With the summer’s activities in South Africa a distant memory, holidays had, pre-season tours toured and preparations almost complete, Manchester United faces its first (semi) competitive fixture of the season this Sunday. The annual Community Shield curtain raiser is not a major game but it is the first in ten months of football ahead.
Much of the summer’s talk, post World Cup of course, has focused on the club’s activity in the transfer market, or lack of it. Chris Smalling, signed from Fulham last January, and Javier Hernández, whose capture United announced in April, are the summer’s two additions to Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad. Ben Foster and winger Zoran Tošić have left the club.
United finished just short last time out, losing out to Chelsea in the Premier League by a single point, while Ferguson’s side was knocked out of the Champions League at the quarter final stage by Bayern Munich. In the domestic cups United lost to hated rivals Leeds United in the FA Cup third round, and successfully defended the Carling Cup at Wembley.
One trophy – United’s lowest priority – represented a disappointing campaign by the club’s very high standards of recent years. Ferguson can – and did – point to a defensive injury crisis through the winter months that contributed to defeats at home to Aston Villa and disastrously to Fulham at Craven Cottage in December.
The Scot’s side also suffered at the hands of officials in key games home and away against Chelsea and in the Champions League exit to Bayern but it is churlish the lay the blame for United’s comparatively threadbare season at the hands of ill fate. In truth Ferguson’s squad is more limited than in previous seasons. Normally weaknesses show themselves over the course of a season.
So Ferguson’s side begins the new season in much the same shape as the last, with half a dozen younger players challenging senior pros for places in the squad. Whether the manager chooses to rely on youth as promised, and its success or failure, or squeeze one final season from a quartet of aging stars – Edwin van der Sar, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs – will surely define the coming season.
van der Sar will begin the season as the team’s undisputed number one, with support from the able but essentially limited Tomasz Kuszczak. Teenager Ben Amos will act as United’s third choice, with Ben Foster now sold to Birmingham City.
Ferguson’s side suffered with injuries and loss of form last season, with van der Sar breaking a finger in pre-season and Foster’s confidence destroy by high profile mistakes. Much will depend on van der Sar’s ability to roll back the years one final time. The great Dutchman’s fitness, at 40, cannot be relied upon.
Rio Ferdinand will begin the season in the treatment room, where the 32-year-old has spent much of the last 18 months. It’s a fact that underlines just how important Nemanja Vidic’s contract extension is to the club, with just the talented but inexperienced Jonny Evans and the very raw Smalling in reserve.
Ferguson will also start the season without left-back Patrice Evra, who has been given extra time off following a traumatic World Cup. Fabio da Silva or John O’Shea will play against Chelsea and act as the Frenchman’s understudy this season. United’s manager must also choose a right back from one of Rafael da Silva, Gary Neville, John O’Shea and Wes Brown.
Despite numerous injuries United finished the Premier League with the best defensive record last season. Repetition is surely a factor of a better injury record and the rapid progression of the Brazilian twins.
United will ask Giggs and Scholes to squeeze another season out of ever aging legs. Giggs’ form tailed off dramatically last season, while a late-season flourish hardly failed to mask Scholes’ weaknesses against more athletic opponents. It’s a problem that leaves Ferguson’s squad desperately short of central midfield creativity and underlines the continued speculation linking the club with Germany’s Mesut Özil.
Anderson’s long-term injury and seemingly longer-term poor attitude and Michael Carrick’s awful form also add to Ferguson’s central midfield problems.
Darren Fletcher will once again act as the muscle in United’s midfield with Owen Hargreaves comeback put on almost perpetual hold, while Darron Gibson will add goals if limited technical quality from midfield.
However, United’s strength lies in wide areas. Nani and Antonio Valencia offered contrasting seasons last time out. While the Portuguese improved significantly after Christmas, Valencia suffered a late season dip. Ferguson should expect outstanding campaigns from both in the coming season, with Park Ji Sung offering versatility and energy.
England Under-21 international Tom Cleverly is almost certain to leave the club on loan despite encouraging pre-season form.
Wayne Rooney’s late-season injury precipitated a poor end to last season, with the 34-goal striker failing to hit the net since injury against Bayern in March. World Cup traumas now a thing of the past, Rooney will hope to score sooner than later to end any lingering doubts and silence his many media critics.
Ferguson must also find an answer to the perpetual Dimitar Berbatov conundrum, with the Bulgarian forward seemingly unsuited to the 4-3-3 system the manager prefers in Europe and against better opponents. How and where Ferguson integrates Hernández is also key, with the Mexican already pushing hard for a starting place against Chelsea on Sunday following three goals in pre-season.
With Danny Welbeck and Mame Biram Diouf likely to leave on loan, Michael Owen and Federico Macheda will complete a quintet of strikers at Ferguson’s disposal.