As the start of the 2014/15 campaign begins to rise above the hills on the horizon, Manchester United fans are highly anticipating the second new dawn in the space of 12 months. The pessimism and gloom of the Moyes era has been swiftly overrun by the encouraging performances of pre-season under new manager Louis Van Gaal, which came to a conclusion with a 2-1 victory against Valencia on Tuesday evening.
The difference between Moyes and his long-term successor was summed up in one poetically ironic moment in injury time at Old Trafford, when Moyes’ sole summer signing 12 months ago, the much maligned Marouane Felliani, got on the end of a long, direct ball from defence to score the winner. It was the kind of tactic that would have been ridiculed under Moyes, but for Van Gaal it was a welcome demonstration that he possesses a fair share of luck to go with his talent. An injury time winner in front of the Stretford End; it was a victory in true Manchester United fashion.
The appointment of the enigmatic Dutchman has wielded tangible change at the club, with United now expected to continue with the 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 formation utilised so effectively throughout pre-season. Moreover, Wayne Rooney has been appointed as the new club captain, with Darren Fletcher assuming the vice captaincy role.
Many will begrudge the appointment of Wayne Rooney to lead the club he has twice supposedly requested to leave, but his dedication on the pitch is difficult to question. It is no secret that the former Everton man shared a tense relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson in his latter years and of the outfield players under David Moyes Rooney showed more hunger and fight than most.
There are of course arguments that the Manchester United captain represents so much more than simply what happens on the pitch, but the fact remains that the forward is now arguably the most senior member of the dressing room.
Other candidates will undoubtedly have included Robin van Persie, Michael Carrick, Jonny Evans, Darren Fletcher and perhaps even Phil Jones, but it should not take an armband to be a leader. At a club like Manchester United all players should be leaders and it will take a collective effort to right the wrongs of last season.
The captaincy means more to some fans than others but whilst Wayne Rooney wears the armband, so long as he displays all of the hunger, fight and determination that have so often characterized him on the pitch, he should be welcomed and supported.
All change, then, and with the departures of experienced defenders Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic, along with the retirement of Ryan Giggs, the Red Devils embark upon the new campaign largely devoid of the stalwarts who had become such an integral part of the club’s identity and success. In this regard, the roles of the likes of Rooney and Fletcher will be crucial in ensuring that the Van Gaal era returns the club to the dizzy heights at which it has become so accustomed.
Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera have added much needed quality to areas of the field that were in desperate need of strengthening. Despite early fitness concerns, a hamstring injury to the former comes as blow just days before the opening Premier League fixture against Swansea City. Nevertheless, the increasingly impressive Herrera will be expected to start against the Welsh side in midfield alongside Darren Fletcher.
There is no doubt, however, that even with the additions of Shaw and Herrera the squad still presents some glaring deficiencies both in terms of quality and numbers. Tyler Blackett has looked promising when given the opportunity but the club still lack experience in the centre of defence.
Widespread reports suggest that Marcos Rojo of Sporting Lisbon is being targeted, a player who can supposedly cover both left-back and left centre-back. However, at 24, Rojo will not add the experience so desperately lacking should his move materialise.
Others touted have been the likes of Daley Blind, Mats Hummels and Mehdi Benatia. The latter two would bring both quality and experience, but moves appear difficult and unlikely at this stage.
In midfield, most would argue that a further central midfielder would add much needed strength and depth to the squad. Louis Van Gaal has pointedly bemoaned the imbalance of the current playing staff and in this regard it appears that a high caliber winger may also be in the Dutchman’s thinking in order to facilitate a switch to his confessed preference for a 4-3-3 system.
In the wing-back areas both Reece James and Ashley Young have excelled, and with Shaw to return, Antonio Valencia, Rafael and youth prospects Guillermo Varela and Saidy Janko impressing, the squad is well covered. Although Van Gaal may seek to bring in added quality in what are undoubtedly specialist positions.
In the forward areas the club look well set. With the likes of Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Danny Welbeck, Juan Mata, Adnan Januzaj, Shinji Kagawa and Javier Hernandez, the Old Trafford outfit boast a plethora of exciting options. Add to that the promising talents of James Wilson and even Andreas Pereira and it would not be a surprise to see Javier Hernandez and perhaps even Shinji Kagawa depart before the transfer window closes.
The departure of Chicharito would certainly divide opinion. The diminutive Mexican is undoubtedly talented, but has failed to maintain a regular place in the side but offers arguably the best threat from the bench in the Premier League. The striker is popular amongst the fans and for good reason, but there is no room for sentiment in football, the club must always come first.
A swap deal for Juventus’ Arturo Vidal involving Hernandez and Nani has been widely mooted, and although an expensive deal it may be one worth pursuing for the club to strengthen a weak area of the field without losing too much quality in another. With James Wilson seemingly ready to occupy the fourth striker’s spot in the squad, the sacrifice of Chicharito may prove the right decision for all involved, albeit with a heavy heart.
There is no doubt, then, that the club still requires strengthening. In this regard, it is highly lamentable that following a farcical fiasco in the previous summer, the club do not appear to have learnt many lessons. The boasts of unlimited budgets and attracting the very top players do nothing but inhibit any negotiating stance and once more it would appear that the club are struggling to tie down deals.
Nevertheless, with a couple of weeks of the window still to go fans should remain patient and trust the club. If Ed Woodward is truly after players of the highest caliber, then these deals inevitably take longer with other clubs reluctant to sell their prized assets.
However, one thing is for certain; as things stand expectations as to the new campaign should be tempered. With the current squad, even without the distraction of European football a fight for 3rd or 4th is surely realistic. A sprinkling of stardust in the final two weeks of the window may change that and expectations can of course be adjusted accordingly. Nevertheless, despite a positive pre-season it is important not to get too carried away.
Manchester United are one of the biggest clubs in the world, but transforming a squad which finished 7th the previous season is no small task. Louis van Gaal has the experience and the talent to do the job, but whilst all things so far point encouragingly in the right direction, there will undoubtedly be some lows on the way. As they did last season so admirably, the fans will be needed again to provide their unwavering support. As the 2014/15 season approaches, we wait to learn Manchester United’s fate.
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