Season Preview 13/14: MANCHESTER UTD

by David Costelloe

Robin van Persie of Manchester United celebrates scoring the opening goal of the gameFor Manchester United, the season just gone was as important as any in the reign of Sir Alex Ferguson. Wresting the Premier League trophy back from the “noisy neighbours”, re-asserting their dominance domestically, and doing it with a gigantic final points total was vital following the heartbreak of 2011/2012. Robin Van Persie proved himself a fantastic addition to the side, De Gea came into the form that has always been expected of him and Shinji Kagawa provided a midfield impetus badly lacking at times in previous years. Having been so cruelly denied the season before, title #20 was greeted with a mixture of cheering and sighs of relief, as it appeared the Red Devils were not about to be totally eclipsed by a blue moon.

But just as United fans were getting ready to enjoy another trophy celebration, the thunderbolt hit home. Ferguson’s retirement, earned a hundred times over in his decades of success, has come with everything that you would expect: worry over the clubs ability to retain its title, to attract the very top players and keep up with the richer side of Manchester. With the great Scot gone, would Manchester United ever be the same?

Enter David Moyes, the man with the weight of the world now firmly on his shoulders. He inherits the management of a club flush with success, but also containing problems. A want-away striker, a central midfield that could use some filling in, no stand-out talent on the wings anymore and an ageing central defence partnership are all on the agenda. This season ahead, United will face one of the largest pools of genuine title contenders in recent times, with no guarantees that they will, one again, be top dogs come May.

wy7jzwx3Last Season: Champions
Odds: 9/4
Ins: Guillermo Varela (Penarol, undisclosed)
Outs: Ryan Tunnicliffe (Ipswich, loan), Reece James (Carlisle, loan), Luke McCullough (Doncaster, free), Sean McGinty (Sheffield United, free), Reece Brown (Watford, free), John Cofie (Barnsley, free), Freddie Veseli (Ipswich, free), Michele Fornasier, Luke Giverin, Luke Hendrie, Paul Scholes, Gyliano Van Velzen (all released)

What’s new?

David Moyes has yet to really mark his arrival at Old Trafford with anything approaching a landmark signing, with the additions to the United squad amounting only to Uruguayan full back Guillermo Varela. A typical summer exodus of younger squad and academy players (and one key retirement) is the only other thing to report on.

It has been a frustrating summer in terms of transfer action. United will always be linked to a plethora of players, but so far Moyes has failed to grab the priority targets. Many balls remain in the air at the time of writing, not least a growing saga over Cesc Fabregas, and Moyes has stated his desire to add to the squad before the start of the season.

The key “new” element is Moyes himself. Manchester United has been indelibly linked to the behemoth of football that is Sir Alex Ferguson, and his looming presence will remain for a while yet. Moyes is less a breath of fresh air, and more of an uncertain intrusion into over two decades worth of managerial stability.

Some may question Moyes’ record in terms of actually winning trophies, his lack of European experience, his repeated failures against the “big” clubs. But what does he bring to the table, which will upset the traditional way that things are done at Manchester United? A good eye for signings, a penchant for decent attacking football, and an ability to manage a team that is never easy to beat all come to mind. He has brought elements of his fine backroom team from Everton with him to Old Trafford, supplementing it with the likes of Ryan Giggs, now in a player/coach role. He has, so far, dealt with the media pressure with aplomb, his performance described as “excellent” by the likes of BBC’s Phil McNulty.

I think Moyes is more than capable of becoming a successful manager at his new club, but the pressure, from so many sources, will be intense and unrelenting. He did great things with limited resources at Everton, but failure to improve upon that, given the immense transfer budget and expectations among fans, will see him fail in this role. But it is not unfair to say that if Moyes does do what he did at Everton, in terms of tactics, motivating players and making the most of his resources, it could translate into more substantial success at a club like Manchester United, in which he is inheriting an already world-class squad.

Tactics/starting XI

In truth, there might not actually be that much change. Moyes frequently favoured the 4-4-1-1 in his time at Goodison, a formation that Sir Alex Ferguson was making more and more regular, especially with a striker like Van Persie to aim at.

Expect De Gea between the sticks naturally, with Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic to trade the CB roles with Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Johnny Evans depending on the occasion. Evra and Buttner should have a similar arrangement on the left, with Rafael cementing his place on the right.

In midfield, I expect the centre of the park will be dominated by the combination of Carrick, Rooney or one of several other options somewhat out of favour (like Anderson for example) at least until a new attacking midfield player, someone like Fabregas, is added. Any two of Valencia, Nani, Young, Giggs or new blood like Zaha (in that order) will be the wing options, with the pace of Rafael or Buttner to supplement. Ferguson liked advancing wing backs to provide support and an overlap, something Moyes favours as well.

Just behind the main attacker should be Kagawa, or possible Rooney, a role Fellani played very well in under Moyes at Everton, leaving Van Persie, with Hernandez as a back-up, to provide the main goalscoring threat.

There is also plenty of opportunity for such a formation to be adapted into 4-2-3-1, with Kagawa, Rooney and a player like Nani working together as a secondary attacking line in support of Van Persie, with Carrick stepping back as a DMC.

Strongest XI: De Gea – Rafael, Evra, Vidic, Jones – Nani, Carrick, Rooney, Valencia – Kagawa – Van Persie

Key player

Shinji Kagawa. With Rooney possibly leaving and some questions marks over the fitness/ability of other midfielders, Kagawa is the main man to receive the ball in that advanced position, and then keep the play going, whether it will be to pass back under pressure, utilise advancing wingers and left/right backs, or move forward and play to and off Van Persie. Kagawa is a very intelligent player, and he will be called upon more this season to control the pace of the play and to make sure that Van Persie is kept supplied.

Keep an eye on

David De Gea will be hoping to continue his better form and cement a place as the leagues best keeper. Alexander Buttner may break into the role of a first choice defender this season, making good on promising displays last year. Darren Fletcher is facing into a make or break time in his career following his summer surgery. Van Persie must maintain his goal scoring return while avoiding a repeat of previous injury problems.

And then there is Wayne Rooney who, if he winds up staying, will have to continue adapting to a new role at the club, possible in a CM position. Not being a first choice will be galling to him, but it is a situation largely of his own making. If he wants to stay and fight for a place, he’s more than welcome.

Opening fixtures

The words “baptism of fire” come to mind, as after the Wembley trip to face Wigan for the Community Shield, Moyes begins his competitive reign with a tough series of games against Swansea (a), Chelsea (h), Liverpool (a), Crystal Palace (h) and Manchester City (a), which will go a long way towards showing what kind of manager he is going to be at Manchester United. Better to be thrown in at the deep end I would think, and I look forward to how he will adapt to facing the links of Liverpool and City with the resources he now has, where defeat will not be excused.

Where will they finish?

This is still the same team that won the title by a large points margin last year, and the teamwork and never-say-die attitude of the Ferguson era are not about to vanish. But with a new manager settling in and (so far) a lack of new faces to augment areas that need augmenting, it would be headstrong to predict immediate success, though I don’t think Moyes’ United will be too far off the pace. A second place finish should be expected.

BPF Prediction: 3rd