Pre-season is over, new players have come in, old ones have left, and the League is back in business with Manchester United, just like last year, playing the first match of the season, this time against Tottenham Hotspur at the Theatre of Dreams, Old Trafford. So let’s have a long, hard look at Manchester United, and assess how good they truly are in this season preview. The last time Manchester United met Tottenham Hotspur, United ran out 3-0 winners, with all three goals coming in the first half itself, owing to some shambolic defending from the Spurs. Michael Carrick set up the first goal for Marouane Fellaini to score, Fellaini set up the second goal for Carrick to score, and for the third, Wayne Rooney pounced on a defensive error and ran through the middle of the park to slot one past a helpless Hugo Lloris. That victory set in motion two more hugely morale-boosting victories against Liverpool away and Manchester City in the derby after which United ended the season in 4th place, a bare necessity after ‘that season’. A few months on, many players have left the club and many have come in. Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Matteo Darmian and Sergio Romero are the biggest names to have come in, and it looks like United are not quite done in the transfer window just yet with just a little less than a month to go till it shuts for the summer. Moving on to that assessment I talked about earlier.
Let’s start by looking at the players who have come in and lets see how good they are, how good they can be and what can we expect of them this season.
United announced the signing of Memphis Depay much before the transfer window had opened, and understandably so. There were a lot of clubs vying for Depay’s signature because of the immense talent that he has. Depay is a very versatile Dutch player who can play as a left winger, central attacking midfielder and even a striker. I reckon he has the skillset to play on the right wing as well but since he hasn’t played there much before, it would be wise to keep him where he’s best. Memphis, as he likes to be called (even his jersey says Memphis and not Depay), had a prolific campaign with his former club PSV Eindhoven last season where he scored 28 goals in 40 appearances. This is even more astounding when you learn that Depay was only 20 then. So immense is his talent, that he has been compared to the likes of Arjen Robben and Cristiano Ronaldo. In his unveiling as a Manchester United player, he said he sees himself as a striker. That is one position United definitely need some backup for Wayne Rooney. Having said that, I believe Wayne Rooney can go on to have a great season as a goalscorer this time around. In Javier Hernandez we have a fairly good backup, who, with the right push can be good for us when called upon. In James Wilson we have a potentially world-class talent and he needs game time and confidence with him and he can be a great striker too. Memphis Depay would definitely be a better goalscorer if placed up front, but at PSV he was used as an inverted left winger of sorts who cut in through the left wing, onto his right foot on which he is strong, and scored goals, and that is what he can be used as at United as well. Louis van Gaal tried that for a bit with Angel Di Maria last season but it didn’t work because Di Maria didn’t have the strength to cut in to the middle and dance past the tough English defenders, but Memphis is strong enough for it. Coming onto expectations, I think we can expect Memphis to settle into life at United well, and I can see him getting quite a few goals and assists for us even though its only his first season here.
Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger
United desperately needed a balanced defensive midfielder like Carrick, somebody who is reliable defensively and can create chances on the attack. Carrick’s age is showing now and he is increasingly growing injury-prone. Whenever Carrick was out last season, United didn’t do very well. With Carrick in the playing XI, United had a 72% win ratio and without him it was down to 35%. I bet that 35% percent would have been even lower had David De Gea not been there. The point is that an attacking side like United usually use only one primarily defensive minded defensive midfielder like Carrick and the other two in the 4-3-3 midfield were box to box midfielders. This facilitates a better defense to attack transition, but the problem was that other than Carrick we didn’t have anybody who was natural in that role. Yes, we had Daley Blind, but he showed that he wasn’t up to the challenge, and even if he was, he was pushed to the left defensive position due to the perpetual absence of Luke Shaw due to injury, and kudos to Blind because he actually did very well as left back. To solve our problem, Louis van Gaal brought in not one but two defensive midfielders in the form of highly rated Frenchman Morgan Schneiderlin and world class German Bastian Schweinsteiger. I was honestly applauding this piece of business because after a long time, United actually have a formidable midfield. I think we can expect great things from Morgan Schneiderlin for sure. Bastian Schweinsteiger is going to have a tough time settling in I feel, not just because he is on the wrong side of 30 but also because fitness has been a concern for him over the last three years or so, but overall, I feel these two transfers are absolutely world class because of the kind of ability we have captured considering the fee we have paid for the same.
Matteo Darmian and Sergio Romero
Who is Matteo Darmian? That was what everybody was asking when United had announced his transfer from Italian club Torino. Darmian is a very talented young right full back who largely passed under the radar for some reason, even though he has played for the national team. I totally appreciate this transfer because Antonio Valencia isn’t a permanent choice for right back although I am sad to see Rafael leave as a result. He was a fierce warrior, maybe sometimes too fierce, but I kinda liked him. Darmian showed in the friendlies that is an able right back. He has pace to burn and isn’t completely hapless going forward as well, a little like Rafael in that regard. I think he comes in to the starting XI directly and will stay there barring some really big errors. Sergio Romero was a bit of an odd one I feel. His form has been up and down and his ability doesn’t stand out to me either. Don’t get me wrong, he is definitely a good second choice option (if you exclude Victor Valdes) but we definitely need more between the sticks especially if David De Gea is leaving before the transfer window comes to a close. Romero may be a bit like Victor Valdes was at the end of last season, but if our defence is not as shaky as it was then, hopefully he won’t be called upon as much.
Louis van Gaal was presumably wedded to the 3-4-3 he used for Netherlands in the World Cup prior to last season because that’s what he used initially last season with United as well, only to learn very fast that it didn’t work in England. He experimented with a lot of formation thereafter but finally settled for a 4-3-3 of sorts which seemed to be bringing the results. With David De Gea perpetually between the sticks, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones as the two central defenders and Valencia and Blind as full backs, Herrera was picked as the attacking midfielder, Michael Carrick as the defensive minded one and Marouane Fellaini’s afro could be seen running around from the top of defence to the attack as he was given a fairly free role and he made a difference almost everywhere, thanks to his physicality. Young occupied the left winger role and Mata cut in regularly from the right wing in what was described as a false right winger role by the manager, one that suited Mata well, since he didn’t have a lot of physicality or pace for the wider role and his creativity supplemented the attack well. If we assume that LVG will go with a 4-3-3 this season, and there have been very few indications toward it since he played with a 4-2-3-1 in the friendlies, but if we assume that he will go ahead with a 4-3-3 then this is what we can expect: If, however, Van Gaal decides to persist with the 4-2-3-1 that he used in the pre-season friendlies, and the evidence says he might be inclined to do so since today’s confirmed lineup to face the season opener versus Tottenham Hotspur says United may use this formation, then this is something like what we may see:
I think this is a huge, huge season for Manchester United. Arguable one of the biggest of my generation and we are all looking forward to it. The buildup has been excellent, the players that have come in have brought some top-class quality and everybody looks raring to go. I expect Manchester United to do much better than they did last season, overall. I think they’re going to be more injury-free, squad depth is better this time around, the players, well most of them at least, are quite familiar with what the manager wants and his much talked about philosophy and the squad has a much, much better balance to it. Getting to the gist of the matter, I expect United to finish at least 2nd in the league, win at least one cup out of the Capital One Cup and the FA Cup and reach at least the Quarter Finals of the UEFA Champions League and hopefully a friendly draw could grant us a journey to the semis.
We all have our fingers crossed for this season and at the same time there’s some immense excitement and expectation for the same. Join me and everybody else today in the opening of the 24th Premier League season as all eyes are on Old Trafford for the draw against Spurs as we get ready to watch a cracker of a season!