It wouldn’t be an Old Trafford summer if there wasn’t a little transfer drama whipped up by tabloids with little else to write about. This year’s saga surrounded the futures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, with each departing for big spending European and domestic rivals. The result: £80 million in the bank and another £25 million left unspent. But it left United with 41 goals and a couple of big holes in the squad to fill.
Surely Sir Alex Ferguson would open up the chequebook and sign a world star in the face of relentless spending from Manchester City and Real Madrid? Never one to be second guessed, instead Ferguson delivered one of the lowest key summers in the transfer market in memory. The tricky Antonio Valencia arrived from Wigan Athletic for around £18 million – a deal that had been sealed months previously. Gabriel Obertan, who wasn’t good enough for Bordeaux, arrived at Old Trafford for around £3 million. With all respect to the wide pair, neither signing set the hearts racing. Ferguson claims that there is little value in the transfer market; many suspect the influence of £700 million in debt.
Undoubtedly the biggest shock of the summer was the free acquisition of Scouse legend Michael Owen. The striker, who averaged eight goals a season in four years at Newcastle, arrived at Old Trafford amid the howls of mocking laughter. Injured, shorn of his pace, and rejected by both Wigan and Blackburn Rovers, Owen’s only suitors appeared to be Hull City and Stoke. But Sir Alex’ success in management has been based on a pig-headed stubbornness – call it focus – that would never have taken into account the views of others.
Pre-season saw United travel to Asia for four matches against mediocre opposition, to Germany for the Audi Cup before completing the programme against Valencia on Wednesday night. The Asian tour saw United score 16 goals, culminating in the 8-2 thrashing of a Hangzhou Greentown team little better than semi-pro standard.
If the Asia tour saw United rake in the cash and build confidence, the real work started in Munich with two tough encounters against Boca Juniors and Bayern. The mini-tournament was a good test not only of United’s preparation for a tough season but a new tactical formation adopted in the absence of Ronaldo. With a more rigid 4-4-2 adopted by Sir Alex, the new United look to have plenty of width if a little more vulnerable through the middle of the park.
If United’s success over the past two seasons has been based on a solidity in the back four, much will depend on whether the team can overcome its current injury crisis. Edwin van der Sar, Nemanja Vidic, Wes Brown and Rafael will all miss the start of the season. Fabio has looked excellent through pre-season, and if he remains injury free, is an excellent addition to the first team squad.
The squad also looks short in quality – if not numbers – in wide areas. While Valencia has been highly impressive in three pre-season matches, question marks hang over the quality of Park Ji-Sung, Zoran Tošić and Nani. While Ryan Giggs has been bright in pre-season, age and a tendency to play inside means that United cannot rely on a flying Welsham to solve the problem.
Much will also depend on the growing maturity of Anderson and Darren Fletcher, alongside Michael Carrick in central midfield. With Owen Hargreaves due to return in January, Paul Scholes will become an increasingly peripheral figure in the team. But with just two in the centre of the park this season, the squad still looks worryingly short of a top class defensive midfielder. Hargreaves could be that man but after two years of injuries and major operations on both knees his successful return must be classed as doubtful.
Up front United will undoubtedly miss the goals provided by Ronaldo. But with Wayne Rooney returning to a central role, and Dimitar Berbatov having completed a pre-season programme, the goals will be spread more evenly through the forward line. Will Michael Owen be the goalscorer of old? The former Liverpool striker looked sharp in Asia but against top quality opposition back in Europe he has failed to score a goal. The jury is very much still out. However, the fine pre-season form of Federico Macheda and the growing talent of Danny Welbeck means each will figure heavily for United this season should any of the frontline forwards succumb to injury or loss of form.
United’s squad remains strong – and Ferguson’s desire still burns bright enough – to challenge for honours on all fronts this season. On the positive side Anderson and Nani can only get better, Rooney will enjoy a return to a central role, and Berbatov will surely deliver the kind of season that brought him to the club in a £30 million deal. Valencia too looks like a player who will only get better in a United shirt. But it’s hard to argue that United’s squad is stronger this season than last. At least the squad will benefit significantly from not having to travel to the Club World Cup.
Domestically much will depend on how Liverpool cope without the excellent Xabi Alonso, and how quickly Chelsea settle under new manager Carlo Ancelotti. Neither has strengthened significantly, which means the title race is far too close to call. While a fourth title in a row remains a possibility – despite the loss of Tevez and Ronaldo – realistically United could finish in any of the top three places. Expect it to go to the wire.
But in European terms United has gone backwards. Beaten so comprehensively by Barcelona, United has lost its most potent weapon and failed to strengthen the central midfield area that was totally exposed against Los Cules in Rome. Barcelona has swapped Samuel Eto’o for Zlatan Ibrahimovich – hardly an upgrade – but Madrid will surely be serious contenders come the knock out stages. Should Real add balance to the squad with another top-class central defender the Spanish duo will rightly be favourites for the trophy.
Predicition: The heart says United will be there or there abouts come May. The head says in a season of transition a fourth Premier League title in a row, or another European Cup, are probably just be beyond the team.
Key man: Wayne Rooney – the time is now for the young Scouser to come of age and be the pivot upon which the team is built.
One-to-watch: Federico Macheda – two stunning strikes late last season announced the young Italian’s arrival on the big stage. A strong pre-season means that he will be part of the first team plans from the off.
Boo-boy: Nani – absolutely must improve significantly on last year’s poor effort. Another half-hearted performance, shanked cross or naive pass and more fans will start to believe the Portuguese is out of his depth.
Unsung hero: Darren Fletcher – it comes to something when The Scottish Player was badly missed in the European Cup final. But missed he was, and Fletcher will be crucial to United’s hopes this season, especially away from home.
Rant’s starting XI (assuming fitness): van der Sar; Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Anderson, Nani; Rooney, Berbatov.