Manchester United are becoming ‘ze Germans’ of club football. Regardless of their squad’s supposed weaknesses, debt-worries or the omens of bad form, United are always there-or-thereabouts when it comes to the title. This season shall prove to be no different. Sir Alex Ferguson is the longest serving in the Premier League for a reason; he continually puts out excellent teams rotated amongst an excellent squad. They are by no means infallible and in a few key positions looking very old, nevertheless you can count on United to fight on all 4 fronts for another season. All of this is much as my colleague Kratik said just last week. Whereas he indicates that United don’t need to improve for the upcoming season, and Sir Alex agrees, I feel they do need to improve but for the future.
In terms of improving the squad though, there is still some work to be done and as Sir Alex continues the final phase of his stewardship he would want to leave United in a position to win after his legacy is complete. For this he will require some young talent to supplement and then replace the older talent left in the squad. First and foremost the continual question of the goalkeeper.
Goalkeeper: Edwin Van Der Sar has been a stalwart since his transfer from Fulham. The two Champions League winners medals are a testament to his ability and the gap between them shows his longevity if a couple of poor career choices. Van Der Sar will continue to be the prominent goalkeeper for United this season but doubts will remain over his injury-proneness. He missed a substantial part of last season due to injury problems and also unfortunately some domestic health problems as well. Whilst this isn’t a blueprint for the upcoming season it is something United should keep in mind. With Thomas Kuszczak a reliable, if uninspiring, back-up Ferguson could go into the new season without bolstering his squad. However that does leave question-marks over the next season as Van Der Sar turns 41. There are some young talented keepers available on the transfer market at the moment and with Arsenal also looking to strengthen this area there would be fewer choices at the next transfer window and prices would become inflated as teams realise that United need a keeper. Any potential targets are going to be disillusioned to playing second fiddle for a season so United have left themselves a problem. It is difficult to predict who United will bring in but the likes of Igor Akinfeev and Maarten Stekelenburg have been discussed. Stekelenburg had a good world-cup with a few minor gaffes due to the movement of the Jubalani, at 27 he enters the prime of his career and due to Ajax’s money worries could be available at a fraction of his true value. The main positive for Stekelenburg is that he, like all the Dutch, is fluent in English. One of the Keys to Goalkeeping is communication look back to the roars of Peter The Great.
Defence:United have an interesting line up, it is entirely possible for them to put out a defence whose youngest player is 28 in Vidic (Brown, Rio, Vidic, Evra), but also they could realistically put out a back 4 whose oldest player is 22 (Rafael, Evans, Smalling, Fabio). Of those 4 only Evans and Rafael have enjoyed regular playing time. With those 8 Premier-League calibre players and back-ups in O’Shea and Neville, United really don’t need to strengthen their back-line at all. The development of Rafael and Fabio will be crucial for the seasons further ahead but there is little to indicate that this is much of a worry as both have shown promise if some youthful naivety, the champions league quarter-final being the case in point.
Midfield:Here we enter the crux of the matter, Kratik argued that United have “ten world-class midfielders” a bold claim, and one that could be scrutinised. The term World-Class should only be reserved for those who play at a ‘worldwide’ level. Those who shone in the world-cup may be termed world class, but Darron Gibson and Anderson? Both have potential for sure but I doubt either could qualify to the levels of Xavi, Schwiensteiger or Sneijder. The reason United havebeen linked with creative midfielders is their need for one. Mesut Ozilis the obvious choice and the bookies favourite. After lighting up the world-cup in his first game he didn’t replicate that kind of form again. Whilst always being capable of creating something from nothing. It is a happy accident that his contract is due to run out in 2011 and as such can be bought for less than people were expecting. In terms of the other midfield spot, I think it’s finally time to giveup on Owen Hargreaves even if he were to return the worry over his fitness would remain particularly in the combative nature of the Premier League. Darren Fletcher is an excellent player but his partnership with Michael Carrickdid not work in the past season, despite his detractors I don’t feel it’s time to give up on Carrick. If he could get the form he showed at Tottenhamand West Ham as he ranged further forward and his short passing ability was utilised in exploiting space in the final third he could yet be effective. As a deep-lying playmaker in the Xavi, Alonso and Pirlomould he is not effective. Finally there is the range of young midfielders United have, Anderson and Nani have had their chances at the first team level but also have been in and out of the team regularly as their form has swung wildly from excellent to anonymous. Nani entered a rich vein of form going into the close of the season, but then again so did Salamon Kalou. If Nani can perform like he did then and carry that through the majority of the season he will be a prized asset. If he returns to running himself into trouble and terrible delivery United will have a depth problem on the wings. Personally I haven’t seen enough of Obertan to make a decision on his ability coming into the season. With Park, Valencia, Giggs, Nani and ObertanUnited’s wings are well stocked with potential, the only players who could improve on this would be squad players at best or Global superstars whose price-tag precludes a realistic purchase anyway.
Forwards:Up front United are much like their defence, well stocked in youth and experience. Wayne Rooney speaks for himself, his horrific world cup (honestly his touch was shocking for a normal player and diabolical by his standards) was probably down to the lingering injury that hampered the end of his season. With a rest and a team who can carry his injury for a while Rooney will no doubt return to goal-scoring and game winning form. Only one other United striker played at the world cup and that was the exciting Javier Hernandez, in his cameo roles for Mexico he showed great dribbling ability coupled with great pace and precision. Wherehe exploited the space behind France and showed composure he also turned the Argentineans inside out and slammed a shot into the net. Whilst like Obertan I can’t pass judgement until I haveseen him week in and out he is the most exciting part (at the moment) about United’s upcoming season. On the negative side we have the ‘Mercurial’ (to put it kindly) Dimitar Berbatov . His touch and vision are sometimes impossible and then sometimes ghastly. He shows pace but then also shows a lack of stamina, consistently inconsistent he was not worth and is not worth the money United paid for him. That is not to say he should be shipped out or forgotten about, he still has a role to play in the upcoming season but if United fans are considering the future as well as the upcoming season they will place their hopes on Hernandez and not Berbatov. Danny Welbeck, Federico Macheda and Michael Owen provide the depth for the very worst of injury crises but with only patchy playing time and substitute appearances between them they will not be the key for this season.
All-in-all United are fearsome, a football machine with a squad the envy of Europe. United havenot built their success around having the best eleven on the pitch, although they are at the very top in this, they thrive on having the depth to consistently challenge for all in front of them. The youth can challenge for the Carling Cup, the first eleven for the champions league and elite premier-league games and the squad for the mid-table clashes and mid-week FA cup ties. The main concerns for United fans lie in the Directors Box not on the field. I was writing about their on-field issues here, their off-field issues could fill a book or two. In summary, United fans don’t worry about the upcoming season, they only worry about the few after that, when Ferguson does step down and Giggs and Scholes retire, it will be the measure of the club if they’ve prepared for that.