By Jason Freeman.
Horrible ending to last season
Before I preview the new season, I thought I’d get this out of the way. Losing the title in such devastating manner will hopefully make us more determined to win it this season. Before the last game of the season, many United fans had all but conceded the possibility of winning league title number 20 and if you hadn’t you had a lot of faith that we’d either demolish Sunderland or that the game between QPR (who’d barely won an away game all season) and City (who’d barely lost a home game all season) would somehow work in our favour.
What happened in the 90 minutes during the 2 games was unthinkable at the beginning of the day; United winning, City drawing and then losing with little time to play, I for one was ecstatic at this point but soon things changed and the mood changed completely, from a massive high to excruciating pain in seconds and it made everything a whole lot worse. Having already come to terms with coming 2nd but then feeling like we’d won it meant I and many other reds had to come to terms with it once again but I don’t think I’ll ever come to terms with what happened that day or understand why it happened but that’s sport and to experience the highs you must go through the lows, and it doesn’t get much lower than that last day.
It’s a cycle, a couple of seasons before that Champions League win in Moscow we went through a season similar to last season, we’ve been here before and hopefully we come back stronger and even more determined to do better once again just like we did then.
Young, determined and hungry squad
We have some very talented young players in the squad who are very hungry for success and the last day of last season will only make them hungrier. We’ve also added 2 young talented players who are also hungry in Shinji Kagawa and Nick Powell while we’ve allowed 2 older players, Park Ji Sung and Michael Owen to leave, Park became a bit part player with the arrival of Ashley Young and had also become a less effective player. Park was a great servant to the club and became an integral part of a successful period but it was a season too far for him and it was the right decision for both club and player that he moved on. With Michael Owen he was never fit to be available and it would have been stupid to give him another season because of this injury record. By offloading Park and Owen and signing Kagawa and Powell we may have lost a bit of experience but the quality of the squad has improved. The likes of De Gea, Jones, Smalling, Cleverley and Welbeck are a year older and the events of the last day will make them more determined to come back stronger this season.
Kagawa is an attacking midfielder who creates and scores goals; he also works hard for the team and is a very intelligent footballer. He could also play on the wing or in central midfield if needed but I expect him to play in his best role behind Rooney who will move further forward where he can concentrate on doing what he does best, scoring goals. Last season, while still scoring goals, Rooney struggled to create chances for others in the final 3rd, replacing Rooney with Kagawa in this position should provide us with more of a creative force playing behind the striker as Rooney gave the ball away too much in the final 3rd last season. The addition of Kagawa should improve the team greatly and while his addition may see them out of the starting line up both Welbeck and Hernandez should score more goals than last season because of Kagawa’s creativity.
Powell is a bit of an unknown quantity but of the little i’ve seen of him he looks a very good young player who has good technique, good passing and shooting ability and he’s quite a big lad for his age too so shouldn’t have much difficulty adapting to the Premier League especially as he’s already played 50 league games albeit in League 2. Despite playing as a Forward at Crewe, Fergie has stated that he sees Powell’s future in Central Midfield and early signs suggest he could be very good in the role. Unlike Kagawa I’m unsure of what to expect from him this season, I’m not expecting too much straight away but I am hoping to be surprised.
Will we be luckier with injuries?
Injuries are inevitable in sport but there is no doubt that injuries affected us last season while our rivals were much luckier. When Vidic picked up an injury in December that would rule him out for the season many saw that as the end of the season for us, in a way it was pretty impressive that we managed to finish a very close 2nd without our colossus captain and credit must go to Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans for performing so well while Vidic was out. It’s great that he’s back but there is a doubt over whether he’ll be the same player now and there will always be a worry that the injury may come back. Hopefully this won’t be the case though and we’ll have a fit and firing Vidic for the full season.
Darren Fletcher is another experienced player we missed last season, although a less obvious miss than Vidic, his experience would have helped us greatly at the end of the season and his underrated footballing ability would have been a massive plus throughout the season. It is doubtful that Fletcher will even return to play football, it is very unlikely he will ever be the player he once was which is a great shame as he would be in his peak years of his career now.
Every player in the first team squad was injured at some point last season and it affected us badly at certain times, in particular the 2 games we lost during the new year period to Blackburn and Newcastle where Valencia and Carrick both had to play in defence along with the inexperienced Phil Jones and a Patrice Evra, who was struggling for form. It wasn’t just injuries that played a part in losing those games but it did play a part. Injuries are always going to happen in football but it would be nice to have fewer injuries this season and less long term injuries.
Since the signing of Shinji Kagawa there has been much debate over what formation we will use for the coming season and a move away from the traditional 4-4-2 to the more modern 4-2-3-1 system seems most likely with Kagawa playing behind Rooney, linking midfield to attack, something we’ve lacked in recent times in my opinion, especially in the big games and in Europe. Rooney has done a good job when playing in the role but for me he gives the ball away in the final third too much and with Kagawa’s superior passing it will improve the chances we create in the final 3rd having him there instead of Rooney, it will also allow Rooney to concentrate on what he does best and that’s scoring goals. The introduction of Kagawa could also be a sign that we may play more of a pressing game, which is something Barcelona do so well and also Kagawa’s former team Borussia Dortmund have also had a lot of success in playing a pressing game.
Switching to a 4-2-3-1 could also see us being more fluid like we were at the start of last season with Nani and Young coming infield from the wing, pulling defenders out of position and linking up with the midfielders and the strikers. This style of play saw us come back from 2-0 down in the Community Shield to win 3-2, saw us put 8 past Arsenal at Old Trafford and score 21 goals in our first 5 games but it was becoming evident that we were conceding too many shots playing this way as we were being overrun in midfield and Fergie decided to tighten things up and moved back to a more rigid system. With Carrick playing in front of the back 4 it makes us more solid defensively while allowing players alongside him to concentrate more on the attacking side of the game where as at the beginning of last season we had 2 attacking minded central midfielders in Cleverley and Anderson which led to us conceding a lot of shots on goal. If we’re to play this way this season we’re going to need to tighten up defensively.
First off this season we have a trip to Everton, in my opinion one of the toughest away games of the season and as we well know from the last 2 seasons they fight to the end coming back from 4-2 down at Old Trafford last season and coming back from 3-1 down at Goodison Park the season before. There is no real shame in drawing with Everton but to have drawn with them in the manner we have in recent seasons is not good enough, for it to happen once was seen as a moment of madness, for it to happen a second time was costly. Everton are a good side but those were 2 games we should be seeing out and winning. Monday night will be tough and it will be a great start if we can win it but if we don’t it’s not the end of the season, there are still 37 games to go and as we’ve seen over the years we often finish the season stronger than we start it, although the opposite happened last season.
After the first game we have a few games we’d be expected to win and then a few tricky fixtures starting with Liverpool away which is never easy and under new management will be a different team, we then have a home game against Tottenham who we have had the better of in recent season but under Villas Boas could be a more tricky opponent, and the last of the 3 tricky games is a trip to Newcastle, a team who were pushing for Top 4 for most of last season and gave us a bit of a pasting in the same fixture last season. A few weeks later we have 2 tough games against Chelsea (away) and Arsenal (home).
The first Manchester derby of the season takes place on December 8th. For the last few years, the derby has become bigger and bigger with every game. The last 2 league derby games have been 2 of the most miserable United games I’ve watched in recent years, we sunk in both games without putting up a fight, the away game was possibly worse as not only did we lose, we lost without testing Joe Hart and it saw us go from 1st to 2nd and cost us the title. The home game takes place on April 6th and while it’s probably too early to be a title decider it will certainly play a big part in the race.
After the derby, we have a trip to Stoke and a home game against Aston Villa before another double header starting with Arsenal away and ending with Chelsea at home the week after, two games that could make or break our season before a home game against Swansea and then finishing away at West Brom.
I am obviously biased but I believe we’ve improved the team enough this summer to win back the Premier League this season and could improve it further before the transfer window closes. With the addition of Kagawa and the younger players are a year older we will be stronger than last season. The hurt of the last day will hopefully make the whole squad more determined to make sure those feelings aren’t present again at the end of next season. The return of Vidic should also make us stronger, adding experience and his quality at the back. There is also hope Fletcher will return but I’m not holding my breath on that or him being good enough to make a difference if he was to return. We will also be looking to have more luck with injuries. These are all factors that could make a difference. City will go into the season as favourites having won the title last season but come the end of the season I think Manchester United will be the name at the top of the table.
I don’t think we’ve quite got enough yet to challenge for the Champions League but we’ll certainly do better than we did last season, Fergie will not take qualification from the group for granted this time around and will be looking to qualify comfortably for the knockout stages. With our current squad, I think the quarter finals of the Champions League will be our expectation but depending on how the draw goes we could do better and with Chelsea winning it last season, it shows there is a chance for every team.
In the domestic cups, we’ll be looking to do better in both than we did last season. Having not won the FA Cup since 2003 and there is a growing frustration among fans that it’s been so long since we won it last although the FA Cup is not seen as important as it once was. For the last 2 seasons the club has gone out of the competition in the earlier rounds and we’ll be looking to go further in the tournament this season. While it would be nice to win it, I think our main focus will be elsewhere mainly on winning the Premier League back so I’ll probably say reaching the quarter finals of the FA Cup at least is what I’d expect.
The League Cup is a competition we like to play youngsters and fringe players in and while it’s not important to win it, it’s always nice to see the players outside the first choice team in the squad get a chance to prove their worth and it’s good experience for the youngsters who have perhaps not played for the first team at all before. Over the years it’s been a good stepping stone for young players and hopefully we’ll see the next generation of young players come through in the tournament this year. The squad has been improved from last year and there are young players eager to step up. I believe there’s a good chance we could win this tournament this season.
Away from the competitions, I think it’s hard to look past Rooney at the moment as our top scorer for the season and I think we could possibly see his best goal return yet with the addition of Kagawa allowing Rooney to concentrate more on scoring goals. This could also be the last season for both Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes and possibly even Fergie’s last season although I think this is unlikely. The only one of the 3 I think is a definite to retire is Paul Scholes, having retired once before already it was a surprise to me that he decided to continue for this season. Giggs could probably go on for another season after this one as his fitness is still pretty good but it’s become quite clear over the last 12 months that he is starting to struggle and I think he’ll retire at the end of this season, hopefully on a high after we win back the league. When Fergie will retire has been debated many times over the last 10 years, he’s maintained that he would only retire for health reasons and because of this it’s unpredictable when he will retire. I’d expect him to continue for a few more years if he is able to although if the unlikelihood of winning Champions League was to happen he’d possibly see that as the right time to retire.
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