United again: Red Devils ready for pulsating season
No Manchester United fan needs reminding of last season’s dismal disaster, which resulted in David Moyes’ dismissal amidst a host of record breaking disappointments, including historic defeats to Everton, Stoke and West Brom.
Sitting seventh in the Premier League at the end of last campaign also means no Champions League football this term, for the first time since 1995/96, when the Red Devils at least tasted continental football in the UEFA Cup.
All of this could be a blessing in disguise for United, though, who are available at a market best 5/1 to bounce back and win the Premier League.
The lack of European competition means new boss Louis van Gaal has extra time to train his new charges and implement his 3-4-1-2 system, which has so far resulted in an unbeaten pre-season, with 17 goals netted in just six games.
Red Devils fans will note that United already seem an entirely different proposition from last term, with some of the players barely recognisable. This is not due to the raft of expensive new acquisitions that were expected to arrive at the club, but have, for the most part, failed to materialise. It is Van Gaal, rather, who has raised pulses and expectations sky high again at Old Trafford.
Innovative Van Gaal has reportedly ringed the changes at Carrington already, digging up parts of the training complex to reduce the effects of wind, introducing strict rules at meal times to increase team spirit, and purchasing futuristic sleep pods. It is not the hi-tech gadgetry and authoritarian style that have impressed, though, but the confidence and optimism he exudes.
Old Trafford officials have managed to bring in two much+needed additions, with Basque midfield maestro Ander Herrera finally prised away from Athletic Bilbao for £29m, and defensive starlet Luke Shaw poached from Southampton for £27m.
Many pundits believe the new duo are not enough to propel United to the top of the Premier League and be title contenders alongside big-spenders Chelsea and Manchester City. However, as with Sir Alex Ferguson before him, a cult of personality surrounding Van Gaal could be enough to paper over cracks and elevate the squad above the sum of its parts once more.
Having previously coached some of Europe’s finest sides, including Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, the Dutchman is no stranger to the pressure for success, and recently took a seemingly average and depleted Netherlands team to the World Cup semi-finals.
Most fans would admit there are still glaring holes in the side that need to be fixed. It is not yet apparent, however, whether United, who often seem to cling to idealistic and perhaps outdated notions on transfer and agent fees, will secure their top targets.
As each day passes, much-needed addition arriving to partner Herrera looks less and less likely, with Arturo Vidal seeming a distant dream, and Darren Fletcher being named vice-captain.
Fresh faces in defence are a much higher priority at the moment, as despite United’s much-maligned midfield options sticking out like sore thumbs when compared to Europe’s elite, they do have enough bodies to compete.
With a switch to three at the back, and the injury-prone nature of Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, all who have yet to truly solidify a place in the starting XI, reinforcements are urgently required.
Academy youngsters Tyler Blackett and Michael Keane have impressed on tour and should win squad places, but it would be unfair to rest an entire campaign’s hopes on their young shoulders.
Sporting Lisbon centre back Marcos Rojo has been heavily linked with a move to the Old Trafford outfit, and his versatility would also allow him to provide cover at left back. However, the Portuguese giants appear to be digging their heels in to thwart the potential deal and milk all they can from a transfer.
It remains to be seen whether the reported bid to make Rojo a Red Devil has ended Van Gaal’s apparent interest in Dutch utility man Daley Blind, or whether the Ajax defender is still on the radar regardless.
Disposing of the deadwood would also go some way to banishing the ghosts of Moyes’ reign, with Old Trafford outcasts such as Anderson and Marouane Fellaini rumoured to be headed for the axe.
The value of strength in depth has already been illustrated by injuries to Michael Carrick, Rafael, Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia, though, and may convince Van Gaal to give a stay of execution to some.
Former Clockwork Orange coach Van Gaal has already shown he can rehabilitate seeming lost causes, with Ashely Young revived by his redeployment as a wing back. This will offer glimmers of hope for fringe players such as Shinji Kagawa and Wilfried Zaha.
Having lost a host of experience, following the exits of veterans Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, Van Gaal will be counting on senior players such as Juan Mata, Robin van Persie and new skipper Wayne Rooney to provide leadership.
The talented trio failed to fully gel in attack together last term, and if this new formation which allows all three to play in their favoured positions does not bear fruit, the former Barca boss will not be afraid to bench a superstar or two.
There are several youngsters waiting in the wings to provide competition and who may offer a more dynamic option up front, including Danny Welbeck, last term’s standout debutant Adnan Januzaj, Wigan loan star Nick Powell and fledgling forward James Wilson.
One of the most tantalising aspects of Van Gaal’s appointment will be watching the world class coach work with United’s academy stars, especially if his efforts on tour with Blackett, Keane and Reece James are anything to go by.
It is always risky to pin hopes on pre-season form, but if United, who are 9/4 to be top northwest club, can continue to build on the electrifying team displays shown so far, Red Devils fans can expect an exciting season ahead.