It seems like a lifetime we have waited for it, but the domestic campaign returns this weekend, to provide welcome relief from another summer surrounded by incessant, tiring transfer hearsay and rumours.
But lets keep positive, on the whole it’s been a fairly positive transfer window, particularly in the way of incomings. Fans must continue to be patient if they’re to find out whether or not the pursuit of a centre-half and/or forward will prove fruitful, while the issue of a number one goalkeeper still lies in the balance with question marks still hanging over the future of David de Gea.
There have been five incomings to bolster Louis van Gaal’s squad over the summer months, Memphis Depay – whose deal from PSV was agreed before the end of the season – while deals for Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Matteo Darmian would all follow as Ed Woodward looked to get the majority of the summer business concluded early, before the squad would depart from the US on tour. After making his intentions clear that Victor Valdes would soon be departing the club, the Reds moved quickly in bringing in another of the manager’s former stoppers in the form of Argentine Sergio Romero on a free transfer.
Significant outgoings with the likes of Di Maria, Falcao, van Persie, Nani & Rafael all departing, as well as de Gea possibly soon falling into that category, we can only assume that –like last year – the club will be looking to add some late additions to van Gaal’s “selection”.
Nonetheless, four games in the States over the summer proved fruitful, with the Reds recording victories in three of those, over Club America and San Jose before a convincing display to brush aside Barcelona 3-1, before ending the pre-season with a 2-0 defeat to PSG.
The 14/15 season represents a significant test for United and van Gaal, after reaching only their minimum requirement of fourth place and a return to Europe’s elite in the Dutchman’s debut campaign. For last year it was about undoing the mess left by the ill-fated David Moyes reign and picking up the pieces, but with the money already dished out as well as that expected to follow, a title challenge, or top two finish will certainly be on van Gaal’s agenda this time around.
Tottenham are the visitors to Old Trafford for the opening game of the campaign, with the corresponding fixture last season signalling the beginning of a change in fortune for United under van Gaal with perhaps their most dominant, free-flowing performance of the season. A 3-0 home win began a spell of eye-catching displays that would include a 2-1 victory at Anfield as well as a 4-2 demolition of City.
A positive pre-season last year proceeded a difficult beginning to his United tenure for van Gaal, who suffered home defeat to Swansea on the opening day, before draws with Sunderland and Burnley proceeded his first victory. Much more is expected this time around after a year in the job and a significant shift in personnel, so with that in mind, we look ahead at five keys to victory to get the season off and running.
We’ve heard a great deal over the past year about the manager’s fabled philosophy, but after coming into the job late last summer following the World Cup, had little time to really shape things up the way he would have liked. For this reason, perhaps signings like Falcao and Di Maria were made hastily after being made aware of their availability and Ed’s need to appease the fans with marquee names. That said, nobody could have fathomed the kind of disappointment we would have to endure from either of them.
Over the course of the year, van Gaal has been able to impart his ideas and knowledge on the squad, who, after taking their time – as is often the case with van Gaal at a new club – managed to end the season on something of a high and began to find some kind of rhythm to their game. While large parts of the season saw an overwhelming dominance in possession, significant chance creation was found wanting, something which seemed to be eradicated towards the business end of the campaign.
This summer has seen a significant overhaul in the squad, with Falcao and Di Maria both high profile departures after the fanfare surrounding their arrivals last term, while the manager has pulled no punches in axing other players – no matter how popular – if he deemed them deadwood. Tried and trusted players members of his squad such as Ashley Young and Chris Smalling have been rewarded with new contracts as it now appears that the Dutchman is much more trusting in the squad in which he is now in possession. In addition to this, the likes of Schweinsteiger and Romero only emphasise the manager’s plans more so, with both playing big roles for him in the past. The German requires no introduction, having been there and won everything there is to win in the game and can credit van Gaal with shifting him to a dynamic central midfielder in the mould we have long been lacking at Old Trafford. His coup not only adds a huge wealth of experience to the dressing room, but expresses a huge show of faith in the manager, for the German to leave the club he had spent 18 years in order to join United.
On that basis, and given that United were quick to bring in the likes of Memphis, Schweinsteiger, Schneiderlin and Darmian, van Gaal must surely be of the opinion that even if he is in need of a few additional names to bolster ahead of a campaign that will need a bigger squad, the players he has at his disposal should be more than capable of getting the job done (even without such frequent use of Marouane Fellaini this time).
The team has lined up in an attacking 4-2-3-1 formation in pre-season, with Memphis in an advanced midfield role behind Rooney. Whether this is in fact that 4-3-3 the manager had been referring to we shall see, but whichever front six combination lines up should put the frighteners on the visitors come Saturday morning.
Ensuring the new signings bed in well
With the exception of Sergio Romero, the other four new arrivals have had ample opportunity to settle into their new surroundings and their new colleagues during the team’s pre-season tour.
Schneiderlin and Depay have already seen their first goals scored in a United shirt, albeit in a non-competitive environment, while Matteo Darmian looks – so far – to have slotted in seamlessly at the back. To think playing a true right-back would work! With just one start so far on the tour, we’ve yet to see anywhere close to the best of Bastian Schweinsteiger, who spent two matches playing mainly alongside United’s second string, before starting alongside Carrick in the loss to PSG.
Of all the new arrivals, in theory it should be Schneiderlin who has the least troubles adapting to life in his new settings. He is, after all, already familiar with the Premier League and if that wasn’t enough to put him at ease, a swift glance over to his side would see the ever calming presence of Michael Carrick alongside him. For this reason I’d expect Schneiderlin to be the one to get the nod from that start ahead of Schweinsteiger, with the Frenchman trusted to keep things ticking in the middle of the park.
Darmian has looked an extremely astute addition following his four starts on tour and the manager has already recognised that Italian will start against Tottenham. The presence of a natural full-back instead of Valencia should have a calming effect on the rest of the back line, particularly that a full-back fairly short of defensive qualities as Valencia may struggle to come to terms with the likes of Chadli or Eriksen who could operate that wide left position for Tottenham.
After also starting all four matches on tour, one man we can fully expect to see starting will be Memphis Depay. Having initially thought the Dutchman would be deployed as one of the wide men in an attacking front trio for van Gaal this season, it has come as a slight surprise to us all to see him lining up in a withdrawn role behind Wayne Rooney. The two have linked up well throughout, with last season’s Eredivisie top scorer clearly not lacking in confidence. There’s a youthful, Ronaldo-esque charm about the Dutchman, with a strong belief in his own ability and looking the kind to spark a moment of magic from nothing. Having asked for the number seven shirt vacated by Di Maria, Reds fans will be hoping that if he is granted his wish, Memphis can restore some pride into what was once such a historic number at Old Trafford, until Michael Owen, Antonio Valencia and Di Maria were the shirts previous three underwhelming predecessors.
It was the opening day of the 2003 season which saw the 17-year-old Ronaldo come on for an explosive debut at home to Bolton Wanderers, with the Portuguese claiming an assist as well as forcing a penalty after season the travelling defence. At 21, with experience of a World Cup, an Eredivisie title and plenty of goals already to his name, Memphis, unlike Ronaldo, won’t be coming to ply his trade in England as a complete unknown. However, if his obvious confidence in his ability and desire to succeed in the game can prove to be justified, then whisper it quietly, but we might just have a very special player on our hands.
Keep it tight at the back
One thing that has been eating away at us all this summer is United’s failure to land an established centre-half, or any centre-half for that matter, the one area which seems to trouble us the most. Having played a settled backline of Darmian, Jones, Blind and Shaw throughout pre-season we can expect to see something very similar again.
The presence of natural full-backs in Darmian and Shaw should make for less nervy moments, with the Italian the embodiment of cool and collective as yet, while Luke Shaw can hope to enjoy a much more successful second season if he can stay fit, but new BFF Memphis will surely keep pointing him in the direction of the gym.
Back to the thorny issue of centre-backs. Jones and Blind have been partnered together during the tour as the manager continues to pursue his ideal situation of a natural right and left footed player working together. Blind in that position may not be an ideal situation, with a distinct lack of pace the most worrying factor of his most recent switch. In the Dutchman though, Blind can offer a calming presence on the ball given his natural position of a central midfielder and is clearly trusted by the manager. Though not his favoured position, his transfer from Ajax made so much sense given his versatility and while it can be argued that he might not make our first choice XI in any of these, offers a reliable back-up option in either. The thought of Blind looking after Harry Kane is a fairly daunting prospect, which is where he must be offered guidance from his defensive partner.
For that reason, perhaps Phil Jones mightn’t be the best option to fill that void. Jones – having recently signed a new contract – accompanied the Dutchman in all of United’s tour matches, but given that Phil Jones always has the potential to be Phil Jones, dropped some fairly innocuous and most Phil Jonesiest clangers going as the Reds slumped to defeat against PSG in their final tour match to surrender the International Champions Cup title.
The manager has all but confirmed that Darmian, Shaw and Blind will all started for the visit of Tottenham, leaving the one spot alongside Blind still up for grabs. With paramount importance placed on getting the campaign off to the best possible start, logic would state that van Gaal instead opts for one of our more assured defenders from last year, especially given he also held the captain’s armband on occasion, Mike, I mean Chris Smalling.
Smalling’s leadership qualities and development surely place him higher up the pecking order than Jones who still isn’t ready to be the senior defender in the backline.
Rojo’s arrival back in Manchester from the Copa America and an extended break due to passport issues will surely rule him out of contention, for a number of weeks.
Control the midfield
Having bemoaned the state of our central midfield almost every season since Roy Keane’s departure, we now find ourselves in the extremely unfamiliar position of being spoilt for choice in the middle of the park. Alarmingly to the extent that last season’s standout midfielder Ander Herrera seems as though he may once again have some work to do in order to win his place back.
Another fairly worrying prospect seems to be that many United fans seem to have become so washed up in the excitement of the new arrivals of just how integral a part of our side Michael Carrick has been and certainly will continue to be.
Van Gaal made Carrick his vice-captain last season, citing the veteran midfielder as like a coach on the field. His impact was sorely missed towards the end of the campaign, as we failed to register the same kind of impact in his absence. While, for me, Schneiderlin may have been brought in as a long-term replacement for the 34-year-old, it seems as though these two will make up the manager’s preferred central midfield pairing, with Memphis operating as the link between midfield and attack. Schweinsteiger can make a big impact for United this season, but with the Champions League offering more game time, he and Carrick may find themselves alternating due.
Herrera has been the unfortunate casualty of the midfield during the pre-season, but with quality in abundance, the Spaniard can force his way back into contention just as he did last year.
Creativity seems as though it will be much less of an issue for the Reds this season given their new formation, and with the quality in the middle of the park drastically improved from last year, this game could be won in the midfield battle and – on paper – Tottenham’s relatively inexperienced central midfield may struggle to come to terms with that.
Marouane Fellaini might have proved the difference in this fixture last season, but with the likes of Carrick, Blind, Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger, Herrera, Depay and Mata all ready to fulfil central roles if needed, it would surprise me to see the Belgian operating any other than a much more advanced role (from the bench) this season.
Rooney as a number 9
Wayne Rooney often gets a hard time for his contribution and efficiency from United fans, who, in my opinion have been completely justified in recent years. The captain has frustrated at times, none more so than when called upon to fulfil central-midfield duties. First touch and short-passing let Rooney down when asked to play deeper, but let it be noted the skipper can’t be faulted for work ethic.
Where we have seen the best from Rooney is when he has operated as a number nine, the sole frontman in a vibrant, attacking 4-3-3 formation. Twice before we have witnessed Wayne deployed as the side’s solitary striking unit, with a 34 goal return the result each time, once in 09/10 and once again in 11/12.
With hard-working, creative, attacking outlets in Young, Mata, Depay, Schneiderlin etc in behind him, the need for Rooney to drop back to become involved in the game have become less and less. Van Gaal looks as though this is how he will operate this term, which could well prove to get the best out of Rooney.
Another striker may well be on the wish-list, but if he can return 34 goals once again this term, there won’t be too many complaining.
After two games in two days in Germany on Tuesday and Wednesday, the visitors will have had much less opportunity to prepare for the curtain raiser of the Premier League season than United.
With the majority of the new arrivals brought in nice and early, Louis van Gaal’s squad will already be well familiar with each other and keen to prove that the murmurs of a title challenge may well be worth a punt.
With an almost identical line-up starting United’s four tour encounters, we can make a fairly accurate stab at how the reds will line-up for the lunchtime visit of Pochettino’s men, with Smalling coming in for Jones the logical decision for me in the back-line.
The big news coming out of Old Trafford this morning however, is that David de Gea will play no part in the match, with the manager citing the stress surrounding constant speculation regarding his forthcoming transfer too much to handle ahead of the game in hand. This does beg the question over which of United’s goalkeepers would step in. Valdes would have been the most logical to deputise, just as he did towards the back end of last season, but the current situation with he and van Gaal would indicate that Valdes too would not be considered for selection. Sergio Romero joined the club mid-tour, presumably to be the main understudy this season, but having yet to taste any action yet for the club, Sam Johnstone – who started three of the four tour matches – could well be in line to get the nod following a string of impressive displays.
Carrick & Schneiderlin should continue their partnership and should provide too strong, particularly at Old Trafford for a Spurs central midfield, which has often trialled Eric Dier during the pre-season.
Kane’s presence will be a nuisance upfront for the visitors who will look to target makeshift centre-half Daley Blind for a distinct lack of pace.
After a fairly drastic overhaul in the squad this summer, there seems now to be a real togetherness and confidence within the United camp. Money has been spent on astute signings in the form of Darmian, Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger and Memphis while the departures of Falcao and Di Maria in particular, both who endured poor seasons last season will have lifted a cloud over the team.
The “Lads, it’s Tottenham” speech mightn’t have the same impact given the significant changes in personnel over the summer, but with Alderweireld their only significant addition this summer, Spurs squad will by no means be as strong as this stage as they can expect it to be as the window comes to a close.
A convincing win in this fixture last season sparked a revival in United fortunes and signified a breakthrough in performances and by doing so again can really kick start our campaign with the bang it so dearly needs. 2-0 United.
Predicted Line Up
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