The Next Paul Scholes
As the title says, these are 10 bold predictions for Manchester United in calendar year 2013. Some might be not such a surprise; most are contentious; all are based on logic. See what you think?
Sir Alex Ferguson keeps his cards close to his chest and likes to keep everyone guessing. How many times, for example, has anyone successfully predicted what his team will be for a given match?
Take yesterday's Manchester United programme notes for example. The Manager's Column began with the following words (via FIFA.com):
Don't hold your breath waiting for Manchester United to jump through the transfer window when it opens next week. If you believed everything you read in the media we would have the biggest squad in Europe, not to mention becoming bankrupt....
You can never say never in football because you don't know who might become available, but speaking generally I am not looking to do any serious transfer business in January. I don't have to because I'm more than satisfied with the players I have in my squad.
To be fair, Sir Alex doesn't usually make major signings in January because he doesn't believe there is value in the market at that time of year.
But that doesn't rule out signings next summer, nor even signings in January that will arrive next summer.
Not surprisingly, much of this article will be focused on possible personnel changes. Why? Because that's what fans most like to talk about at this time of year and also because there are ample reasons to believe changes could be made next summer.
So we'll start with the changes we believe to be most likely.
Giggs, Scholes, Ferdinand
Paul Scholes plays his cards close to his chest. He is very much his own man, and Sir Alex respects that. So when Paul decided to hang up his boots 18 months ago, the manager will have done all he could to change his mind but ended up respecting his player's opinion.
Nevertheless, when Scholes changed his mind six months later, Sir Alex welcomed him back with open arms.
Apart from the physical act of still running round a football pitch at 36, it is hard to see what Paul is getting out of his football right now. He has started only seven League matches, and United have clearly struggled in more than half of those, losing to Everton and Spurs.
He can now see and indeed hear from the boss himself that Carrick and Cleverly is the preferred first-choice pairing.
Paul is a very honest man and an honest footballer. He will surely retire next summer at the latest and indeed could even go as early as January.
The other two players that fans have their eyes on in this respect are Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand, who will be 40 and 35 respectively next November.
There seems every likelihood that both will be offered another one-year contract, and we believe both will accept.
There have been so many rumours, and it seems such an obvious move to all and sundry that Kevin Strootman will arrive next summer at the latest.
Indeed, he would be a significant bonus in January, in time for the two legs against Real Madrid and a hoped for Champions League run.
Meanwhile, people find it harder to work out the logic of signing Robert Lewandowski when Sir Alex himself has said he has the strongest strike force around.
The only logic we can see is if either Rooney drops into midfield to replace Paul Scholes, or one of the other strikers leaves.
There would be no shortage of takers for Chicharito, but he has become the darling of both fans and the manager alike. He is highly productive, prepared to take his chances (in every sense) and a unique type of commodity in United's strike force.
Unless Danny Welbeck steps up, he would be the most likely to go.
However, there is no smoke without fire, and Strootman and Lewandowski could both arrive next summer.
Equally likely is that Nani will go at the same time if not before.
David De Gea
Is David de Gea happy at Old Trafford? We may never know unless he leaves. Certainly he is popular with the crowd.
But rumours have surfaced about Real Madrid being interested, and Iker Casillas has somewhat surprisingly been dropped recently.
January is too soon for this move to take place, and Jose Mourinho may not even be manager by then.
But De Gea was born in Madrid. He would never have got a move there from Atletico, but sometimes these things happen another way.
So how about a Machiavellian plot? Mourinho wants De Gea but can't get him directly. Sir Alex wants Luka Modric, but Daniel Levy will never sell him to Manchester United.
Sir Alex is very loyal to his players, but he is fair and honest too. If De Gea is homesick or if he genuinely wanted a move, would the manager stand in his way? After all, he could always buy Jack Butland...
The thing is that if Real Madrid really do want De Gea, Sir Alex would love the strength of his bargaining position. And if he looks at their squad, who would he demand in exchange?
There is no doubt he has coveted Karim Benzema for a long time, but the player himself is not interested in a move to Manchester.
On the other hand, Sir Alex and Luka Modric probably have a great deal of mutual respect, and the Scottish knight has made no secret in the past of seeing the Croat as a Scholes replacement.
So how about De Gea and £5 million for Modric next summer?
We've discussed this before. Wayne wants it, and also it would be an ideal role to guarantee his physical fitness.
He has also been hitting many more "marquee" passes in the last year or so.
If Lewandowski is coming, that reinforces the logic that Wayne is being prepared for midfield, especially when the manager believes that there are no areas of the team that need strengthening.
There is also a parallel with the way Paul Scholes' own career progressed. He started life as a goal-scoring No. 10 and progressively moved deeper.
There seems every chance that Darren Fletcher will never again be a regular for United ,and alternating Michael Carrick and Rooney as playmaker makes a lot of sense, especially after Scholes retires.
Before he got his knee ligament injury on England duty, William Keane was expected to break into the first-team squad this season.
He was not expected to go on loan, and based on the progress he has made in the last couple of years, he could readily be expected to replace Macheda as fifth-choice striker.
Will is due back in February at the latest, so let's hope United can extend their FA Cup participation long enough. He has a great future in the mould of Teddy Sheringham or Denis Bergkamp.
Assuming he returns fit and well, surely his career will be restarted in 2013.
If Sir Alex can be taken at his word on not needing to strengthen, then Strootman would not be needed. That surely opens the door for Ryan Tunnicliffe, who has been compared to a young Roy Keane in his combative style of play.
There has been much frustration that more young players haven't been given a chance this season. We already know that Nick Powell has a bright future from the comparisons that Sir Alex has made.
It would surely have been expected that the likes of Cole, Lingard and Brady would be on the verge of breaking through.
Of course, there is a certain amount of luck involved, so Michael Keane and Scott Wootton were given a real chance early due to defensive injuries.
Sir Alex keeps on referring to developing and buying young talent. He recently bought Angel Henriquez, who has gone out on loan to Wigan.
So when you look at the likely future needs and the talent at his disposal, the players who are most likely to get a chance to establish themselves in the first team next year, apart from Powell are:
Will and Michael Keane, Scott Wootton, Marnick Vermijl, Ryan Tunnicliffe, Angel Henriquez and Davide Petrucci.
Is he in training for colder climes?
Certainly the atmosphere at the Bernabeu is pretty frosty at the moment. Real Madrid sit in third place in the Spanish League, 16 points behind Barcelona, and have no chance of winning the Spanish title. Indeed at this rate they could easily finish fourth, as Malaga are only two points behind.
Will Mourinho still be manager when United travel to play them in the first leg?
Whether or not he is, it is highly likely that United will have a much more settled side. Despite the pressure yesterday, the return of Vidic augurs for a much tighter defence, and United have been scoring goals for fun.
Unless Mourinho gets the result he wants in Madrid, would he really play pragmatic football at Old Trafford? And which team is going to be better equipped for one leg a few hundred miles from North Africa and the other potentially in sub-zero temperatures?
So, United should be able to keep it tight in Madrid and steal the win at home.
Chicharito to be the hero, anyone?
Talk of nobody being able to catch United's seven-point lead in the Premier League is frankly daft and premature, and not just because of what happened last year.
Nevertheless, with a pretty much fit squad and now the return of Nemanja Vidic, United have the capacity to continue scoring goals for fun while keeping more clean sheets at the other end. It may not be so exciting as a 4-3 win, but it is a lot less stress on the manager.
Robin van Persie makes the real difference, and with the Carrick/Cleverley partnership looking settled in midfield, surely United have the depth of talent and the sheer determination to make up for their savage disappointment last season.
In the Champions League, however, we cannot be so optimistic. While it seems more open than for years, this is because there are so many quality teams left in the last 16, starting with Bayern, Dortmund, Barcelona and Malaga.
There is still a feeling that a quality addition in midfield would make the difference, but as Sir Alex expects no signings, 2014 may be a better bet...with a different manager?
Sir Alex Ferguson
What would you be saying if you were Sir Alex Ferguson's doctor?
"Stress is good for you" or "how about calling it a day Alex?"
Let there be no doubt. If he keeps on winning the way he is at the moment, Sir Alex can manage United until he is 100.
But he won't. He is apparently in charge of his own destiny and will decide his own time of retiring. When does the option of moving upstairs and mentoring his successor become more attractive?
Sir Matt Busby stepped down as United manager at the age of 60, returning for a couple of years until finally "moving upstairs" at 62 in 1971. After Sir Alex arrived in 1986, Sir Matt was always there when he needed him. By that time he was 77 and lived for another seven years.
His whole life was about football, as is Sir Alex's.
There are two obvious clues. First, the naming of the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand last season, and now the unveiling of a statue.
Like anyone else in a similar position, he will want to go out on a high. Nobody wants to step down after a year of failure.
Had he planned to retire last year? Was Pep Guardiola lined up and then asked to wait a year after City stole the title in the last two minutes of the season?
Sir Alex knows it could be another few years before United win the Champions League.
Was Robin van Persie his retirement present? Taking the title back from City could be the perfect farewell.
And who to succeed him? Who do you think? Pep must be favourite.
While it seems likely that some supporters will never accept the Glazers, the owners have tried to curry favour by freezing season ticket prices.
Given that there are still some unsold half way through the season and it has taken a lot of marketing spend to shift thousands of others, it would seem to be a "no-brainer" to freeze prices for at least another year.
There is also a financial and business logic to this.
First, there is a huge new TV deal in the offing.
Second, United have been in the forefront of trying to accelerate financial fair play in the Premier League, including the possibility of wage caps.
The obvious parallel therefore is to freeze season ticket prices yet again. Players' wages are obscene. It's time supporters had a fairer crack of the whip.
Manchester United NYSE Debut
Despite the business and financial logic of floating Manchester United shares, it is fair to say the move was not universally welcomed.
While it makes sense to use equity to pay down debt, supporters were much more preoccupied by the possibility of the owners lining their pockets and the threat of a collapsing share price.
Although they dropped from an issue price of £14 to a low of £13.65, they have since steadily recovered to stand a couple of cents shy of the issue price at £13.94 last Friday.
George Soros taking a stake certainly did no harm, but in a recovering US economy and Stock Market and assuming a deal to avoid the "fiscal cliff," why shouldn't United's shares continue to rise in 2013? (This is certainly not a recommendation to buy, but there is also a logic.)
There are two possible reasons, and one of them is not a takeover bid, because the Glazers have said they are not selling.
First, however, is the likelihood of a continuing rapid growth in commercial revenues and therefore profit. When FFP bites, United will stand out like a beacon, and that will enhance their relative attraction as an investment.
The other reason is that it may be only a matter of time before they pay a dividend. With a pretty settled squad, a possible salary cap and burgeoning revenues, this could happen in 2013.
So there you have it, all your bold predictions for 2013.
What do you think? Don't pull any punches. And please put forward your own predictions, whether realistic or not.
Thanks for reading and commenting in 2012 and a happy and prosperous New Year to you all in 2013.