With the English Premier League about to kick-off, general consensus would hold that the contenders for the top 6 spots comprise the 3 Northern sides in Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool and their 3 capital counterparts Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham. The 3 Northern sides are at more advanced stages in their transfer dealings than their London counterparts are. Let’s look at Manchester United and explore the readiness of their squad for the upcoming league season.
Players considered here are first-teamers expected to contribute considerably over the course of the season.
Goalkeepers: David De Gea, Anders Lindegaard
While De Gea is young, experienced observers who have closely followed his development maintain he has the right mentality to succeed at a top level club such as Manchester United. Given the time and effort put into this transfer by the Manchester United backroom staff and manager, those observers are probably right. Lindegaard is expected to play back-up though he maintains he expects to be in a fair competition with De Gea for the starting spot. An ambitious and outspoken player, it remains to be seen whether he has the quality to challenge De Gea but he’s making the right noises and exhibits confidence. While both these goalies are risks, it appears both possess the right mindset needed to be the starting goalkeeper at a club like Manchester United.
Defenders: Vidic, Ferdinand, Evans, Jones, Smalling, Da Silva brothers, Evra
Manchester United has lost 2 defenders in John O’Shea and Wes Brown. The departure of O’Shea is likely to be felt more by the club. Losing his ability to deputize across the back-line especially in the wide positions means the club has only 3 regular full-backs. The da Silva brothers, Rafael and Fabio, have a poor injury record. The emergence of Smalling as an option at right-back during the pre-season is encouraging while Evans can deputize at left-back (although he isn’t an inspiring option). All-in-all, the full-back positions are weak in terms of depth at the club.
For the centre-back positions, the key word is partnerships. Smalling was groomed into a Rio Ferdinand sub/replacement (composed passer relying on ability to intercept balls) over the course of last season while Evans’ uncompromising nature makes him a natural substitute for Vidic. As seen with the Evans-Vidic pairing during last season, poor centre-back partnerships can produce terrible results. Jones, Smalling’s partner at international level has also been mentioned as a Vidic back-up but he is more composed than Vidic whilst retaining the no-nonsense attitude but is less of an aerial beast. Jones will also be considered as a viable option at defensive midfield should Alex Ferguson think his midfield lightweight against specific opposition.
Central Midfielders: Darren Fletcher, Tom Cleverley, Anderson, Michael Carrick
Central midfield is a position where many observers believe Manchester United need to improve. Sir Alex Ferguson over the past few seasons has employed different combinations in midfield based on fitness and opposition. The key requirements many Manchester United fans want in their midfielders are enthusiasm and good use of the ball. Carrick is frequently criticized for being timid and conservative with his ball use. Cleverley on the other hand couldn’t be more enthusiastic hence his appreciation by many fans, but he needs to improve his decision making to become more effective. While no one knows what to expect of Fletcher following a season where he was plagued by fitness problems, at his best, he deserves a starting spot in midfield within the current options for his energy and application. Anderson has undergone a re-education (one that hasn’t been beneficial based on current results) during his time at Old Trafford, playing in different roles. Questions over his ability to be a confirmed starter cannot be answered presently and this also applies to the other 3 midfielders. This season looks to be more of the same with Ferguson having to chop and change his midfield duo as he has done for the past few years.
Manchester United has been closely linked with Wesley Sneijder. Questions arise though as to his suitability to a midfield duo given that he has played superbly as an attacking midfielder with little defensive responsibility for Inter. His technical ability is world-class and he provides a very strong threat from free-kicks but can he bear the workload associated with playing in a 2-man midfield and there are fitness related questions given his injury problems? The effect of these injuries on his playing ability are not pronounced given his technique-based style of play but his availability over the course of the season might be a problem. Luka Modric, though, has fared considerably better with injuries and has shown himself to be hard-working in a two-man midfield but is less of a technical guru. That he is an upgrade on all of Manchester United’s midfield options is not to be doubted. Reason would suggest he is more suited than Sneijder to Manchester United but his preferences (in terms of living city) and Spurs’ stance on his sale may have discouraged Manchester United from pursuing the player
The Game-changers: Ryan Giggs, Ji-Sung Park
With Giggs, the USP is his use of the ball. He can be deployed in midfield should the team need to improve their ball use or out wide where his flair, intelligence and variety in style still allow him to be a thorn in the opposition defence. Park provides options and variety for Ferguson. His presence in the squad anywhere across the midfield is frequently influenced by tactical observations. Like Giggs, when used out wide, his variety in style makes him unpredictably dangerous.
Wingers: Antonio Valencia, Nani, Ashley Young
The presence of 2 diverse players in Nani and Young capable of playing on either flank can increase the fluidity and movement of the side while Valencia, a get-to-byline, crossing winger is a strong source of assists. Young adds an important set-piece threat to the squad while Nani’s devastating ability makes him one of the most dangerous players in the Premier League on his day.
Forwards: Rooney, Hernández, Owen, Welbeck, Diouf, Berbatov, Macheda
With Sir Alex Ferguson currently having 7 strikers to choose from, he is spoiled for choice although Berbatov and Diouf may not be in the squad by the end of the transfer window. The key player remains Rooney. His ability to play as a “reverse Libero” (term used by Jonathan Wilson, author of Inverting the Pyramid, to describe him) provides central creativity and his goal threat whether in the box or from distance means he is the most dangerous attacking player in the team. Whatever system Manchester United uses in attack revolves around him though this doesn’t mean the club is handicapped without him. The presence of diverse options in the speedy, flair-based Welbeck and Diouf, the poachers in form of Hernández and Macheda, the enigma called Berbatov and Owen who now possesses impressive ball-use outside the box allows Ferguson to rotate the system of his attack. Even when playing the poachers, Manchester United can still be fluid and unpredictable as seen against Schalke at the VELTINS-Arena in the 10/11 Champions League.
The lack of depth at the full-back position may return to haunt the club, as does the risk with the goalkeeper position. While the club could use an upgrade in midfield in the form of Modric, if the squad remains the same, the presence of options and depth in terms of numbers still provides Ferguson with a team capable of winning the Premier League. Ferguson has shown himself to be a master at winning league titles and this leaves the Champions League as the major question left to be answered. Can this squad win the Champions League? Yes it can, in theory. Over 2 legs in the knockout rounds, a manager like Ferguson can manipulate events well enough to his side’s advantage. This squad still isn’t strong enough to win against Barcelona in a 1-off game, and the addition of Sneijder or Modric to the squad will not considerably improve the Red Devil’s chances in a rematch of last season’s Champions League final.
Written by guest author Uanhoro James