So here we are, barely two months since defeat at Wembley and fortnight away from the start of the Premier League season. The mill never stops turning; yesterday’s success now forgotten and challenges ahead to be relished. Manchester United’s nine-point winning margin in last season’s Premier League is now a distant memory. The horrendous away-record cast into history, as is United’s fabulous series of results at Old Trafford.
In this most cynical industry yesterday’s glories and, indeed, failures can be cast aside. So too can the ignominious episode with star player Wayne Rooney, whose October Revolution followed so quickly on the heels of lurid tabloid headlines about the Scouser’s sexual predilections.
The new season, by contrast, brings nothing but hope; a virginal innocence that will only be broken when United kicks off at the Hawthornes in two weeks. With it comes the opportunity to record a first of what Sir Alex Ferguson hopes is many victories on the road in the campaign.
The fresh season is also marked by a youthful feeling to United’s squad. In between that defeat to Barcelona and the new season’s start United has spent more heavily than in recent years and Ferguson has overseen greater turnover in personnel than is the norm under United’s 69-year-old manager. The squad changes are precipitated by retirements and releases, most notably Paul Scholes and Edwin van der Sar, in addition to Gary Neville last winter. Owen Hargreaves’ release came as no surprise after three years of injury and false hope.
Out too goes decade-long servants Wes Brown and John O’Shea to Sunderland. Brown’s Old Trafford future was sealed a year previously when the 31-year-old defender reportedly called Ferguson a “c*nt” on last summer’s tour of the US. Few at Old Trafford have ever returned from that level of indiscipline. O’Shea, meanwhile, is sacrificed for youth with the da Silva twins, new recruit Phil Jones and Chris Smalling ensuring the Irishman is, in the old cliché, surplus to requirements.
Goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak, now also unnecessary with Anders Lindegaard fit following a knee injury last spring, and Darron Gibson are almost certain to leave the club before the transfer window closes in a month’s time. Mame Biram Diouf may well join the pair should United find a suitable buyer for the 22-year-old Senegalese striker, who has failed to impress after 18 months in England.
Tellingly, the six senior pros that have left Ferguson’s squad since last summer have released some £20 million per annum in wages from Old Trafford’s books. More than the raw cash sat in United’s bank account since Cristiano Ronaldo’s sale, and the pre-payment secured on the club’s sponsorship with AON, wage reduction has enabled Ferguson to spend this summer.
In have come three players with youth on their side; typical Glazernomic recruits cynics might add. In David de Gea Ferguson has recruited a goalkeeper with genuine pretensions to become the world’s finest in his position. The 20-year-old former Atlético de Madrid stopper is not there yet – there will be mistakes this season – but his is a bold acquisition nonetheless.
Meanwhile, in Jones Ferguson has recruited a future star of the England national side, team leader and flexible defensive option. There is little doubt United’s preference was to wait a year before bringing the 19-year-old Lancashire-born player to Old Trafford but as with Rooney and Chris Smalling before him interest elsewhere forced the club’s hand. Finding enough playing time for the £16 million acquisition will be one of Ferguson’s key concerns this season.
Then there is Young, whose purchase divides supporter and pundit opinion alike. Certainly, the player’s flexibility and creativity offers much. In the seven years since David Beckham’s departure Old Trafford will not have witnessed a dead-ball delivery with the penetration that the former Aston Villa winger promises.
Yet, there is also the genuine concern that Young offers little more than another option. No worse than Antonio Valenica and Nani but certainly no better either. Young is unlikely to bridge the gap between United and Barcelona during the coming European campaign.
Meanwhile, returning loanees Tom Cleverley, Danny Welbeck and Federico Macheda will add a youthful vigour to Ferguson’s options. Each has enjoy some success on United’s pre-season tour to the States.
Yet, squad changes to date have not addressed two key weaknesses in United’s armoury: central midfield creativity and the lack of a genuine destructive player in the Ferguson’s engine-room. The Scot’s failure to land Luka Modrić, Wesley Sneider, Samir Nasri or, for that matter, any other creative midfielder is a serious weakness. This is true whether Anderson finally matures into the player Ferguson believed he had bought four years ago or not. Cleverley’s progression despite the player’s slight frame cannot come quickly enough.
Then there is the inexplicable failure to replace Hargreaves, leaving Michael Carrick to once again perform the defensive duties that he is not always at ease with. Darren Fletcher’s ongoing illness will surely leave Ferguson and the manager’s scouting team on high alert for viable alternatives.
These concerns may, of course, dissipate should United finally secure that midfielder, or two.
Domestically United’s pre-eminence last season was sealed in a superbly professional close to the campaign. The nine-point winning margin arguably did not reflect the campaign as a whole but United was a worthy winner nonetheless. The summer, as always, has brought changes that alter the dynamic for the coming season, and not only in the aforementioned squad personnel at Old Trafford.
Chelsea has once again changed manager, recruiting 33-year-old André Villas-Boas. Callow the Portuguese may be but the former Porto manager secured a domestic and European treble last season and is familiar with Stamford Bridge following a spell in José Mourniho’s backroom staff. And whatever Villas-Boas’ merits Chelsea surely cannot suffer the kind of disastrous mid-season spell that so afflicted Carlo Ancelotti’s final campaign in charge. That said the challenge to Villas-Boas’ authority when it inevitably comes – John Terry, Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba take note – will be a key period in the Londoners’ season.
Chelsea’s challenge to United will also be dictated by three key factors: whether the 2010 Champions can seal a move for playmaker Modrić; if Fernando Torres can finally overcome a year-old slump; and whether the Londoners overcome the devastating loss of Michael Essien to yet another knee injury.
Meanwhile, Arsenal’s challenge is hard to predict until the summer window closes on 31 August. Arsène Wenger’s understandable intransigence on both Nasri and Cesc Fabregas is unlikely to affect the latter’s eventual departure to Barcelona. Nasri is seemingly willing to see out the final year of his contract before joining Manchester City on a Bosman free-transfer next summer.
Fabregas’ loss will, of course, be felt keenly at the Emirates, although Juan Mata may well join from Valencia to offer Wenger yet another lightweight technical midfielder. Plus ça change. It is in central defence, however, that Wenger must recruit if Arsenal is to compete. Bids for Christopher Samba and Phil Jaglielka are expected, although it is hard to place either player in the very top bracket of world football.
Once again City may well usurp Arsenal in the league; Roberto Mancini’s side has genuine pretensions to the Premier League title. In Sergio Agüero Mancini has recruited genuine class; a striker who will both score and create, whether compatriot Carlos Tevez remains at Eastlands or not. Either way in Agüero, Mario Balotelli, Edin Džeko, David Silva and Adam Johnson, the Italian coach has a plethora of high-quality attacking options. Defensively Gaël Clicy will offer an experienced alternative to failed experiments with Wayne Bridge and Aleksandar Kolarov.
Elsewhere Liverpool has spent heavily on Jordan Henderson and Charlie Adam, in addition to winter recruits Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll. It is spending with a Champions League spot in mind, although with United, Chelsea and City seemingly certain to finish in the Premier League’s top-four, Liverpool may have to usurp Arsenal to re-enter Europe’s top competition in 2012.
The Scousers’ heavy spending may well be at Tottenham Hotspur’s cost. Harry Redknapp’s side enjoyed a successful Champions League campaign last season but the Europa League is unlikely to offer the same kind of attraction. Indeed, Redknapp may well use the competition to blood younger players with domestic concerns now pre-eminent in the 64-year-old coach’s final season at White Hart Lane before taking over England in summer 2012.
The real test of United’s progression or otherwise this summer will come in Europe of course. Humiliation at Barça’s hands last May is not easily forgotten although the challenge remains – as Ferguson has repeatedly said in the past two months – to match the Catalan giants.
In reality United has done nothing during the summer window to close the gap on Pep Guardiola’s brilliant side. This despite United’s friendly win in Washington over the under-cooked Catalans. In fact with Fabregas almost certain to join and the brilliant Alexis Sanches already on Barça’s books, the Spanish giant has arguably forged further ahead.
Challenges will come elsewhere too and there is no guarantee United will match let alone exceed last season’s run to the final. Real Madrid has recruited smartly this summer, with Nuri Sahin offering a creative force from a deep midfield position, and Raphaël Varane a youthful defensive option. Portuguese defender Fábio Coentrão will solve Mourinho’s problem at left-back, with Hamit Altintop offering experience in midfield after joining on a free from Bayern Munich.
Inter’s probable (possible, potential – choose your own adjective) retention of Sneijder, and possible recruitment of Tevez, will boost the Italians’ hopes. Gian Piero Gasperini’s old-fashioned looking 3-4-3 formation will certainly take some opposition by surprise over the next few months.
Meanwhile, 2010 finalists Bayern may well be dark-horses for a decent run in the competition following turmoil at the Allianz Arena last season. Gone is confrontational Dutchman Luis van Gaal, replaced by veteran coach Jupp Heynckes along with sensible summer recruitment in Manuel Neuer and Jérôme Boateng.
Domestic cup competitions will again be used by Ferguson to blood youngsters and ensure fringe squad members gain minutes on the pitch. Smalling, Jones, Cleverley, Macheda and Welbeck should all feature heavily. Many supporters will also look out for members of the FA Youth Cup winning squad – notably Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison – each of whom should play some part in United’s Carling Cup campaign.
In fact youth may be the theme of United’s season, with the average age of Ferguson’s squad somewhat lower than a year ago. With it comes vibrancy but also the potential for error. How much United has lost with experienced departures may only be felt in the closing weeks of the coming season. The progression of younger players in lieu of genuine world stars – especially in central midfield – may be key to United’s success or failure in the coming months.