The ‘unknown’ very much characterises what lies ahead for this season. In this concluding part of my season preview I am going to speculate on the second great ‘unknown’ which will determine the direction of Manchester United over the next ten months.
1) Are United stronger than last season?
I won’t make many friends by saying this but I believe in some ways we got lucky last season. Chelsea were undermined spectacularly by their owner, Arsenal undermined by the intransigence of their manager, and City took two-thirds of the season to gel as a team. In fact an argument could be made that were it not for the criminally underrated contribution of Nani whilst we patiently waited for our number ten to finish his self-imposed gap year we might not have been in a position to benefit from our rivals’ flaws. The football we played in the final three months of last season was a joy and the overdue return to focusing on pace and swift movement produced a team to be proud of.
My hope for this season is that we continue in that approach and the addition of Ashley Young indicates an intention to do so. However I also still believe that in certain areas we are an injury away from being a good rather than great team. Our attacking renaissance was largely down to the effective deployment of three; the directness of Valencia provided pace and reliable delivery that the front men could confidently anticipate, the movement and speed of Hernandez prevented opposition defences from playing a high line creating space in the midfield in which Rooney redeployed in his natural position could exploit with his range of passing and raw power. The addition of Young reduces the impact of a Valencia injury but should either Rooney or Hernandez be sidelined we potentially lack the personnel to operate the same strategy.
The only reserve who can offer the pace of Hernandez is Welbeck – I believe he could prove an able deputy but this is undoubtedly an ‘unknown.’ I was buoyed by his performance at Wembley – notably his movement off the ball – but it was clear in the first half that he has an inclination to drop deep in search of the action. This proved effective against City yet I hope he is similarly comfortable playing on the shoulder of the last man as Hernandez does so effectively.
I am conscious that it is easy to jump to conclusions off the back of one glorified friendly but the key feature of our enthralling performance against City was the fluidity of the front four. Only time till tell if this is a significant shift or an adapted strategy for an occasion with nothing to lose. Michael Cox analysed this potential far more effectively than I can in his recent post. It certainly indicated a pledge to sustain the focus on movement and pace.
In the absence of Rooney we clearly lack an adequate replacement. Despite several attempts Giggs is plainly unsuited for the role, lacking the dynamism and at times the decision-making ability. Anderson would be my choice but as those of you who read my recent post will be aware I have doubts about his mental ability to step up. Pre-season indications are that if the Brazilian is to come of age it could well be in a two-man partnership with the exciting Cleverley. Ashley Young was regularly used as a central winger under Houllier with some success but as the description suggest the emphasis was on movement from the central areas to the flanks rather than the more traditional playmaking role Rooney provides. There might also be a temptation to play Berbatov in a deeper linking role as Rooney’s understudy but though the Bulgarian is blessed with vision and technical ability in terms of pace he can be a handbrake rather than a catalyst.
A further reason for our clear improvement in the latter half of the season was the return to prominence of Michael Carrick. I consider Carrick to be consistently misunderstood as he is criticised for sideways passing. Quite simply if the picture ahead of Carrick is static he will always prioritize retention of the ball leading to sideways and backwards passing rather than attempt passes to fixed targets where the chances of interception are high. The vast improvement in his displays directly correlated with the increased focus on movement and pace in front of him. Given the two most high-profile errors of Carrick in recent years have amounted to uncharacteristic casual surrendering of possession it should come as no surprise if Carrick returns to his Ray Wilkins impression in the absence of Rooney or Hernandez. Even more concerning would be a prolonged absence or loss of form from Carrick himself. No longer is Scholes waiting in the wings to relieve the burden. If and when Fletcher makes a full recovery he will provide welcome support – particularly defensively – yet he is not a replacement for Carrick’s deep-lying playmaker role. Cleverley has rightly received praise for his transformative impact in the second half at Wembley. This has been used as yet another stick to beat Carrick with yet the bizarre decision to employ Silva closer to Dzeko meant he became the responsibility of Evans and Jones leaving the midfield two to directly compete with the tiring Toure and De Jong. Carrick remains our most reliable and effective interceptor and distributor from deep. This is the one area of the side I would welcome a further addition before the end of the window. This team has bags of imagination and creativity yet the best fit approach of using Fletcher, Carrick or even Jones as a destroyer restricts rather than enhances their strengths. Tunnicliffe may well be the long term solution in this area. The retirement and departure of Hargreaves and Scholes has been exagerrated in terms of impact. We have all feared a Scholes-less United for a long time but the reality is he was reduced to cameos for the majority of the last campaign. It is saddens me to say it but when faced with top class opposition his physical decline was glaringly apparent and led to rash judgments like the Wembley semi.
The final ‘unknown’ in terms of replicating our title-winning form is between the posts. Predictably the knives came out the moment Edin Dzeko’s opportunistic strike alluded the flat-footed young Spaniard. Few ‘experts’ have highlighted de Gea’s superb distribution or command of the box preferring instead to hail the second coming of Taibi. In a way it might be the best that a high-profile error has occurred so early; it can be helpful to remind over-expectant fans that the transition to a dramatically different environment requires support and patience regardless of the transfer fee. Jaap Stam springs to mind. I really do regret the fact that van der Sar is not around for one more season to help manage a more comfortable transition. I really hope de Gea is given time to establish himself but fear that the impressive pre-season performances of Lindegaard could potentially lead to a repeat of the Carroll-Howard era of chopping and changing between goal keepers.
So overall are we stronger than last season? I believe so. We can boast sixteen high quality players who injuries allowing are capable of winning the Premier League. Ashley Young I firmly believe to be an excellent acquisition that will have a major impact from the start. Ferguson has clearly demonstrated his faith in the emerging young players by pruning the dressing room of some key experienced figures despite the double retirement. What the squad has lost in experience it has gained in hunger and determination. In terms of our rivals my biggest concern is the lack of wholesale changes at Eastlands but hopefully they will make a slow start and panic buy their way through the end of the month. They looked suspiciously like an emerging force at the back-end of the season and in Toure and Silva possess two players who would grace Old Trafford. Ferguson has proved his genius by creating and reshaping teams seemingly unique in his ability to continue to win trophies with teams ‘in transition.’ The veteran contingent has been reduced dramatically and the performance at Wembley felt like the gauntlet being thrown down at the dawn of a new era. If the season ahead is going to be characterised by hungry, young players executing a fluid, offensive, pressing strategy then it promises to be one to remember.
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