Why Manchester United Will Be Premier League Champions This Season
Manchester United will be driven to win the Premier League this season by the shocking last-minute failure in 2011/12.
The players felt the loss every bit as much as the fans; they will have been sad, frustrated, disappointed and probably above all angry with themselves. With a few matches to go it was United's trophy to lose...and they did.
For all the credit that goes to City for their first title in 40 years or so, they didn't win it. Manchester United lost it. Like they lost a game against Tottenham a couple of weeks ago that they should have won. And against Everton.
It is easy to say that every team is hungry for success. Who, for example, could argue with Steven Gerrard being hungry when, in an illustrious career as one of England's best-ever midfield players, he has never won the Premier League.
It must hurt even more when he remembers that he turned down the chance to join United. Was it because no player transfers directly between the teams? Was it because he couldn't leave Liverpool? Or was it because he honestly thought it was only a matter of time before the Scousers prevailed?
And what about Arsenal? They have not won a trophy of any kind for seven years, nor the Premier League for eight. In the previous seven years they won 11 trophies.
Or even Chelsea? They may have won seven Cups and three EPL titles since Abramovich took over but have only won the latter once in the last six years. He has spent big to try and re-establish them as top dogs in England and Europe.
Drive and determination
For those outside Old Trafford it is sometimes hard to comprehend how strong is the drive and determination to prevail. As a group of players, the core is bigger and has been together longer than any of United's contenders.
It's not just that they remember what it was like to lose on that final day, in those final two minutes, last season. And how much it hurts. It's also that most of them know what it's like to win a Premier League title, over and over.
And don't even start to believe that there is any complacency. Sir Alex is the most passionate and driven of the whole bunch of them. He's not just a winner and fiercely determined. He hates losing and that transmits itself to all the players at every level.
Why would Robin van Persie, who has won nothing at Arsenal, choose United over City? Because he knows that if he comes to Old Trafford, he will win things. He knows that he will play with better players. He knows that he himself will become an even better player. Scary!
Manchester United are renowned for their strength in the second half of the season. As a team they are at their best when the chips are down. How many times this season have they already come back from conceding the first goal to win?
Ever since the resurgence of Chelsea and the arrival of Mansour's City, Sir Alex's preoccupation has been to get a good start to the season because he knows that after January he will have the fittest squad and the most experienced in depth because of his rotation policy.
By January he will have several young players busting a gut to displace their senior counterparts and desperate to win their first trophy. And the seniors will be desperate to add to their haul.
So why will Manchester United win the Premier League this season?
Fergie's Last Season?
As we've suggested elsewhere, this could be Sir Alex Ferguson's last season as manager of Manchester United.
If it is, there is every reason for him to want to win either or both the Premier League and the Champions League.
He has also pulled off a masterstroke in signing Robin van Persie. If United did win both trophies, at a time when plenty have been suggesting they are on the wane, he could turn out to be Fergie's best and even Manchester United's best signing ever.
Sir Alex has been dropping hints for anyone prepared to listen, since before the start of the season. He believes he has the best strike force in Europe at least, redolent of the 1999 treble-winning squad, with Rooney, van Persie, Welbeck and Chicharito being compared to Cole, Yorke, Sheringham and Solskjaer.
He has also been salivating at the prospect of a long-term partnership between Rooney and Van Persie, hinting that they can get at least 40 goals between them.
In addition, Sir Alex made a very bold statement in August, before the season began:
No matter the years of experience we have had in terms of winning titles, last year was different, It was the first time anyone has beaten us on goal difference. It cost us the league and it won’t happen again, trust me on that.
So between those two factors, he seems to have the title sown up. Score more, concede less, job done.
If this is his last season, he will do anything—anything—to ensure United at least win the Premier League back from their "noisy neighbours" to reach the magic No. 20 before he retires.
Rooney and van Persie
OK, so the pair were unleashed in the second half against Tottenham. The two found their feet against Cluj. But by the time the Newcastle match came along Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie had shown what the rest of the Premier League could have sleepless nights about.
If these two can be kept together in the same team for most of the season, there is no limit to what United can achieve.
For those who don't know and think Wayne Rooney is about as thick as four short planks, they should think again.
Like Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick, these aren't just intelligent, thoughtful men; they have a world-class footballing intelligence.
Robin van Persie's footballing upbringing in Holland gave him his basic technical excellence. Rooney is that relative rarity these days: an English footballer gifted with great technical skill in both feet.
They are already on a wavelength and also with their key team-mates: Carrick, Cleverley, Valencia, Kagawa.
Just consider these scary facts:
- Last season, Van Persie and Rooney were the top two scorers in the Premier League, with 57 goals between them;
- In the last eight seasons Rooney has scored 182 goals for United in 366 matches (a ratio of 0.5), including 34 the year after Cristiano Ronaldo left;
- In his last four seasons at Arsenal, RVP scored 89 goals in 144 matches, a ratio of 0.62. He has scored seven in his first nine games for United;
- And they have both scored at least 30 times for their respective countries, at a rate of at least 0.4.
These are world-class goal scorers, but much more than that.
Van Persie and Rooney were first and third in the "goals and assists" in the Premier League 2011/12.
Finally, Rooney provided both assists for van Persie to score against Cluj; he repeated the feat with assists for Evra and Cleverley against Newcastle, where van Persie also crossed for Jonny Evans' goal.
For as long as they stay fit, Rooney and van Persie will play in all the important matches. They can be potentially the most lethal combination in the history of the Premier League. Mouthwatering.
The Cluj match gave us an inkling that Sir Alex was about to implement a major tactical change. The Newcastle League match confirmed this.
Suddenly, with the preferred formation for 50 years being 4-4-2, United were fielded without any wingers. The result? The best performance of the season so far. United dominated possession and there was only one team in it.
That doesn't mean to say that they won't revert to using wingers, maybe even starting against Stoke on Saturday. But from now on every opposition manager will have to plan for several possibilities.
The immediate effect of the "diamond" formation that Sir Alex used in those two matches was not only to dominate midfield: not only to dominate the pace and possession in the match, but also to produce a clean sheet.
Nobody wants United to abandon their commitment to attacking football and indeed they don't need to. Chelsea have also produced a format based on close passing at pace that has echoes of Barcelona's tiki-taka football.
In Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie there are two new signings very comfortable with a fast-paced, technically skilled game. United's players have been brought up that way.
The two European Champions League losses against Barcelona and, to a lesser extent, the one to Spurs showed a lack of tactical flexibility and imagination.
Now, with young players like Cleverley and Anderson busting a gut to get established in the first team, there are different options tactically. There will need to be with the rigours of possibly the most competitive Premier League campaign in history unfolding.
Technical Skill at Pace
Shinji Kagawa has had a baptism of fire at Old Trafford in which he will come through. There is no criticism intended because he has shown himself to be top quality. He can reasonably be compared to Eden Hazard, but so far the latter has been more effective.
While Kagawa may not have been used to get the best out of him yet, this is understandable for two reasons: United need to get their tactics right to optimise his skills and contribution, and his team-mates will get to understand how and where he best receives the ball.
Furthermore, apart from the time it usually takes for even experienced players to settle in at Old Trafford, Kagawa himself acknowledges that the Premier League is more physical than the Bundesliga and he needs to bulk up to adapt.
What he does represent, along with players like Cleverley and Anderson, is the emphasis on the more pacy, more technical approach that Sir Alex has been progressively introducing and that will eventually pervade all levels of football at Manchester United.
Valencia and Nani also have pace to burn and the latter is as skilled as anyone, despite his frustrating ebbs and flows of performance. Also, whether it's Evra or Buttner, together with Rafael on the other flank, they have genuine pace from the back.
Sir Alex has clearly decided that this is the way to break down the plethora of blanket defences United will come up against. While teams like Stoke represent a serious physical threat on attack in the United penalty box and from set pieces, it is unusual for such tall players to have the same mobility as the United attack will now have.
In addition, all four of United's strikers are adept at turning defenders and all four can score with little or no back-lift.
This is the modern game. Barcelona have dominated Europe with a fast-paced technical game using six midfielders and no striker. Chelsea are going that way. Arsene Wenger has attempted similar at Arsenal.
Everybody will do it their own way but United will use different tactical formations as well. The squad rotation will not only equip more players this way, but should in general be fitter and faster as the season goes on.
The Others Will Fall Away
It's early in the season. Unlike previous seasons, only Reading have shown some early promise from those teams that came up from the Championship.
There are of course early front-runners. Everton simply don't have the depth of squad to make a run into the top four for the rest of the season.
There are also still some question marks at Tottenham. They still need a top striker and Andre Villas-Boas surely isn't going to suddenly become the superstar manager he appeared to be at Porto? If Spurs get into a bad run, surely there will be similar rumblings to those at Chelsea?
Look at Swansea, for example. Michael Laudrup was welcomed like the new messiah in the early season, especially after their 5-0 opener. Now there are rumours that the players are disaffected. This is what happens when form starts to slip.
Chelsea have had a great start and they've brought in some talented players, but the defence still looks suspect and they are being managed by a guy who clearly wasn't wanted by Abramovich, let alone first choice, as the owner tried all summer to get a top replacement.
Robbie is doing a good job (or is it the players themselves?) But it is clear that Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard are in their last season. Fernando Torres may never regain the form he had at Liverpool. If Chelsea can't land a Falcao or Cavani in January, their reliance on one striker could look suspect.
Manchester City are also looking shaky defensively. Their top players have played a lot of football in the last two seasons. They were very lucky to survive against Borussia Dortmund and now look unlikely to make it out of their Champions League group for the second year running.
They've ticked the box by winning their first Premier League title but how will it affect their motivation if they are slugging it out once again on Thursday nights?
And Arsenal...oh dear, Arsenal...they've signed new players and Cazorla looks the business, but Giroud is meant to score the goals and he looks behind the likes of Welbeck and Chicharito right now.
Last season United lost the title on goal difference, but they also had nine times as many injuries as City. They have signed arguably one of the best three strikers in the world and if he stays fit, Robin van Persie can win his first trophy in eight years at Old Trafford.
Strength in Depth
Manchester United have four top strikers; any one of which Arsenal would have signed. Chelsea and City would surely have taken Robin van Persie. In addition, Henriquez and Will Keane are surely the future, and Macheda and Josh King may leave because they simply can't get games.
For the two main tactical systems United will utilise, they have more than enough players. How many teams in the Premier League would start Paul Scholes or Ryan Giggs in their first team if they had them?
In midfield alone, including wingers, United can call on Carrick, Cleverley, Anderson, Scholes, Giggs, Valencia, Young, Nani and Fletcher. That's without even considering Kagawa and Rooney, who could drop in there, or the very talented young Nick Powell, who will surely break through this season.
Then on the fringes are Lingard, Cole, Tunnicliffe, Thorpe, Petrucci and Brady banging on the door with young Mats Daehli, Andreas Perreira and Adnan Januzaj coming up behind. Many of these will get their chance to make a case this season.
Of course in defence there have been injury problems that have not been resolved, but Ferdinand has another couple of years in him if needed and Vidic should continue for a similar period. Evans was one of the best centre-backs in the EPL last season, and Smalling and Jones have been touted as the future central pairing for England.
It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Scott Wootton is on the verge of a breakthrough thanks to the injuries of others, with Keane and Fornasier not far behind.
And at full-back, Patrice Evra is determined to prove there is life in the old dog. Alex Buttner had a brilliant debut. Fabio will come back off loan more mature and equipped for the highest level. Rafael will surely be challenged by Vermijl.
If Ferguson can keep his squad fitter than last year, he surely has an embarrassment of riches. Everybody at Old Trafford wants to get into the first team, so competition for places should ensure standards are kept up once Sir Alex has absorbed what the youngsters can do in the Cup matches.
At least one player breaks through at Old Trafford each season. This time there could be at least two or three. The best prospects seem to be Nick Powell, Angelo Henriquez, Alexander Buttner and Will Keane.
Recent Signings Bedded in
Robin van Persie looks born to play for Manchester United. Seven goals in nine matches? Scary! He is also taking corners and could be as effective a signing as Eric Cantona was.
We've only had a couple of matches to look at how he and Rooney will work together, but it already looks like a marriage made in heaven. And if the opposition tries to blunt those two, it will leave room for the likes of Cleverley and Kagawa to capitalise.
From the moment he started his first match, Shinji Kagawa looked at home, with an edge of class and technical skill. He needs to work on his strength but United also need to continue to work to get the best out of him. You can comfortably expect 15 goals and a dozen assists this year.
We've previously mentioned Nick Powell and he did not look at all out of place in his debut against Wigan. He is still only 18. Against Bolton in the reserves tonight he looked like a first-team player getting a game for his match fitness. He was head and shoulders above the rest and scored a goal with his head, despite several blocked bullets with both feet.
Alexander Buttner will surely be pushing for Evra's place before Christmas, based on his debut showing against Wigan.
Henriquez has been away with the Chile squad this week and everybody is desperate to see him get an outing in one of the Cup teams. If he settles well he could give Chicharito something to think about.
OK, so City have signed Javi Garcia and Maicon and Chelsea have gotten Hazard and Oscar, but let's see who shapes up best in the long term.
Best Wide Players in the EPL
Valencia is arguably one of the best wide players in Europe. Nani has become perennially frustrating but had the best assist stats in the EPL last season. Ashley Young's contribution has been marred by injury but if he hits his straps in the next few weeks, he's also going to give Sir Alex something to think about.
United aren't going to abandon wing play overnight, just because the diamond worked. With the flexible interchange there are other players who will find themselves wide, like Welbeck, Kagawa, Cleverley and Rooney, and they have shown themselves to be adaptable as needed.
Also, the three top full-backs, Evra, Rafael and Buttner are adept at overlapping.
With strikers sharp enough to convert, the run to the goal line and the cutback aren't going to disappear. On the counterattack, United can cut teams to ribbons.
In addition, almost all United players can tackle and intercept. Valencia is good enough to lay wing back and Young can put in a stint.
Every player that comes to Old Trafford and all those coming up through the academy learn to defend if they are attackers and attack if they are defenders.
We're not yet talking about the total football that the Dutch showcased all those years ago, but teams who set up to man-mark will be turned inside out and those who zonal-mark will find the ball zipping around faster than they can adapt.
Chicharito Will Return to Form
Chicharito has endured a frustrating year. Injury blighted his second season as well as "second season syndrome."
Sir Alex kept him out of the Olympics to get him fully fit, and Chicharito has shown signs of being a much better all-around player.
He is going through a striker's drought at the moment and no doubt the boss will have been very patient. The lad is a top striker for his country and he simply must not try too hard. The result is that he gets caught offside too much.
He surely understands that he is the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer of the present squad. Ferguson has every confidence in his ability to come off the bench and score match-winning goals as he has before.
As it is said, "form is temporary; class is permanent," Chicharito will be back and even better. If he doesn't make it, there is no shortage of clubs in continental Europe who would take him and where he would get more time on the ball.
But he's going nowhere and could be the swing factor in United winning the title. He has scored 24 in 59 matches for United and an even more impressive 28 in 43 for Mexico. Quality like that doesn't just disappear.
Given the right service he will get the goals and, like Solskjaer, can be most effective coming off the bench.
Vidic Valour and Rio Renaissance
A couple of years ago, this was arguably the best centre-back pairing in the world. They complement each other like strawberries and cream.
You can advance many reasons why United lost the title last season but it was on goal difference. At the heart of the injury crisis was the absence of the best defender and captain for more than half the season.
These two understand each other's game, and while Ferdinand and Evans also bedded well as a partnership, it could never be as good as the two senior professionals.
So nobody doubts that when Vidic is back next month fully fit, he will be pivotal to United's title-winning run.
Meanwhile, people have been far too eager to write off Ferdinand. Yes, he's comfortably the wrong side of 30 and he's lost half a yard of pace. But his back problems seem to be solved and he's using his head to compensate for the slippage in pace.
When United lost to Spurs, the defence was placed firmly under the microscope but a simple change has sorted that. The full-backs were too far from the centre-backs and now also only one full-back is allowed upfield at a time.
Also Cleverley and Anderson have energy to burn in midfield and Fletcher is back. Attack starts from the back and defence from the front.
OK, so Ferdinand won't get so many games, but Vidic will be a fixture and Smalling and Jones will be fighting for game time.
Both with the starting line-up and off the bench, attack will be more flexible and defence will be more solid.
One change can confidently be expected. The Spurs match was a sharp learning experience for Sir Alex. If he truly wants to win both the top trophies and it is his last season in charge you will see his best side out much more often this season, especially with the strength in depth at his disposal.