The shopping centres have been visited, the family has been tolerated, and for a fortnight we all fell in love with the Olympics. But now we are on the verge of yet another new football season, and the next nine months will rekindle all our hopes, dreams and nightmares. This is my chance to give a brief preview of the new season, and it’s your chance to bookmark this page and come back to give me abuse in May 2013.
For simplicity’s sake, I have decided to split up the preview into a general preview, followed by more in-depth analysis on Man United, followed by my overall prediction.
General Season Preview
Last season, the top half of the table was split up into three mini-leagues. The race for the title was played out between United and City, who both finished a massive 19 points clear of third-placed Arsenal. The Gunners battled off challenges from London rivals Spurs and Chelsea, along with the surprise package of the season – Newcastle United, to claim the final automatic Champions League spot. Further back, Everton finished above Liverpool for the first time since 2005 to claim 7th spot in the league.
The Manchester clubs are both strong favourites once more entering into this campaign – City have the experience of winning the title and for the first time in years have a settled squad, while United will be a wounded animal after final-day heartbreak in May. Kagawa was a canny signing by Ferguson and will add fluidity to United’s attack; he possesses the ability to make good players turn into great ones, such is his ability and work ethic. Meanwhile the return of Nemanja Vidic will bolster a defence who looked susceptible frequently throughout last season.
Without doubt, the Reds have secured the biggest capture of this summer’s transfer window to date. Prising Arsenal captain and English Player of the Year Robin van Persie is perhaps United’s biggest coup in a decade. He is undoubtedly a world-class striker and will no doubt give Sir Alex many a selection headache over the course of the coming season: juggling van Persie, Rooney, Welbeck, Chicharito and co. is a dilemma most managers can only dream of.
Manchester City have surprised many people this summer by their lack of activity in the transfer market. Jack Rodwell has failed to fulfil his potential from his early Everton days, and has the increasingly familiar problem of not knowing if his best position is in defence or midfield. City have a remarkably strong spine of Hart-Kompany-Toure-Aguero, which is the best in the league, but doubts still remain over their strength in depth.
The Citizens were relatively lucky last year in terms of injuries, keeping their main players fit most of the season. When one of Kompany or Lescott was unavailable, Savic did not look like adequate cover. Doubts too remain over their lack of width; most of their attacks came from central areas last season and even their most natural wide player – Adam Johnson, cut in onto his left foot to congest the pitch even more. They will need Balotelli and Dzeko to cut out slackness which frequently crept into their play last season, if they are to provide a stern challenge to Tevez or Aguero.
The gap between Manchester and the rest will presumably close this season, with the three London challengers strengthening their squads to make them more contenders than pretenders. Arsenal have added experience and knowhow to a side plagued with flakiness, frailty and inconsistency. Wenger has anticipated van Persie’s departure by drafting in Podolski, Giroud and Cazorla to provide firepower, but without the Dutchman their aims will be downgraded. They are yet to strengthen their defence, and with this in mind they will fall short of a prolonged title assault.
Hoping to capitalise will be Chelsea and Spurs. The Blues have added plenty of flair with Hazard and Oscar, but haven’t replaced a certain Chinese-bound Ivorian and will be hoping that Torres undergoes a dramatic turn of fortunes if they are to offer a sustained challenge. There are defensive questions too; heroic battling performances against Barcelona and Bayern where achieved with a deep back-line, but they’ll have to be much more adventurous in the league and their lack of defensive pace may provide problems.
Tottenham look set to lose their midfield gem with Real Madrid closing in on Luka Modric, and are entering the season with Jermain Defoe as their only registered first team striker. Andre Villas Boas replacing Redknapp is news that has been met with an air of caution – undoubtedly a fine coach, he is under pressure following a disastrous spell in the West End of London. Spurs should prove a more straightforward task, and early signs are promising. Vertonghen and Sigurdsson will reinforce their spine, but lack of firepower remains a concern.
The element of surprise was the crucial factor behind Newcastle’s success last term. A strong start gave them the momentum to offer a sustained challenge to the established elite of the league. The unknown quantities of Ba, Cabaye and Cisse dazzled, and Pardew’s tactical astuteness ensured they were a force to be reckoned with. This form is unlikely to be replicated as team’s now know their strengths and how to combat them, but will be sure to still trouble opponents. The signing of versatile midfielder Vurnon Anita could be the case of Pardew unearthing another nugget from mainland Europe.
Liverpool look to overcome a disastrous campaign with the appointment of popular Northern Irishman Brendan Rodgers. The passing style he implicated at Swansea won the support of neutrals, and will look to stamp this on a team which more suited to playing the percentages. This will take time and he will need to be afforded patience, whether he will or not is another matter. Allen and Borini are players he has worked with before but it is questionable if they can take the club to the next level. Bettering their 8th place finish last year is a priority, but it is very much a transitional period and they’ll do well to finish in the top six.
Everton, Sunderland and Aston Villa all have managers who should be able to steer them into a top half finish. Moyes has once more made excellent use of his resources by signing Naismith from Rangers and re-signing Pienaar, while Martin O’Neill will be on the lookout for a goalscorer to turn his Sunderland side into a force to be reckoned with. Villa have made an excellent appointment in Paul Lambert, but owner Randy Lerner will need to loosen the purse strings if they are to mount a European challenge.
All three promoted clubs will fancy their chances of survival. Pavel Pogbrenyak is one of the signings of the summer for Reading, snatching him from under the noses of Fulham. They’ll hope to feed off the momentum they generated last year with a hardworking squad to survive. Southampton too have made shrewd signings – Steve Davis and Nathaniel Clyne are both more than capable of playing in the top league. Ricky Lambert has excellent in the football league for years, and they will be hoping that his goals fire them to safety. West Ham have added French international Alou Diarra along with African players Diame and Maiga, the former already having forged a reputation in the division. Big Sam has strength in depth and his teams are never easy to beat.
It’s a big ask for Norwich and Swansea to replicate their form of their debut campaigns. ‘Second season syndrome’ may well kick in for both, and arguably their managers were their main asset. However, the Canaries negotiated two huge contracts – renewing Grant Holt’s and hiring Chris Hughton. Swansea made a leftfield appointment in Michael Laudrup; very much an unknown quantity to English football fans. He could be in for a baptism of fire.
QPR have employed a scattergun approach to the transfer market. Without any apparent reasoning or formula behind their transfers, they just seem to sign players at will. As one writer put it, ‘the club have become a bit like a Victorian home for lost footballers’. They won’t have as tough a season as last year, Park and Hoilett are very good players at this level and should be enough to ensure they’re safe by the final day.
Stoke have emerged as the perennial mid-table club, with no-one expecting them to threaten either end of the table. Should be easier for them to pull off results due to not being in Europe, but you get the sense they’d be happy enough to avoid being entangled in the relegation mire. Fulham have lost attacking players Murphy, Pogbrenyak and Johnson, but they have a knack of making astute signings – Rodallega and Petric will both provide goals for the Cottagers.
That leaves two clubs – West Brom who look to life after Hodgson, and Wigan who look to build on last season’s late heroics. The Baggies look to be in for a tough season, they have punched above their weight recently and missing out on Hughton as manager leaves them looking nervously over their shoulder. Wigan will need to hold on to star player Victor Moses, who has caught Chelsea’s eye. The club have already lost Rodallega and Diame, as they continue to fail to retain their best players. Martinez’s loyalty is admirable but may have to make a few more signings before they can be confident.
Manchester United Preview
It hasn’t been an easy twelve months for United fans. Losing the league in the dying seconds on goal difference to your nearest and not so dearest rivals is one bitter pill to swallow. Many thought that this was our ‘Liverpool’ moment – that time when a switchover of power from one juggernaut to the next had occurred. For Liverpool, it was losing the league in the last minute against Arsenal in 1989 – they may have regained the title the following year, but haven’t really come close since. After twenty years of Manchester United enjoying relative dominance, now it was the turn of City, with their depth of wealth.
This is at a time when fan unrest at the Glazer ownership was reaching new highs. Concerns over lack of investment in the squad where illustrated when United missed out on Brazilian teenager Lucas Moura and Belgian wizard Eden Hazard, who joined the line of talent including Sneijder, Nasri and Benzema who have opted to go elsewhere. The debt issue won’t go away, and it will always be the overwhelming concern whilst United don’t have success on the pitch.
Anxieties persist over the team’s central midfield. Michael Carrick is doing it all on his own, with Tom Cleverley too injury prone, Anderson too inconsistent, and Scholes entering his final season. Not to mention Ryan Giggs’ performances notably waning suggesting imminent retirement, and the decline in form of Patrice Evra over the past two years. Dimitar Berbatov’s career has nosedived, while the club doesn’t seem able to retain its young talent – Morrison, Pogba and Fryers all decided to leave.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. The club have are close to making four summer signings to date – the intelligent Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa and the enthusiastic teenage sensation Nick Powell are both confirmed, while in-demand Chilean forward Ángelo Henríquez and of course, a Dutch striker deals are all but finalised. Not to mention the ever-improving David De Gea, who held the highest saves to shots ratio in the league last season, and the maturing talent of Danny Welbeck, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, who have all impressed and certain to continue this progression. Rafael Da Silva has emerged as first-choice right back and has signed a new deal, while Tom Cleverley had had an excellent pre-season. Nine of these players are under 25 too – the foundations of the next United side for Fergie’s successor have been set.
Nemanja Vidic’s return from injury is crucial. While Jonny Evans performed admirably during the Serbian’s six-month absence, the defence simply wasn’t as steady. Vidic is a commanding presence and is crucial in both defending and attacking set pieces. His partnership and understanding with Rio Ferdinand in the heart of defence was arguably the best in the world not so long ago.
The turning point in the title race was United dropping two indescribably vital points at home to Everton in a 4-4 draw. Even rewinding the clock back twelve months, conceding four goals at Old Trafford would have been inconceivable. The Serbian skipper is a rock for the Reds, and the 2010/11 Premier League Player of the Year could well be back to his commanding best for this year’s assault on achieving the club’s twentieth league crown.
The key to United’s success over the years has been the speed and potency of which they attack, ripping opponents relentlessly to shreds. Dimitar Berbatov never suited this system and despite both club and player trying to adapt, it never worked out. But with the superb wing play of Valencia, Young and Nani, along with the passing ability of Kagawa and the finishing prowess of Rooney and van Persie, this could be a vintage United outfit.
The van Persie signing was a hugely striking and powerful bit of symbolism from Sir Alex – for all his talk of ‘value in the market’ and building a team for the future, he splashed out £24 million on a 29-year-old striker who has a dubious injury past. The message was clear: Man United are still a major force and the present will not be sacrificed for the sake of the future.
Coming from rivals Arsenal, this deal is all the more stunning. The mesmerising rivalry played out between Ferguson and Wenger through the years implied a transfer of this magnitude as almost unthinkable. It is one hell of a statement of intent, but it is more than that. It gives the club and more importantly the fans a shot in the arm; no longer are Man United a selling club focusing on youth, but they are back to the level of signing the world’s best players. The negativity surrounding the Glazers will be forgotten, briefly at least, and the fans approach the new season brimming with confidence. Beating rivals City to the signing makes it all the sweeter.
It would be foolish to forget the little Mexican Chicharito, who will be a major threat whether he’s on form or not, but a summer break will have helped his chances for the next season. He is useful in games where the opposition plays a high-line, allowing him to exploit this with pace and killer precision. It is testament to the remarkable development of Danny Welbeck, who complements his tireless work-rate with international ability and technique. The youngster will need to improve his finishing, but he has all the makings of a striker who will terrorise defences for the next decade.
You would be hard pushed to read a United blog that fails to make at least a passing reference to the central midfield issue, or ‘problem’, as most put it. For England’s recently friendly with Italy, both starting central midfielders were from Old Trafford, while the country had been consistently begging for another to emerge out of international retirement. The pair that started – Carrick and Cleverley – both excelled, and have both had excellent pre-seasons. They add zip, composure and a touch of flair to the side, with precise passing and a calming influence.
No tough-tackling defensive powerhouse in there, but then again it’s unconvincing if this would benefit the team’s style of play. Another midfield in for cover would be ideal, though there are no suggestions that this will happen. Sir Alex has persisted with Anderson, despite his injuries and lack of form, while Darren Fletcher’s return to pre-season was a massive boost to the club and to a player who so easily could have had an improving playing career cut desperately short. Ferguson has also hinted on more than occasion that he has earmarked Nick Powell to play in a more restrained midfield role, than his attacking berth at Crewe.
Of the first-team squad players to depart, none will really be missed. The biggest departure was Ji-Sung Park, who joins QPR. The Korean gave seven years of admirable service to United, and you’ve heard all the ‘hard working’, ‘does a job’, ‘big game player’ cliché’s before. His performances over the past 18 months had notably waned, and the time was right for him to move on.
Another, Michael Owen, played his part too. A hat-trick away to Wolfsburg in the Champions League and that unforgettable 96th minute winner against City were his highlights, but injuries and age restricted his aspirations to being a bit-part player. Fabio da Silva’s progress has slowed compared to that of his twin, and has joined Park at QPR on a season-long loan deal. Pogba has, disappointingly but expectedly, moved to Juventus. A rough diamond; he had the potential to become a star but had no commitment or ties to do so at United. Berbatov, Macheda and Bebe are all likely to move in the remaining months of the window too, as Ferguson looks to add the finishing touches to his 25-man squad for the coming campaign.
The starting eleven will be an interesting one. There are of course a number of automatic picks – De Gea, Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra will all be regulars, while Carrick and Valencia will be mainstays in midfield, but the main talking point will be around rotating the attacking. Rooney and van Persie will obviously be favourites to lead the line, with Kagawa floating between midfield and attack. The question is then whether to select Nani or Ashley Young on the left and drop Kagawa further back to partner Carrick, or allow Cleverley to do that role. My opinion is that it’ll be the latter. Here is my predicted starting eleven for the coming season:
De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Cleverley, Kagawa; Rooney, van Persie (4-4-2)
This will mean Kagawa will start more on the left side of midfield, but he will naturally drift inside and allow Evra to overlap during attacking spells. I think that while it will be two men starting up front, Rooney will tend to drop back to help out the midfield and stay in a slightly deeper role to van Persie.
But in reality, talking theoretically about formations is a waste of time. Sir Alex won’t be certain himself of what’s the best formation to employ. My prediction is based on all first team players are fit and free from suspension, and this is rarely the case. Rotation will certainly be as prominent as ever and all of our assets will get a chance to prove their worth.
Capturing both the English and German players of the year, along with the returning captain Nemanja Vidic should see Manchester United once more installed as favourites for the league campaign. It won’t be easy though, and City won’t want to give up their title easily. It’ll go right down to the wire, but Fergie’s side will surely not make the same mistakes twice.
Despite selling van Persie, Arsenal have enough about them to finish third, while Chelsea will qualify for the Champions League without having to worry about winning it. I predict Spurs will struggle with the loss of Modric and lack of firepower, and could well slip down to sixth.
Any of the bottom eight could get relegated, it’ll be close this year. West Brom and Swansea will both struggle to replace their former managers, while Reading’s squad lack’s top flight experience, though if Pogbrenyak hits top form they could well survive.