Manchester United: What to Expect from the Red Devils Next Season
With Manchester United's season coming to a stuttering end, fans of the club are already beginning to look ahead to next term.
This campaign's biggest storylines were Robin van Persie's impact, the emergence of several young stars and the regression of others.
The Red Devils' dominant domestic display was tinged with more disappointment in the cup competitions.
But what does next season have in store for Sir Alex Ferguson's side? What will be the defining storylines in 2013/14?
Here are a few predictions.
Rio's Swan Song
This has been one of Rio Ferdinand's best seasons at Manchester United.
After a stuttering start to the campaign that saw him blitzed by Gareth Bale in a home 3-2 loss to Tottenham Hotspur, he has steadily become arguably the most reliable defender in the Premier League.
The veteran defender continues to demonstrate unparalleled calmness and valuable experience alongside the less experienced players such as Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling.
But at 34 years of age, time is catching up with the six-time EPL winner.
Sir Alex has revealed that he doesn't know what the future holds in store for Rio, saying "I hope he will stay and I think he will too" (via BBC).
My feeling is that next season may be his last in the red shirt of United.
More Tactical Jiggery-Pokery
The 71-year-old Sir Alex Ferguson proved, this season, that he is still unafraid to mix things up in the tactical department.
This is part of what has defined his incredible legacy—his ability to move and bend with the times, keeping his team at the top of the pile.
His diamond formation proved effective in several games this term, most notably in a 3-0 win against Newcastle United in October.
He also used forwards Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney in unfamiliar attacking midfield positions, the former deployed against Real Madrid to prevent Xabi Alonso from controlling the midfield in the Champions League.
Next season should see more experimentation and adaption to both domestic and continental trends—I can also see the 4-3-3 formation making a comeback.
No End to the Chicharito Conundrum
Perhaps the player with the greatest reason for complaint this season has been Javier Hernandez.
The Mexican forward has delivered when included in the first team, but 2013 has seen Sir Alex play him far too seldom.
Hernandez has made only seven starts in the Premier League, with 13 cameos off the bench. He's scored eight goals in those appearances, the third-most in the team.
Many have predicted a summer exit for the natural-born goalscorer, but the United boss may be hesitant to see a hardworking, effective player leave the club.
Hernandez is such a dedicated professional, and he is unlikely to demand a move himself.
He will stay at Old Trafford but see no real improvement in playing time with Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and a possible new signing ahead of him in the pecking order.
The True Emergence of Shinji Kagawa
One of Sir Alex's most revealing quotes in recent weeks was his assertion that Shinji Kagawa is "going to be a good player, next season he'll be far, far better too."
The Japanese playmaker has had a stop-start season at Old Trafford since moving from Borussia Dortmund last summer, injuries and a lack of a run of games preventing him from excelling.
This being said, his performances against the likes of Norwich City and West Ham this year showed that he can be an effective attacking threat between the opposition lines of defence and midfield.
As his adaptation to the British game continues, his involvement will increase in first-team affairs. He will see more game time in the trequartista role behind Van Persie—his preferred position.
Next season should see the emergence of Kagawa as a player capable of proving the difference in continental competition.
European Improvement, Clouded Future
Bringing the Champions League trophy back to Old Trafford will be no easy feat.
This season, Germany's best, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, have been streets ahead of any British team.
The Red Devils have failed to progress past the first knockout stage in the tournament for two years running but cannot simply blame bad luck for their failures.
It would be simple to claim they'll come back stronger next year—the team should realistically be expected to make at least the quarter-finals every year, possibly the semis.
But in truth, the future is clouded, with doubts existing as to whether or not the midfield can compete with Europe's finest.
Unless Sir Alex can bring in genuine quality in the transfer market this summer, the Andrea Pirlo's, Bastian Schweinsteiger's and Xavi's of the game will fancy their chances against United.
At Least One Winger Back to His Best
One winger lacking form throughout a season can be expected, two is unfortunate, three is unprecedented.
Nani, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia have all been poor, failing to contribute to the Red Devils' attacking threat.
In the Premier League, they have combined for a paltry two goals and eight assists in over 50 total appearances.
Surely history cannot repeat itself next term?
If I had to pick one player who should come back stronger in 2013/14 it would be Antonio Valencia—the Ecuadorian winger was one of the team's best player last season, but injuries and a drop in confidence has seen him take a sharp dip in form.
Nani is also a player capable of turning it on, but he will also need to regain his past swagger.
Another Positional Change for Wayne Rooney
Wayne Rooney has had a relatively successful season for United, scoring 12 goals and making 10 assists in the Premier League.
But his link-up play with Robin van Persie has been a tortured affair—the two don't compliment each other well enough to justify Rooney continuing in the hole behind the Dutchman.
When they have combined to good effect—such as Van Persie's stunning volley against Aston Villa last month—it has been with the Englishman delivering the ball from deep.
Rooney could well be asked to play a more regular role in central midfield or even pushed forward into attack.
One thing is for sure, his quality has not diminished; his comfort as the advanced playmaker has grown.
The Red Devils have got the Premier League down to a tee.
Lifting trophies comes easy to a team so well drilled in the art of winning. Sir Alex's players have such an unshakable winning mentality that they can regularly collect three points when playing poorly.
Chelsea will improve next season, and one can expect Manchester City to pose more of a threat, but this is Manchester United we're talking about—it would take a mini-revolution to displace them from the top of the table.
Robin van Persie will continue to bang in the goals, Nemanja Vidic will boss the defence, while any new signing is sure to be the world-class player Sir Alex craves.
The 2013/14 season may not be so straightforward as this past campaign, but United are too strong to prevent their rivals from catching them up.
What do you think next season has in store for Sir Alex's side?