable given that it is clearly a greater whole than the sum of its parts and given that there is no obvious defensive leader. If there is a leader that would have to be Antonio Valencia. We make that claim on two ground, his consistent excellence and his longevity and experience at the club. He remains the quite man of the defence though which is where we have reservations about his ability to be not only a defensive leader but possibly a United captain. We have been a little surprised then that there has been speculation this summer about United strengthening at right back, doubly so given the late season emergence of youngster Axel Tuanzebe and the ability of Darmian to play left or right side. Valencia remains the first choice and his ability to play on the right as full back or wing back is a significant plus.
On the left the picture isn’t quite so clear. Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind and Matteo Darmian all featured here last year but this spot should by now be the preserve of Luke Shaw. Shaw has had a difficult time since joining the club; blighted by injury and inconsistent form Jose expressed his frustrations with the player last year and we are not surprised by that as he seems to have everything to excel as either a full back or a wing back, but it just hasn’t happened. Noises coming out of the club suggest that Jose is encouraged by the player’s attitude over the last few months so let’s hope that this is a big year for him where he establishes himself. We need his surging runs forward on the left, something that for all their other strengths and weaknesses none of the others mentioned can provide. Demetri Mitchell can also play here but at this stage he will remain a youngster to keep an eye on.
United have a large number of candidates for the centre back berths. We have already mentioned Rojo and Blind who can play here; Blind lacks pace and physicality but brings an excellent ability to read the game that maybe no other central defender at the club possesses. Rojo can be impetuous but showed greater discipline last season, unfortunately he will be absent due to injury for several months at the start of the season.
Phil Jones and Chris Smalling should be the regular starters by now. Signed by Sir Alex in the later years of his reign they have both been at the club long enough to have Premiership medals but neither has developed into the player anticipated. Both are inconsistent and prone to moments of indecisiveness leading to calamitous mishaps and Jones is prone to injury. Both have had periods of their United careers where they have looked to be about to come good banishing that inconsistency for a while but neither has sustained periods of progress for much more than a single season. Jones remains reckless in his decision making when he does not seem to have the body to avoid or rapidly recover from the injuries that come with that recklessness.
Eric Bailly had an excellent first season. Aggressive, assertive and quick he could become the tough defensive stalwart our central defence needs. He needs to avoid injury and cut out the impetuousness which has seen him disciplined a little too often but we have no significant worries about him. Victor Lindelof is the new boy of course. What we have seen of him prior to joing United is that he is a big physical defender, quick and strong but also a player comfortable in possession with the ability to pick passes and so start moves from the base. The hope is that in time he can become the new Pallister to Bailly’s Bruce, (but Bruce with pace). Fingers crossed.
As stated United’s defence did well last year and has done well over the last three years so we have little concern regarding this area despite any individual strengths and weaknesses because it is greater than the sum of its parts. The only question seems to be flat back four or three with wing backs?
Midfield is the most interesting area. Over the last few years this has been about a search for balance but the hope is that with the signing of Nemanja Matic that will be less of an issue now. The problem has usually been that with Michael Carrick unable to play every game his absence has often seen other asked to play a role where their obvious strengths are compromised to retain balance. The arrival of Matic means that Carrick can become the alternative rather than the player we really need to play to be at our strongest but who we can’t play every week. That said we would not be surprised to see Mourinho select the two together from time to time when he deems it appropriate to go with a double pivot strategy. The point is Nemanja Matic’s arrival gives him options without compromise.
The arrival of Matic should also free up Anders Herrera and most significantly Paul Pogba to play a role closer to their natural roles. For Pogba that should be the world class creative play maker his talents suggest he can be. For Herrera that is the busy hard working box-to-box shuttler who helps to set the tempo and bring the best out of the players around him. In Herrera and Matic United now have two clever tactical heads in the middle of the pitch and with Pogba a high class creative talent. That should be balance enough.
Youngsters to watch are Andreas Pereira and Scott McTominay, both of whom have impressed in pre-season. They could each get match time, as substitutes perhaps at first but as the season wears on we can hopefully expect to see a bit more of them.
What of Marouane Fellaini? Much maligned we take our hat off to him, a player who many don’t see as United standard but someone who has stuck to his task and has been loved by all his United managers, (three in total), because despite his “limitations” he sticks to the tactical plan and does the job asked of him. That in itself is a talent and an asset and one which should not be underestimated. He was a big part of our successes last season and we would imagine will still have a role to play this year.
In attack United need to score more goals and for that they will undoubtedly look to the players around Romelu Lukaku who will most obviously be the main and central figure of the attack; others need to step up with a greater goal-scoring contribution. The exception to that statement is Juan Mata who always seems to get around 10 goals. Henrkh Mkhitaryan, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Antony Martial all need to do more this year. That applies both in terms of their general play but also in terms of their goal contribution.
United’s Achilles heel here is their crossing ability. This is the weakest part of Valencia’s armoury of talents but with the exception of Mata whilst all the players mentioned above are quick and can beat a man for pace none of them is especially good at crossing. It’s no surprise then that much of the on-going transfer speculation this summer is focused on a potential recruit who can in Jose words “play through the wings”. That has focused on a player for the left, but it could just as easily be a player who plays on the right.
Looking across the whole squad we feel we can go into the season with some optimism. Jose’s transfer policy over the last two summers has been shrewd and focused. He now has a better balance to his squad and a strong spine with a resilient look to the side which has often been missing in recent years. The big plus though is that the recruits and the emergence of a number of very promising young players has not only given the squad balance but also given Mourinho flexibility which will give him flexibility in terms of tactical approach as well as personnel.
How is it likely to go?
So to our likely rivals for honours. We would expect the title to be contested by the same six clubs who finished in the top six places last year with perhaps only Everton with an outside chance of breaking into that group. But it is difficult to second guess who will finish where in that top six as at this stage there is perhaps less between these clubs than many would suggest. Chelsea as champions don’t seem to have built on their success and their squad actually looks thinner and weaker than it did last year. They and Liverpool have a larger schedule of games to play now that they are back in European competition, Manchester City have brought in a significant number of players and so we need to wait and see how well and how quickly those players integrate. Arsenal went backwards in terms of league position last year but have addressed at least one area of weakness, Tottenham appear to be treading water. All these clubs have questions to answer and challenges to meet, as do United of course but let’s look at everybody else’s summer comings and goings first.
Chelsea as champions need to be considered the team to beat. They were excellent in the middle of last season with their 3-4-1-2 formation being hailed as a success and their manager Antonio Conte a tactical master but by the end of the season they did not look quite so imperious. Several teams looked to match in whole or part their shape with varying degrees of success. United did as well as anybody and of course beat them at Old Trafford using our own three at the back strategy. This and other issues raises a serious question as to whether they can repeat their success of last year. Several factors support the view of many that they can’t.
Firstly, the Premier League and its managers aren’t as backward as people often make out. Chelsea certainly benefited from the fact that in this country we hadn’t seen anyone try a three at the back approach in recent season; now we have and the element of surprise has gone. People will adapt. Secondly Chelsea will have benefitted last year by having no involvement in mid-week European competition. This year they will have more fixtures, so less time to work on things in training and less recovery time. That last factor leads us to their squad size. Their squad looks the thinnest of all the leading contenders and whilst threadbare is overstating it this might be a factor. Chelsea’s transfer strategy is interesting here, they have lost Nemanja Matic to ourselves and Diego Costa to who knows where with the player presumably in limbo awaiting a transfer which currently cannot happen to Atletico Madrid after some ill-judged text messages from his manager. That episode makes no sense, why burn your bridges before having surety about a successor.
In place of Costa Chelsea have recruited Alvaro Morata from Real Madrid and replaced Matic with Tiemoue Bakayoko from Monaco. They have also recruited Antonio Rudiger a central defender. These are all good players who will need time to adapt, but they are all replacements rather than additions and the jury is out on whether they are upgrades. Eden Hazard is also injured at the moment as well which all suggests that they aren’t quite ready and now is not the time to make any definitive judgement about their title defence. They are still a good team and will be there or there about but much will hinge on how good Conte actually is as a manager. There are several managers in the league about whom one could ask whether they are a one trick pony. Can they adapt their approach as others adapt to counter them?
Which brings us Manchester City and their manager Pep Guardiola. You could ask the same question of him?
City started last season on fire, the sun was shining and the pitches were immaculate, but it wasn’t the change in the weather or the deterioration of the pitches which saw their early season consistency sag but a number of other factors. Again the ability of others to adapt to counter Pep’s approach should not be underestimated and of course given that he has managed much admired high profile sides perhaps his methods were far better known in advance. The other factor was the general applicability of Guardiola’s methods in the high intensity competitive week in week out grind of the Premier League. This is a factor because the Premier League is a more demanding environment than the Bundesliga or La Liga whether people want to accept that or not. Pep acknowledged last year that he was surprised by the intensity and the importance of contesting the second ball in the Premiership so he is aware of the issues, the question is can he adapt his methods without throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Time will tell and in view of this the transfer activity this summer has been interesting. A new goalkeeper in Ederson, three fullbacks in Danilo, Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy and a midfield player in Bernardo Silva but have they done enough to strengthen their spine. After eating humble pie last year Yaya Toure was brought back into that spine but when Vincent Kompany is injured, which he often these days, it looks a lot weaker. Gundogen was similarly injured last year and John Stones struggled with defensive duties even if he looked good on the ball.
That said City often look irresistible going forward but they also frequently look vulnerable when they don’t have the ball and last year conceded far more goals than can be healthy for a side who hope to be challenging for the title. Pep’s response to this and to a real or perceived defensive weakness, (depending upon your view) is to purchase a number of defenders who are comfortable on the ball but might not be considered defenders from the planet defender. That sought of suggests that his approach isn’t going to change greatly from the let’s outplay the opposition approach which has brought him success at Barcelona and Bayern. It’s a let’s play to our strengths strategy which should make them easy on the eye and it will no doubt see them improve, but will their vulnerabilities in other areas undermine them?
Tottenham Hotspur are coming off two excellent seasons, its controversial to say it but they were the best team in the country over that period and in our view should have won the league in 2016. They didn’t and so doubts persist; will they ever be able to take it to the next level. They have an excellent manager and he deploys them to an excellent strategic plan which suits their talents. In Harry Kane they have the best centre-forward of his type in the world but can they mount a serious challenge for the title.
They have lost Kyle Walker to Manchester City but have been otherwise inactive over the summer in the transfer market when you feel that perhaps they need a little something extra to continue to develop. Perhaps they are banking on keeping their team together and it developing further to take that next step. They are defensively solid and can be an irresistible attacking force when they are in the groove.
The other factor is their move to Wembley on a temporary basis whilst White Hart Lane is being rebuilt. Will the wide open spaces of Wembley have an impact on their performance in the way that West Ham for example struggled to adapt to their new more spacious home when they moved from the Boleyn ground to the Olympic stadium last year? The danger is that as a club they accept a period of treading water whilst they await the boost that the return to White Hart Lane will give them only to then find that their moment has passed. Longer term the move back to their old ground and the extra income that should bring will be a boost, but in the short term the upheaval might have an unwanted effect on their ability to make the most of their current strong team.
It was a season of two halves for Liverpool last year. They started well and were in a significantly strong position at the turn of the year for their manager Jurgen Klopp to speak bullishly about their prospects as Premier League challengers. Then came January and a difficult run from which they only really recovered late in the season, a recovery which saw them secure a Champion League qualification spot. Looking at their season as a whole raised question marks for many about their belief and strength in depth.
This summer they have moved to secure Mohammad Salah to supplement the attacking talents of Sadio Mane and Philippe Coutinho and have secured a left back Andrew Robertson from Hull and England Under-20 forward Dominic Solanke. Is that enough? They have also pursued two other players in Virgil van Dijk from Southampton and Naby Keita from Red Bull Leipzig both of whom for various reasons have not arrived at the time of writing. If they were secured this would change the complexion of their summer, but so would the loss of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona should that much vaunted move become a reality.
Klopp is another manager of whom the question of whether he has a plan B could be asked. His is a particular tactical approach based upon high intensity high pressing to win the ball in high areas. His response when it doesn’t quite go to plan is usually to insist that his side must continue to do the same thing but better. The question then is not just is he a one trick pony but is this high intensity approach sustainable over a nine and a half month Premier League season. Liverpool fans love Klopp so he seems to have time but this is a big season for Liverpool and their manager.
For much of last season Arsenal looked like a club at war with itself. Their fan base dominated social media, and network media at times with their civil war focusing on the merits of their manager and whether his time had passed. Arsene Wenger has been a good manager for Arsenal, and is a good man. He has guaranteed them a consistent level of achievement but perhaps not quite the level they feel they are entitled to.
Can they take a step forward on the field this year? They have signed Alexandre Lacazette’s, potentially the high quality forward they have seemed to need for so long and much will depend on whether they keep Sanchez and can then partner him with Ozil and the new man in what looks like a very promising front three. They have also signed wing back Sead Kolasinac which suggests that Wenger may continue with his late season three at the back experiment. That move to a 3-4-2-1 shape and away from a 4-2-3-1 does not completely dispel concerns that in Wenger here is another one trick pony manager as his general philosophy seems to survive the change of shape but it does raise questions about others in the squad and where they will fit in within the new shape?
Wenger’s teams have always been easy on the eye but have proved vulnerable against opponents they should beat hands down. His teams can pass through those opponents but often without landing that killer blow. In theory they have all the parts to be a success but if United’s defence is often greater than the sum of its parts Arsenal’s team is often less than the sum of its parts and they never seem to achieve what they should? Might that be different this year?
Of the “outsiders” Everton seem the best placed to make a challenge. They have been very active in the transfer market this summer, they have sold Romelu Lukaku to ourselves of course and may still lose Ross Barkley who has refused a new contract offer and looks close to the Goodison departure lounge. To replace Lukaku’s goals they have taken Rooney and also signed Spaniard Sandro Ramirez. This though is part of a more comprehensive overhaul as Ronald Koeman looks to build on last year’s push towards the top six. So in has come the excellent keeper Jordan Pickford from Sunderland, ex-red Michael Keane and Davy Klassen from Ajax. They continue to chase Swansea’s Gylfi Sigurdsson. Much will depend on how these players integrate into the Koeman master plan but even then it would appear a significant task to break into the top six.
So to United’s chances. Last year we proved we were a good cup team and used that strength to qualify for the premier European competition. We are a well organised side, strong at the back and so difficult to beat but our weakness is in scoring goals. We simply did not score enough to break into the top four let alone challenge for the title. Replacing Ibrahimovic with Lukaku doesn’t in itself address that issue but it could help if his forward play is able to bring more out of those around him. It is those around him who need to step up and provide more, not only more goals but better and more composed co-ordinated forward play.
Under Jose Mourinho United have been making fairly steady progress towards playing how he would want his side to play. We would certainly expect us to overtake a number of the other sides in the top six last year. The squad is better balanced now with an unquestionably stronger spine. In recent weeks many have rubbished United’s chances of challenging for the title but we might surprise a few people if Jose’s tactical hand is strong enough to out-manoeuvre other managers who are more closely wedded to a particular tactical philosophy. We can certainly challenge but whether we will have enough to win is another matter. If we are on the pace at Christmas we would not bet against us, but Christmas is still some way off.