What to make of the season ahead? As ever with Manchester United the target is victory on all fronts, although after a campaign in which Sir Alex Ferguson’s men finished trophy-less in 2011/12 there may be more realistic ambitions in the months ahead. Most supporters will settle for bringing back the Premier League trophy to Old Trafford, and regaining some honour in Europe. Whether Ferguson’s squad has the quality and balance to achieve those ambitions is the key question.
Let there be no doubt: last season’s final minute title loss to Manchester City hurt Ferguson and his men, and has left a mood of disappointment in the red half of the city. With a summer to brood on what could have been there has been much talk about a redoubling of efforts in the campaign to come. After all, few can turn failure into a driver for renewal quite like Sir Alex.
Yet, for all the talk of learning something from last season’s campaign it is essentially a red herring. In truth the season ahead is all about United’s depth of quality, not the players’ hunger, and what progress if any that has been made during the summer.
And there has been some qualified progress. After all the season is likely to start with United having signed one of the finer attacking players in the Bundesliga, last season’s Premier League top goalscorer, and an attacking midfielder, in Nick Powell, of undoubted promise.
While Robin van Persie’s apparent capture from Arsenal poses plenty of questions – not least for new Japanese acquisition Shinji Kagawa – Wayne Rooney will be, as ever, central to United’s success or failure this season. van Persie will ease the considerable burden on the Scouser. And while the squad is perhaps over-stocked with strikers and attacking players, ensuring goals shouldn’t be a challenge, the very best players do make the difference in the key games. Another 30-goal plus season from Rooney ensures that Ferguson’s team will be, in the parlance of modern football, ‘there or thereabouts’.
Yet, it is central midfield that Ferguson has once again stubbornly refused to strengthen; a weakness amplified by the Scot’s cowardly tactics against City at Eastlands in April. Michael Carrick had a fine season in 2011/12, and will be central to United’s progress once again, but elsewhere there is a genuine problem. Paul Scholes – majestic after returning to the team in January – cannot be expected to play more than 25 games in all competitions, while Ryan Giggs is largely inconsistent and wasteful. That’s without mentioning either player’s age.
Meanwhile, Anderson is absent far too often with injury, and inconsistent on the rare occasions of fitness. After five years at the club Ferguson’s patience is far greater than that of many supporters. Then there is Tom Cleverley, who has suffered a serious injury in each of his last four seasons, and Darren Fletcher, whose long-term prognosis, despite playing against Aberdeen on Tuesday, is not good.
Much rides on Cleverley, who at 23 is no longer a youngster, and has become a bone fide international after making his England début against Italy in Bern on Wednesday night. The midfielder has very little experience at the highest level after an injury-hit campaign in 2011/12, but if – and it is surely a big ‘if’ – Cleverley remains fit then the Basingstoke-born midfielder may just aid United supporters in dismissing that long-running debate over central midfield.
Ferguson will, of course, still be able to call on much attacking flair. Nani, who continues to deliver on goals and assists, but is infuriating to watch far too often will be an asset as long as the player keeps delivering match-winning performances. Should the output dry up, then Antonio Valenicia’s greater consistency will again come to the fore. Ashley Young, fresh from a dreadful summer with England and a season of diving controversy back at home, still has much to prove.
United should be better defensively though, especially with captain Nemanja Vidić returning. The Serbian will the lend then experience and stability that was so keenly missed during key games of last season’s run-in – assuming that there is no lasting imparement from a serious knee injury.
Meanwhile, Ferguson will hope that Rafael has matured over a summer with Brazil, and that the trio of Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones can stay fit. Rio Ferdinand will likely play a reduced role in the campaign ahead. It is a shame, though, that United has been unable to bring in cover for Patrice Evra, a player whose performances peaked before World Cup 2010 and have never returned to those lofty heights.
In all of this there is a school of thought that says United begins the season in healthy shape, and not only because of new acquisitions, but that Ferguson’s squad can never again suffer the kind of injury crisis that it did at times last year.
Despite this, and Roberto Mancini’s more modest budget this summer, City – champions of England – have earned the right to begin the season as favourites for the Premier League title. Not least because the season ahead will not be defined by matches against the ‘big’ opponents alone. United dropped too many points at Old Trafford last season against mediocre teams. Points lost against Everton and Blackburn Rovers, for example, proved to be just as decisive to the season’s narrative as those dual losses to City.
Perhaps complacency was United’s greatest enemy after all.
There are also far too many questions about United’s team coming into the new season to hold unqualified hope. The Reds’ collapse in the final matches last year, and the total failure in Europe, should have provoked a deeper rethink about the club’s strategy. It hasn’t.
On the cusp of the new season, with a brooding mood in the stands after the Glazer family’s New York IPO, it’s hard to define exactly where the team has improved over the summer except in attacking areas. The fundamental problem with squad balance has not yet been addressed. Ferguson’s refusal to strengthen in midfield is anathema. More than that: it is wilful neglect, and will surely prove a strategic error.
And then there is a dichotomy with Sir Alex that is hard to square. On the one hand Ferguson is the finest manager the game has ever known; a man who has transformed United and brought unprecedented success over 25 years at Old Trafford. On the other, the man is hard to respect.
Ferguson’s unmitigated support for the Glazer family has angered many long-time supporters this summer. It is a relationship that hasn’t simply been passive indifference – Ferguson has made a bed with owners who have sucked more than £500 million out of the club in debt-related costs. Often at fans’ expense.
Worse, this summer Ferguson chose to create a fight with supporters – defining as “real fans” those who agree with his view of the owners. Presumably those who don’t, are not.
It is a summer that leaves fans excited about three attacking acquisitions, but with little faith that the club’s executive management have anything bar personal profit in their sights. After all, £40 million summer investment was flagged to investors during the IPO roadshow in July and August. From here on investors have been promised a more modest budget of £20 million net per annum.
Still, if this is the squad that starts the season against Everton next Monday then it at least offers more attacking options than in the past, where at times Ferguson’s side was worryingly ponderous. Whether the midfield base is strong enough to compete with the very best remains doubtful.