Positions Where Manchester United Needs to Strengthen
In the aftermath of Manchester City’s stunning finish, Manchester United will prepare to bounce back after falling just short of their twentieth title. With City’s first Premier League championship since 1968, many believe that this could be the start of an era of dominance for United’s cross-town rivals as they can continue to acquire players at astronomical prices. For many City fans (and United haters), there is hope that this setback for United will lead to a changing of the guard as the blue side of Manchester will become the team to beat for years to come.
Yet, after United’s recent history, the idea that the Red Devils will lay down to City’s resurgence just isn’t realistic. After dealing with the “Invincibles” of Arsenal, the “Russian Revolution” of Chelsea, the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez in one summer, and now “Blue Moon Rising”, Manchester United knows how to respond to tremendous adversity. Under Sir Alex Ferguson, the Red Devils have repeatedly shown the will, determination, and adaptability to continue winning despite numerous challenges.
There are many concerns which resulted from this season whether it was United’s horrible European form in the Champions and Europa leagues, continual midfield struggles, inability to score more goals, relapses on defense, goalkeeper issues, and the team’s consistent struggles in matches against rivals like Manchester City, Liverpool, and Chelsea. This myriad of problems along with the stunning number of injuries plagued the Red Devils throughout the season.
As a result of the failures associated with a trophy-less season, many will claim that United must go through a dramatic upheaval of the squad in order to stop Manchester City’s new found momentum as a Premier League powerhouse.
However, drastic changes have never been United’s style of dealing with misfortune. Under Sir Alex, calculated moves and continued persistence will be the remedy for dealing with the despair of bitterly losing the title.
When one looks at United’s squad, there is no need to make wholesale changes. Let’s take a look of the different parts of the Red Devils’ lineup.
For David de Gea, it was never going to be easy to seamlessly replace a legend in Edwin Van der Sar. After struggling to adapt to the physicality of the Premier League, de Gea’s confidence took a big hit. He was pushed around like a rag doll in matches against Blackburn and Stoke which cost United precious points. Yet, it was his performance against Chelsea on February 5th which consisted of a stunning save against a Juan Mata free kick in stoppage time that indicated that the Spaniard was ready to truly take over in goal. In the final three months, de Gea showed the poise, strength (he was no longer being jostled around in the box) and assurance of a top keeper that United can rely on for years to come. Along with back-up Anders Lindegaard who is more than capable of being a starter, Manchester United’s goal-keeping is not an issue.
United’s defense suffered the worst possible blow on December 7th when Nemanja Vidic suffered knee ligament damage which would sideline him for the rest of the season. United was in serious trouble as they would now have to fully rely on the inconsistent Johnny Evans and the injury-prone Rio Ferdinand. However, Ferdinand was able to stay miraculously fit and Evans stepped up to the challenge of replacing Vidic. While the duo had their struggles against Chelsea and Everton, Ferdinand and Evans held many teams at bay.
In terms of the fullbacks, Patrice Evra, while slower now then he once was, was still a dependable and durable stalwart who contributed to United’s success on both ends of the field. Phil Jones, in his debut season, showed his versatility and tenacity which has brought on comparisons to the legendary Duncan Edwards.
Rafael, who has often dealt with injuries and discipline issues, rediscovered his good form and became the speedy, aggressive right back United desperately needed. While some of his performances left a lot to be desired, the season was a positive step forward for the young Brazilian. While teams like Chelsea have shown recent interest in him, he will likely not leave Old Trafford as he looks to become more consistent next season.
Chris Smalling, despite being cruelly plagued by injuries, continued to show the speed and skill to be a future defensive stalwart for both club Manchester United and England. While he was at fault for the Kompany header in the Manchester derby, Smalling will become a first-choice fullback as long as he gains experience and stays healthy.
Often the biggest talking point of Manchester United, the midfield stood out in both positive and negative ways. In terms of highlights, Paul Scholes’ miraculous resurgence stood out as he was a major factor in getting United back into the title race in January. He rolled back the clock as he played with great poise, commanding United’s midfield with precisely accurate passing. In the previous summer when everyone wondered who would replace Scholes, it turned out that there wasn’t a better replacement than the ginger wizard himself.
Two other central midfielders United owe a lot to were Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick. While Giggs doesn’t have the endurance to play in every game, he was brilliant in crucial matches throughout the season. He continues to be a reliable weapon whose versatility and experience is a major boost for the squad. In regards to Carrick, it was arguably his best season ever as he responded to all the doubters. While he isn’t flashy, Carrick showed a hard-working prowess as he covered both ends of the field. He kept possession and his strong passing was instrumental when United moved forward to create chances.
Manchester United also greatly benefited from the play of their trio of wingers. Antonio Valencia was among the elite of the Premier League as his crosses, pace and improved finishing made him a chief source of goals and assists. While Valencia struggled in the first half of the season, Nani was one of few players who played better in the first half. While injury and bad decision making made him worse in the second half, he was still responsible for eight goals and ten assists. Like Nani, Ashley Young also had his fair share of highs and lows. He started out like a house on fire but cooled off in the middle of the season due to inconsistency and injury. Yet, despite some lackluster performances, he showed great crossing ability and peerless match-winning displays against Tottenham which made him a valuable signing who can improve at United over time.
However, United struggled mightily at times both in England and in Europe in large part due to midfield struggles. A major blow to United’s season was the devastating tackle Bolton’s Kevin Davies made on Tom Cleverley who in the first month looked like the elite central midfielder he was hyped to be. His partnership with Anderson made United look dangerous and inventive when creating chances. Yet, Cleverley took over six months to recover from an injured ankle and never regained his early-season form. Anderson, who showed glimpses of promise with Cleverley, quickly folded in the following months as injury and unreliable form made him a forgotten man. With Darren Fletcher’s presence greatly missed due to ulcerated colitis and Ji-Sung Park showing his age, United’s midfield lacked the creativity, confidence, and capability to handle Manchester City and other opponents throughout the season.
Like last summer, United will head in with questions over what additions need to be made. The first name that pops to mind is Shinji Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund, who has been strongly linked to a deal with Manchester United after refusing to sign an extension in Germany and meeting up in person with Sir Alex Ferguson. With a transfer price at around 20 million, United may not hesitate in signing him as the attacking midfielder’s seventeen goals and ten assists this season was vital in leading Borussia Dortmund to their first ever double in 103 years. At 23, Kagawa could prove to be a vital reinforcement to United’s midfield on a short and long-term basis. Despite interest from Arsenal, United look like the favorites in signing the Japanese international after missing out on Hazard.
While other options like Benfica’s Nicolas Gaitan and more recently Rayo Vallecano’s Michu have emerged as possible United targets, Sir Alex will no doubt be looking for sorely-needed additions as a response to a trophy-less season.
While Wayne Rooney struggled at times down the stretch this season, his goal tally of 34 in the EPL was quite the feat. Unlike prior seasons, off-field issues didn’t get in the way of Rooney’s consistent form and his clinical goal-scoring. He also developed a great partnership with Danny Welbeck who impressed far beyond anyone expected in his first full season. While his prowess in finding the net can be improved, his link-up play and physical strength made him look like a long-term option.
Javier Hernandez struggled to score as much as he did in his magical first season due to injuries (a concussion before the season and an ankle injury derailed much of his second year). He was unfortunate in hitting the bar or post numerous times but with much-needed rest this summer, United will hope he’ll be fully prepared for the upcoming season.
The question then is what will be done about the fourth striker. With Dimitar Berbatov set to leave and Michael Owen already gone, United will definitely be in the market. While reports have linked the Red Devils with Borussia Dortmund’s Robert Lewandowski, it seems hard to imagine that he’ll end up at Old Trafford if either Kagawa comes first or the Polish striker impresses in the Euro which will increase his transfer price. Besides Lewandowski, United haven’t been strongly linked with any other strikers which may lead to speculation that the issue of adding to the midfield is on the forefront.
Overall, while Manchester United will be disappointed to have fallen so cruelly short of the title, they could be proud that they challenged Manchester City to the last minute. The team is strong as it is and simply doesn’t need to be ripped apart after a season that fell a little short of glory. The bitterness of defeat will likely only make Ferguson and the rest of team more hungry and motivated to reclaim their edge over the Noisy Neighbors.