Manchester United: Complete Guide for the 2012-13 Premier League Season
Manchester United will bounce back this season, despite still being in a transition period. First, because of the new signings, players coming back and less injuries, and second because other teams will struggle more.
City are showing signs of unrest less than a week before the Community Shield. Chelsea were humbled by Brighton approaching the same match. Liverpool could be in the doldrums for years, and Arsenal have had the greatest turnover of players possibly ever in the last year or so.
The team in the photo above certainly won't be either the starting eleven against Everton or the First XI this season. But it is a sign of United's growing strength in depth that very much a scratch squad that travelled to South Africa and China didn't lose a match and did the club proud.
This close season has probably been as frustrating as any for Sir Alex Ferguson. He lost 14 players to various tournaments and still has Fletcher, Evans and Smalling out through injury. No wonder the team looked rusty against Valerenga.
But every cloud has a silver lining, and players like Blackett, Keane and Lingard have already emerged with credit, having had more chances than in other close seasons. There is a conveyor belt of talent coming behind them, and Sir Alex places his faith in youth, matched with experience.
So let's have a quick review and get the debate going. As usual, I look forward to reading your comments and value your alternate views.
Depending on your point of view, having the first match away at Everton could either be Fergie's worst nightmare or a dream start.
The whole squad will be up for revenge for the shock result that ended United's title hopes. I was there, and when the fourth Everton goal went in, I knew the season was over.
Everton aren't a bogey team, but David Moyes' sides are always difficult to beat. If we can nick Leighton Baines, we'll have the upper hand.
On the other hand, Everton will have had a less disrupted summer, although they are notorious slow starters. Sir Alex has managed to get his team to overcome their own tendency to stutter into life.
There is no Community Shield for United this year. Is that a good or a bad thing? Last year it gave Cleverley and Anderson the chance to shine before eventually they both disappeared.
This year the starting handle might well be a humbling by Barcelona on Wednesday night. That would give the boys a kick in the proverbials, but ironically, if United get a result, that could also have a strong positive motivational effect.
Whoever the new additions are, there is going to be more competition for places than for a while, partly because of young Academy graduates knocking on the door.
But that first fixture at Everton could set the tone for the whole season, and it's a tough one to start with.
Looking further out, Fulham and Wigan at home sandwich a visit to St Mary's for the League newcomers, Southampton. Any of these is a banana skin, but United are perfectly capable of four straight wins to kick off the season before a run of five crunch matches out of six.
Liverpool away, Spurs home, Newcastle away, Stoke home, Chelsea away, Arsenal home. That's some schedule. By mid November, there could be either panic or delight.
For me this is one of United's toughest starts for some time. Here is the full fixture list.
Assuming no rearranged fixtures to catch up on, the back end could decide the title once again, with Arsenal away and Chelsea at home on consecutive weeks before finishing with what should be two routine matches.
So how will United fare in the Premier League next season?
Shinji Kagawa rightly got the Man of the Match award against Shanghai Shenwa. He has looked good from the moment he debuted in South Africa and a step ahead of his colleagues when he came on in Norway. He will be a meaningful addition this season.
Some people seem to have willfully misinterpreted the comments by Michael Bolinbroke at the roadshow for the impending IPO as meaning United are only going to spend £40 million in this transfer window, suggesting that £21 million had already been spent.
However, Bolingbroke actually said that the club was "giving guidance at the moment that the current transfer period could result in net expenditure nearer £40m" (compared to an average of £20 to £25m over the last few years).
So, given that £15 million has been paid so far for Kagawa and Powell and Ji Sung Park was sold for £5m, that leaves a net £30 million that could still be spent.
If Van Persie and Moura come for a total of £50 million, then £20 million of sales would be needed. Sir Alex has a few cards to play in that respect. As the transfer deadline approaches, there will be plenty of clubs both here and abroad desperate to do deals.
Good strikers and midfielders don't grow on trees, and any or all of Berbatov, Anderson, Nani and Macheda could be shipped out for the right price.
To Sir Alex's frustration, it is still impossible to predict United's final squad for the coming season.
The rumours of Leighton Baines arrival simply won't go away, with Brian Oviedo as a backstop. Sir Alex appeared to confirm the intent to sign a left back a couple of weeks back.
If RVP doesn't come, Lewandowski seems to be lined up for next season. If Moura doesn't come, Isco seems a possibility. Nothing else is needed.
Apart from the above possible outgoings, Ben Amos has gone on loan to Hull and will be replaced by the talented Sam Johnstone, who went on tour. Reece Brown has also gone on loan.
Other savings include Matty James for £1 million, Ritchie De Lait £1 million, Oliver Norwood £400 thousand and Tomasz Kuszczak on a free. Michael Owen was released; Pogba's fee will be determined by arbitration probably, as will Fryers'.
Other players may go on loan. If United sign another striker, Macheda probably will, as well as Berbatov being sold.
The speculation will increase up to and beyond the first match of the season.
Meanwhile, they have also quietly signed two talented 16-year-olds for the future.
Premier League Prospects
Manchester United will win the Premier League title back in what will be a much tougher season than last year.
With so much change and transition going on at Old Trafford and other top clubs, all the top teams will suffer more defeats, and the winning points total will be lower than 2011/12.
It will, as always, depend on the start of the season. Last year, City were something of a surprise package. This year everybody will be gunning for them, and the novelty value will have worn off in their squad.
Chelsea have shown in preseason that they will miss the players they've lost and the new signings will take some time to gel into a consistently winning unit.
Arsenal have made more new signings, but the Van Persie saga has disrupted all Wenger's planning. In some ways, it could be more disruptive now if he stays than if he goes. They will be desperate not to lose Song as well.
I cannot honestly see Liverpool getting back into the top six. Again there is turmoil because of the Andy Carroll saga, meaning a lot will fall on the shoulders of Suarez and Borini. Brendan Rodgers will introduce a new playing style, which may take some time to bed in. Gerrard and Carragher may be their biggest challenges of all.
Newcastle will lose their surprise value but may well reproduce last season's position. Pardew is a good coach, and he has held his squad together.
Spurs are in much the same vein as Liverpool: new coach, key personnel changes and still no striker in sight. How about Modric to United and Berbatov in part-exchange after all that's gone on?
So at worst, I see United finishing second, with a top-four finish no problem.
First-Choice Starting XI
These guys will be driving the bus this season, whoever comes in or goes out.
Vidic is back, and Ferdinand is having a renaissance. De Gea will be behind them and Rafael and Evra right and left.
The first-choice midfield depends on transfer activity. If nobody else comes in, it will be:
Valencia, Kagawa, Carrick, Nani
and up front:
Rooney and Welbeck
On the bench will be:
Lindegaard, Smalling, Jones, Evans, Cleverley, Young, Hernandez
Alternatively, if Moura and RVP come in, the personnel will be:
Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra
Valencia, Kagawa, Carrick, Moura
Rooney Van Persie
And the bench:
Lindegaard, Smalling, Jones, Cleverley, Nani, Welbeck, Hernandez
Last season, the first-team squad was well into the 30s in number. When you consider the talent coming through and displaced by new signings, United could have by far the strongest squad in the Premier League this season:
De Gea, Lindegaard, Johnstone
Rafael, Smalling, Vidic, Ferdinand, Jones, Evans, Evra, Baines/Oviedo, Keane, Blackett, Wootton
Valencia, Nani, Carrick, Scholes, Cleverley, Young, Moura/Isco, Anderson, Powell, Kagawa, Lingard, Tunnicliffe, Bebe
Van Persie, Rooney, Welbeck, Hernandez, Macheda, King, Cofie
European Champions League
Wouldn't he just love to do it again, one more time and then retire?
It would be a surprise this season, but it still hinges on any remaining signings. Land Robin van Persie, and all things are possible.
But it will also come down to tactics. There are many who say that United's European tactics have suffered since the departure of Carlos Queiroz.
It's interesting that people seem to talk about Ferguson as the coach, and yet Rene Meulensteen was brought back precisely to give that input.
We can confidently expect different tactics to be used in the ECL from those in the EPL; that has been the case for several years.
There may also be some differences in the squads. Of course, Sir Alex will want all his top players in each, but will the makeup of the second strings be developmental or tactical?
In other words, will he include the likes of Lingard and Blackett to get European experience? And how many strikers will he include if Rooney, Welbeck, Hernandez, Van Persie, Berbatov and Macheda are all on the books?
Of course, Ferguson will sometimes use 4-5-1, but he will have done some substantial soul-searching after the defeats by Basel, Benfica and Bilbao, because none of United's tactics worked.
OK, some consideration must be given to the massive injury challenges that United had last season, even though Vidic was there for the start.
The squad will be fitter, deeper and more mature this time around, and it will undoubtedly come down to how the tactics are flexed around the new and existing personnel.
United will definitely progress from their group this time around but may go no further than the quarterfinals, with teams like PSG sharpening things up.
FA Cup and League Cup
Going out to Liverpool will have infuriated Ferguson last time around. Especially when he sees what they went on to achieve with a mediocre team. They may have lost to Chelsea, but Sir Alex must be certain that United could have gone one better.
And the dismissal from the League Cup was an abject whimper.
I do not see him departing from his well-established practice of using the early rounds for developmental purposes.
What he needs to keep in mind, however, is that he will have some senior players in need of game time and development.
Phil Jones was circumstantially thrown in at the deep end last season due to injuries, and same with Chris Smalling the year before. Both still need plenty more experience to fulfill their undoubted potential.
Rafael and Macheda are still in a similar position even after a few years; add to them, Kagawa and Powell before you even think of Academy graduates. Bebe will also be included if he continues his preseason form.
My own thinking is that Ferguson will use a mix of youth and great experience this year. Darren Fletcher is back in training; if he's fit enough, expect him to feature strongly in both the Cup runs, maybe even as captain of the Cup squad.
At the heart will be Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. Lindegaard will be the keeper, and Sam Johnstone may get a run out. Michael Keane, Tyler Blackett, Jesse Lingard and Ryan Tunnicliffe will feature.
There will also be other senior players listed in case of crisis or for the latter rounds. Berbatov would be a certainty if he remains at the club.
United can confidently be expected to do much better in both Cups this season. I see them winning one and going a long way in the other. Ferguson may use the League Cup most of all to develop the younger players.
This man alone could make the difference this season. It's not just about his world-class quality and goal-scoring prowess.
He is an utter professional and this will rub off on all his new teammates, if he comes.
Nobody will object to whatever pay package is necessary to get him. not even Wayne Rooney. His arrival would give a massive extra fillip to the team's prospects aside from what he contributes practically.
How and where he would fit in are irrelevant. He and Modric (if he had come) are players around whom Ferguson could build a whole team.
If he comes, I might up my predictions in the Champions League. He would certainly cement the title challenge.
If he doesn't, it isn't the end of the world. United may be in transition, but I see other teams as being more challenged.
Of course, City will be the main rivals, whatever Sir Alex says about Chelsea.
Of critical importance, however, will be the team's tactics and tactical flexibility—never more so, after the humblings by Barcelona and the ignominy in Europe last year.
Ferguson will never abandon United's basic attack and counterattack philosophy. This runs through the veins of United and is just one of the reasons why they have such a huge global following: They are a joy to watch in full flow.
He has also consciously bought pace, and the ability to control and use the ball at pace.
But he mustn't let the beatings by Wigan and Bilbao happen again in the way that they did.
We shall see more tactical flexibility, even with more positional interchange happening at speed within matches. More and more teams will either try to blanket United or suffocate their attackers. Brendan Rodgers wants his players to win the ball back within seven seconds of losing it.
Except in one-offs, like the Chelsea ECL win, you cannot win matches without possession. That's how Barcelona do it. Even Stuart Pearce managed to do that with a very ordinary Team GB at the Olympics.
So, lots to look forward to: new players; young players; the challenge of a new season, with a tough opening match against Everton.
I hope to be sitting down to see United stuff Fulham in the first home match, already sitting equal top of the Premier League. I look forward to sharing the season's journey with you.