“Arsenal are the team to dominate the next decade” said Patrick Vieira as Arsenal, the recently crowned Premier League and FA Cup champions basked in their glory. Wenger agreed, “We can do the Double again” said the Frenchman and audaciously predicted a “Shift of Power” in his post-match interview after beating Manchester United 1-0 in May 2002. One decade on, dominance is hardly the word associated with Arsenal and the voices coming from the Gunners’ camp are more submissive than snappy “It’s never great to lose players of that quality but he had only a year left… so we do not have a choice” said Wenger as he announced the departure of his 5th captain in 7 years; the “shift of power” he envisaged today seems farther than ever before.
After beating United for Samir Nasri’s signature and winning the Premier League, the momentum is quite clearly with Manchester City and a shift of power seems to be the theme again this summer. Robin van Persie’s signing is a message to rivals and reassurance to fans that Manchester United can still compete. Also, after failure to secure the services of several high profile names including Villa, Sanchez, Benzema, Nasri, Sneijder, Hazard and most recently Moura; they have finally got their man. In that sense, this transfer is a landmark; reasserting United’s standing and a significant exception to Sir Alex’s search for the elusive “value in the market”.
It also marks a shift from the type of players that have arrived in recent seasons; versatile players who improve the squad as they can play in several positions but don’t add much to the starting line-up. Obertan, Smalling, Young and Jones all fit the description. Owen was signed on a free transfer while Valencia and de Gea were necessities.
In 2010-11, Hernandez was not expected to make the impact he made and last season with Scholes and van der Sar’s retirements, the team was obviously weakened. Hence, with the signing of van Persie and Kagawa, this is the first time since 2008-09 that United can claim to enter the season with an improved starting 11 from the previous one, and not just an improved squad.
No Room for Error
A look at the fixtures will show just why van Persie is more than a luxury signing. United’s first Champions League fixture will be followed by a trip to Liverpool (23 Sep) while the second match is sandwiched between Spurs (29 Sep) and Newcastle (7 Oct), both top 5 finishers. The third UCL match again is followed by a tough game away to Chelsea.
The critical 4th game will be played 2 or 3 days after a clash with Arsenal and the 5th game is in the middle of a hectic 2-week period between 17th Nov and 1st Dec in which they play 5 games and none of them are Carling Cup matches (will now be called Capital One Cup). The potential decider, the 6th game will precede a trip to the champions on 8 Dec. All in all, 4 out 6 UCL group stage matches are in a week involving a match with Champions League contenders and 1 is an away trip to Liverpool.
Imagine a situation like last season where Man United need to win the last UCL game to qualify and are behind City in the league. Can you see either Welbeck, with his poor finishing or Hernandez, who desperately needs to improve his link up play, leading the line on their own? Certainly not. Wayne Rooney will be called upon to play 3 games in a week again just after the tiring late November schedule. Kagawa will be in his first season in the EPL and cannot be expected to carry the team. If either Kagawa or Rooney are injured or suspended or struggling for form then United will really be in a spot of bother. Unlikely? Maybe; but it is certainly plausible.
The standards in the Premier League today are higher than they have ever been before and the margin for error is minimal; United’s 89 points last season was a record for runners-up. It’s not just the big games which are key; points dropped due to complacency will cost the team. Last season the 3-2 loss to Blackburn at home in December, in Rooney’s absence, proved far more damaging than perhaps in other seasons.
This was not the first time United showed their dependence on Rooney. Last season he scored more goals in the league than Welbeck, Hernandez and Berbatov combined. In the away game against Wigan towards the end, Rooney struggled with his touch and passing and was taken off with more than a quarter to play; but Sir Alex had only Nani to turn to. United’s insipid performance culminated in a 1-0 loss to a team they had previously never dropped points against which initiated their slide.
Most fans will remember the night in Munich in March 2010 when Rooney injured his ankle after which the team fell apart. They were knocked out by Bayern and then failed to beat Chelsea and Blackburn to squander the title by a mere point. van Persie’s signing ensures United have someone to turn to in case their talisman fails.
Michael Cox explains how replacing Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez with Valencia and Owen had a bigger effect of the team’s versatility than quality; with their inflexibility costing them the title. The addition of Hernandez in the following season did not help the situation. In the 2010-11 season, United’s striker force of Rooney, Hernandez, Berbatov and Owen boasted plenty of quality but only Rooney could play in more than 1 position.
This season however, the situation will change drastically. In Rooney, van Persie and Welbeck United now have three strikers who can play as the no. 9, just behind a main striker or even out wide. Hernandez remains the poacher who with his speed can hurt tiring defences.
The much craved fluidity will be back. If Rooney, van Persie, Kagawa, Nani or Young and Cleverley form the front 5, quick passing and interchange of positions will be a feature of United’s play; with Valencia being used when the manager wants to use width to stretch narrow defences.
There are other perennial advantages too. van Persie is quite clearly a leader and certainly adds a bit of steel to this United side distinctly devoid of personalities. Sir Alex highlighted in his press conference today how Cantona’s arrival helped the youngsters and hopes van Persie can do the same as Giggs and Scholes near the end of their careers.There is also the issue of set pieces. Rooney, Young and Nani are all right footed so van Persie provides a left footed option in such cases, and might actually be a better set piece taker than aforementioned anyway.
Different Formations, Different Roles
Some questions do remain unanswered; with regards to Welbeck and Hernandez’s appearances and Kagawa’s positioning. But most pre-season previews and debates have been based on the premise that the team will line-up in a fluid 4-2-3-1 formation this season, as opposed to last year’s 4-4-1-1. But it is unlikely that Sir Alex will stick to one formation for the whole season. The biggest advantage of versatility is that the formation can be changed often, to keep opposition managers guessing like in the 2007-08 season when United could play in a 4-4-1-1, 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 with the same set of players, sometimes changing even during the match.
In a similar manner this season too, United will switch between a 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-1-1 for different games. Kagawa already had a trial run as a central midfield in the friendly against Hannover and can play out on the left as well, which would allow him more space and time on the ball to help him settle into the physicality and high tempo of the EPL like Chelsea did with Juan Mata in his first season. But he should be first choice to play in the hole when the midfield is getting over-run.
Or perhaps Sir Alex has a plan to fit Kagawa, Rooney and van Persie in the same team. It is worth remembering that he was also chasing Lewandowski in the beginning of the transfer window so there quite clearly is a plan. The prospect if Rooney, Kagawa and Nani lining up in an interchanging 3 behind van Persie certainly is mouth-watering.
Welbeck can play in 2-3 different positions so should see plenty of game time. Hernandez’s appearances might reduce but his speed and finishing warrants an appearance when chasing games, and for a team that plays more than 50 games each season there will be plenty of chances.
Having signed one of the world’s top 10 players for as little as 24 million and their first marquee player since Berbatov, United fans can hardly complain. In fact van Persie’s signing was just one of the positives from a fantastic 2-3 days for the club. Welbeck seems set to sign 5 year contract extension and 18-year old striker Angelo Henriquez may be on his way too. Fletcher’s little cameo as he continues his comeback and Cleverley’s impressive England outing gives fans plenty to look forward to as the new season beckons.
Written by Guest Author Kumar Shivam
Follow the author on Twitter: @shivam_cantona