Make no mistake, this has been no kind of pre-season; certainly not the one that David Moyes wanted, whatever the protestation to the contrary. Rather, it has been a summer of frustration both on and especially off the pitch. One after which Manchester United will start the new season weaker than the club finished the last.
Moyes began the summer bragging that he had “no budget” within which he must work; the Scot has ended it frustrated about adding just a reserve full-back to United’s resources. Throw in the ever more acrimonious Wayne Rooney saga, coaching changes and chief executive David Gill’s departure and there has been far more disruption at Old Trafford than is normal.
Indeed, it is sound to proffer that by any course of logic United’s performance will suffer in the season to come, with the Reds having thus far failed to strengthen in the key central midfield area, while defenders Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić have grown a year older.
Logic does not always hold in football, of course, but it was a summer in which United had to build from a position of strength, especially with principal rivals Chelsea and Manchester City doing so with such abundance during the close-season. While the Londoners are yet to solve José Mourinho’s striking problem, and there are plenty of question marks over City’s £100 million splurge, the gap has undoubtedly closed.
Meanwhile, Rooney’s proselytizing for a move to Chelsea has served only to undermine Moyes’ opening weeks with the club. The resolution will come within the next two weeks – and United may still accept a bid for the forward this summer, although not it seems from Chelsea.
Despite noises emanating from Old Trafford that the club will stand strong against the rise of player power the risk that Rooney might cause damage both to Moyes’ credibility and dressing room morale is considerable.
Nor has the club done anything to separate the wheat from considerable chaff in a title-winning squad. Nani, Anderson, Federico Macheda and Bébé, for example, seem likely to remain despite offering little value for the £47 million investment in the quartet. Sometimes it is good to sweep the slate clean and start again.
Then there was a pre-season of unusually high commercial focus – this at a club which has perfected the art of regional commercialisation. While the club’s slick marketing has driven ever greater revenues off the pitch, and a roster of six new sponsors announced this summer, Moyes’ side played no opposition of any quality on it. The defeat to Sevilla at Old Trafford last Friday night came at the hands of the first serious opponents faced.
Still, there have been defeats to mediocre opposition in Thailand and Japan, together with a brace of unconvincing draws as well. The side did at least triumph in the final warm-up before the weekend’s big kick off – against Wigan Athletic in the Community Shield at Wembley. No, Rant doesn’t count that as a trophy.
But if that assessment sounds rather negative then it is an observation made of a club that by very high standards has been unusually slipshod this summer. This surely is a factor both of significant change in a short period of time and the strategy, or lack of it, to manage that evolution.
Yet, there are gaps in United’s squad, despite Sir Alex Ferguson’s side having secured the Premier League by a full 11 points last season. It is the disparity in Moyes’ resources required and those obtained that will be felt in the months to come.
While there is little reason to believe Moyes’ side will lose it’s competitive edge domestically – although the bookies make the Reds third favourites at press – in Europe there is surely a chasm to the continent’s best. Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Paris Saint Germain and Barcelona can, with sound argument, claim deeper resources than United.
It is not all pessimistic of course. Between the sticks United is well served should Spaniard David de Gea continue the upward trajectory of last season. The youngster markedly grew in confidence as last season’s campaign wore on, benefiting from a consistent run in the side once Ferguson had finally lost patience with the willing, but limited Anders Lindegaard.
The Dane seems set to remain at Old Trafford, although there is little reason to think that Ben Amos cannot challenge his more experienced team-mate for a place on the bench.
In the back four Moyes will seek greater consistency than Ferguson enjoyed over the past 24 months. While Ferdinand and Vidić are entering the winter and autumn of their careers it is to Rafael da Silva, brother Fabio, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling that Moyes will surely turn. The quartet of youngsters possess the natural talent to make it at United if only the fitness holds true. Jonny Evans, now an old hand at United, will surely continue his gradual progress in the coming months.
Moyes’ challenge in midfield is as well documented as it is concerning. In wide areas none of Antonio Valencia, Nani or Ashley Young impressed last season, although Wilfried Zaha has already forced his way into first team contention. The former Crystal Palace winger, along with Jesse Lingard and Adnan Januzaj, each won supporters hearts and possibly the manager’s mind during the pre-season campaign.
But it is central areas that should concern the former Everton manager most – an area of United’s squad negligently left to fester by the outgoing Ferguson. While Michael Carrick’s importance has never been so great there is little guarantee that Anderson or Tom Cleverley will finally step up to the Geordie’s level.
There is much on which to base confidence in Cleverley, whose neat passing and quick recycling of possession is a real positive, but Anderson has done little to justify the now annual summer bravado. This is Anderson’s year? Sure. It’s always Liverpool’s year too.
Meanwhile, Darren Fletcher’s 18 month long rehabilitation is not yet complete and Paul Scholes has retired to leave a hole so large in Moyes’ squad that even the Scot has done little to downplay the deficiency.
And even in forward areas the new manager has concerns; Robin van Persie’s goalscoring is now so important that injury to the former Arsenal striker would surely strike a fatal blow to United’s ambitions.
Elsewhere Javier Hernández desperately needs more time on the pitch, while Danny Welbeck’s excellence in possession must now also be reflected in goals scored.
But it is Rooney who remains the focus. Should the former Evertonian leave for pastures new then United has seemingly no plan to replace significant talent lost. If Rooney remains then Moyes has a genuine man management problem to resolve – the Scouser’s sulking directly translates into his performances on the pitch.
Either way Shinji Kagawa’s future at United will be affected. The Japanese desires – perhaps deserves – a shot at playing in his favoured position at ‘number 10’. Rooney’s retention will kibosh the plan, leaving Kagawa once again consigned to the wing or the bench. It is no way to eek the best out of a superbly gifted player.
In that there is a key tactical decision for Moyes to take; retain Ferguson’s oft-deployed, but generally offensive 4-2-3-1 formation of the past season, or evolve to something that resembles Everton’s counter-attacking style?
That choice, together with any late transfer market activity, will decide the success or potential failure of the new manager’s first campaign in charge. There are likely to be challenging times ahead.