BY WASIM PARKAR – FAN FUEL BLOGGER
Fan Fuel’s Premier League preview journey comes to an end with a look at champions Manchester United, with David Moyes stepping in at the helm of Old Trafford after 26 years under Sir Alex Ferguson’s management.
Listing all of Sir Alex’s achievements would be unkind in the extreme to David Moyes. Looking through the prism of the Premier League alone, the 13 titles won by the greatest British manager of all time will be a benchmark that will probably never be broken. For Moyes, getting number one on the board presents an enormously difficult challenge in itself.
Pre-season hasn’t been the smoothest on and off the pitch, mixed results combined with the failure to land some big targets. At least Moyes got off to an auspicious start at Wembley, winning the community shield against Wigan. In time, Moyes might end up making his own mark at Manchester United, but for now he enters the season with a squad that is very much a permanent reminder of Sir Alex’s legacy.
On defence: After a shaky first season in England, David de Gea came into his own last season. The Spaniard is a natural goalkeeper capable of breathtaking saves, and to his credit he has fixed the mistakes that were on display frequently during his debut campaign. There is still a little hesitancy when coming for crosses into the box, but goalkeepers can improve upon decision making with experience, as long as the technical fundamentals are strong, which they are in de Gea’s case. Anders Lindegaard will be the second choice goalkeeper, the days of him being rotated consistently with de Gea is a distant memory.
I would advocate that the biggest reason for Manchester United’s period of success since the 2006-07 campaign is the centre-back partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. Fitness remains an issue for the duo, but whenever they are on the field, it’s a reminder of the maxim that form is temporary and class is permanent. Ferdinand is elegant with the ball, and a superb reader of the game, often one step ahead of forwards simply due to his sheer brilliance in positioning. Vidic is as hard as they come, superb in the air and with strength to dominate opposing forwards in physical battles. Dealing with speed might be their only weakness, but if the duo remains fit together for at least half the season, that will be one less problem to deal with for Moyes. However, recent seasons would suggest that is a very idealistic scenario, so Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones will have a role to play. Evans has more experience now and has cut out his errors, but whether Moyes can motivate him the same way that Ferguson used to, is going to be a pertinent question. Chris Smalling is one of the most gifted young defenders around, but he is extremely brittle, with his progress at United stalled by injuries. Phil Jones can fulfil many roles across the back, although he is still a little tactically naïve to be a consistent centre-back for the Red Devils.
Patrice Evra silenced many doubters by recapturing his best form in the last campaign after a couple of seasons on the wane. In addition to doing a better job at the back, Evra also chipped in with his fair share of goals in crucial matches for United. It has been rather overlooked but Moyes must surely be worried that his only replacement in Evra’s position is Alexander Büttner, who in his few performances last year clearly demonstrated that he is not a Premier League left-back. It could be that Moyes is confident of putting together a deal to bring Leighton Baines from Everton.
In the right-back position, Rafael’s injury during the community shield was a blow to Manchester United, as the Brazilian has developed into one of the most consistent fullbacks in the league. He always had attacking prowess from his early days in England, but has fine-tuned the defensive side of his game and is extremely hard to beat. Smalling or Jones might perform the role of makeshift right-back as Rafael recovers, with the untried Uruguayan Guillermo Varela surely too green for the Premier League.
The midfield: Many fans of the Red Devils believed that besides Robin Van Persie, Michael Carrick was the most importantly player in the title winning squad. Carrick had his best season in quite some time, playing with composure in midfield, always keeping the ball moving forward while being metronomic with his passing. After Paul Scholes’ second retirement, Carrick is now the elder statesman in the centre park.
Who partners with Carrick is the million-dollar question for Moyes. Sir Alex turned a blind eye to United’s midfield problems these past few season, and Moyes clearly realizes it’s an area of the squad that needs strengthening. Moyes evolved Everton’s style of play to one where central midfielders became integral to the side, and he must be hoping to make United in the same direction. Tom Cleverly is certainly talented, but he isn’t at a level where the best opponents are going to be displeased about lining against him. Anderson is surely not going to be a success at Old Trafford after years of trying, and while Ryan Giggs is still going strong he can’t be relied upon to be a regular starter in central midfield. Perhaps another trip to his old jaunt to Goodison Park is in order, as Marouane Fellaini will be a good addition in the centre of the park, especially after moves for Thiago Alcantara and Cesc Fabregas didn’t materialize.
Moyes intended for Wayne Rooney to be the most advanced midfielder, linking up the play between the forwards and midfield, and creating chances for Van Persie. Despite all the nasty business around Rooney’s transfer saga with Chelsea that might still be how it turns out to be for United. Many people have written off Rooney at United too quickly, and while there is no denying there was a dip in form last season, at his best Rooney remains a match winner for United. In time Rooney might even appreciate his new role, as it will allow him to express his creativity without having an impact on his goal scoring numbers. However, if Rooney does end up leaving, then maybe Moyes will be more successful than Ferguson at integrating Shinji Kagawa. The former Borussia Dortmund man has all the right attributes to be a successful central attacking midfielder for Manchester United, and if Moyes expresses his faith in him and plays him in his preferred positions, the Red Devils might witness the best from the Japanese superstar this season.
On the attack: The buck stops with Robin Van Persie as far as goal scoring for United is concerned. The former Arsenal man repaid his transfer fee and then some, as his contribution of 26 goals was decisive in United reclaiming the title from their noisy neighbours in Manchester. Van Persie has started pre-season in the same vein of form, and his match-winning brace in the community shield surely a harbinger of what’s to come from the supreme finisher during the regular season.
Wilfried Zaha was the last signing sanctioned by Sir Alex Ferguson, and the former Crystal Palace man certainly has United fans excited. Zaha has relentless pace on the wings, and is an excellent decision maker in the final third, knowing exactly when to cross into the box and when to try and get on the outside of the opposing fullback. If Zaha makes the step up to the Premier League successfully, Manchester United will have a new bona fide match-winning option. Zaha’s contribution will be especially significant in light of the travails of Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young last season.
Valencia is still a valuable option, and if he regains his spark, he can be irresistible going forward on the right flank. Young on the other hand may struggle to succeed under Moyes, who likes his wingers to keep possession, a skill that the English winger is not the most comfortable with. Nani remains an enigma at Old Trafford, and despite his obvious talent, the Portuguese winger simply hasn’t advanced to the expected level. Moyes will give him his chance, but is just as ruthless with attackers who don’t perform as his predecessor.
Finally, Javier Hernandez and Danny Wellbeck will also have to contribute during the campaign. The Mexican forward is a lethal finisher in the box, and possesses the uncanny knack of arriving in the right place at the right time. Wellbeck doesn’t score many goals, but his ability in setting up his attacking partners is of great value to the team, with his selfless running and work rate bound to be appreciated by Moyes.
Conclusion: Wayne Rooney’s agitation for a transfer might have sold the tabloids during the summer, but once the season gets under way, the single biggest narrative at Old Trafford is going to be around David Moyes. Almost every decision he makes from the starting line-up to his substitutions will inevitably compared to Sir Alex Ferguson. Whether he will be a success comes down to whether Moyes gets inspired by the opportunity, or buckles under the pressure.
It should be noted that Manchester United are not a club who make scattergun decisions, and are likely to be loyal to their new man in light of a transitional phase. While I believe some pundits are going too far by suggesting the Red Devils will be involved in a race to qualify for the Champions League, I do believe we’ll see a more natural of some of the players in the squad in the absence of Sir Alex’s famed motivational skills. That factor along with the strengthening of their immediate rivals would suggest that while United will still dine at the top end of the table, the summit is going to be beyond them in David Moyes’ first season as manager.