As much as Sir Alex Ferguson hoped otherwise, Manchester United’s pre-season friendly against Hannover 96 on Saturday night was unable to detract attention from his employers’ financial proclivities in New York. On the opening day of trading a ‘disappointing’ IPO raised approximately $100 million less than initially sought by the Glazer family, while a myriad of unfulfilled speculation surrounding primary transfer target Robin van Persie prompted suggestions that United’s interest was merely a failed ploy to convey a position of wellbeing. Bad press, it seems, is inescapable for chief executive David Gill and his collaborators right now.
Sadly for United, the club’s woes are not consigned to its endeavours across the Atlantic; unease surrounding an underwhelming pre-season campaign has been augmented by relatively low transfer activity, archetypal of the Glazers’ reign at Old Trafford. And even if Ferguson’s intentions to sign the Dutchman are real, the completion of the transfer will by no means receive the unquestioning backing of United’s supporters.
Van Persie’s age, wage demands, and susceptibility to injury are all cited as deterrents, as is the inevitability that the Dutchman would deprive fans’ favourites Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez of playing time. Furthermore, considering the substantial fee necessary to prise last year’s PFA and Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year from Arsenal, any deal will surely deprive the team’s ailing midfield of further investment.
Following a trophy-less campaign least term, continuing negative publicity, and the manager’s apparent refusal, or inability, to address his squad’s key inadequacies, it’s fair to suggest that the season ahead for United appears bleak. Yet, with just over a week to go until the start of the Premier League campaign, Ferguson is not short belief that his side is adequately equipped to regain the title.
Aside from any transfer activity, or lack thereof, United’s squad is already bolstered this summer by the return of Nemanja Vidić. The Serbian has completed over 170 minutes of football during the team’s pre-season tour. While Jonny Evans deputised superbly for the United captain last season, dispelling any assertions that the Irishman’s time at Old Trafford is running out, Vidić’s importance is difficult to overstate. Though it is easy to speculate, it is hard to imagine United conceding the two late goals at home to Everton that proved so costly in the title race had Vidić been present to maintain defensive discipline.
Starting the season opener at Goodison Park may be an ambitious target, but having witnessed repeated delays to Tom Cleverley’s recovery last term, and Owen Hargreaves’s haphazard attempts to regain fitness throughout his spell at Old Trafford, United fans are relieved to see Vidić return on schedule from a serious injury.
In addition to the restored first choice defensive partnership, Ferguson expects greater contributions from a number of his younger players this season. Danny Welbeck impressed during his first campaign in the starting line-up, but must improve on last year’s tally of just 12 goals, particularly if the striker is to preserve his place in Ferguson’s team. Having followed-up a decent club season with impressive performances for England at this summer’s European Championships, the Longsight-born player can achieve the 20 goal target set by his manager.
Additionally, Chris Smalling and Cleverley, having also shown much promise already, hope to feature more often after enduring injury hampered seasons last time out. Smalling has developed a reputation for dependability, having continually improved since joining from Fulham in 2010, while Cleverley enjoyed an excellent start to his senior United career before its abrupt postponement at the Reebok Stadium last September. Cleverley’s return may even help observers forget United’s lack of options in central midfield.
Significantly, Ferguson can count on the improved consistency of goalkeeper David de Gea. All but written off by the media following a difficult start to his United career, the Spaniard grew in confidence and stature as last season progressed, winning the team points regularly. Provided De Gea remains composed in the face of renewed competition from Anders Lindegaard, the Spaniard will surely develop into one of the league’s finest goalkeepers.
Additionally, while United’s transfer activity is minimal this summer it has at least been well considered. Glowing praise from his former mentor Dario Gradi has generated considerable excitement in the future of Nick Powell, while Shinji Kagawa’s acquisition could have a decisive impact. The Japanese playmaker made a total of 25 goals in Borussia Dortmund’s double-winning campaign last term, affirming talismanic status, and has looked sharp playing just behind the frontline during pre-season appearances for United. Kagawa could provide a link between the team’s midfielders and forwards that was desperately missing for much of last season, often leaving the strikers isolated and occasionally resulting in Wayne Rooney dropping into midfield.
Away from United it is also worth considering the merits of local rivals, Manchester City. Roberto Mancini’s team has been uncharacteristically quiet in the transfer market, with the Italian failing to offload superfluous players on excessive salaries. Despite possessing considerable strength-in-depth, Mancini’s side looks vulnerable should it lose any one of Vincent Kompany, Yaya Touré, or David Silva.
Though any team is weakened by losing one or more of its three best players, note that Touré will once again depart mid-season to compete in a rollover African Cup of Nations. Meanwhile, Silva will face an arduous campaign, having represented Spain at the European Championships after a season in which he played through an ankle injury.
The lack of quality cover for Kompany was particularly evident during the Belgian’s absences last season, as is reliance on goalkeeper Joe Hart. While United’s recent luck with injuries has been torrid, City’s has been the opposite; should fortunes reverse this season it is difficult to foresee Mancini’s men faring so well.
Furthermore, City will face the burden of playing this season as champions. Painful as it is to acknowledge, the upside is that teams will raise their performance levels against the Eastlands outfit; a belief endorsed by Wayne Rooney this week, who asserted that “over the years everyone has tried to raise their game when they play against Manchester United. Now obviously City are champions they’ll have to face that.”
Whether Mancini’s side approaches the task of retaining the title with a hint of trepidation remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that United seeks the Premier League’s return to Old Trafford with renewed vigour. The pain associated with losing to City on goal difference no will spur on Ferguson’s side, just as it did in 2006/7 when the title loss to Chelsea prompted a change in system, and one of the most exciting domestic campaigns of the decade.
Once again United enters a season in transition, and with a point to prove. Only a fool will write Ferguson’s team off.