Ranking 10 United Players with Biggest Point to Prove in Pre-Season
Who are the United players with the most to gain, or most to lose, as Manchester United begin their tour of the USA? Who are the players with a point to prove to Louis van Gaal, and to themselves, ahead of the season proper?
Some are established members of the squad who underperformed last season. Some are newer signings who have not yet sufficiently demonstrated their suitability for the club.
Five of them found themselves on my list of five players who should be sold before the season starts, here.
Having something to prove is certainly not always a negative. In the case of the young players on this list it represents a huge opportunity.
Contenders for the list who have not made it include a group of young players, like Angelo Henriquez, Guillermo Varela and Michael and Will Keane. They will all be keen to show Van Gaal what they can do.
The experienced player closest to making the list who missed out was Wayne Rooney given the uncertainties around how he will fit into Van Gaal's system. However, given his status at the club, he probably has longer to prove himself than the rest.
Danny Welbeck is another who was on the long-list for a place in the final 10. However, his tactical flexibility could prove invaluable in Van Gaal's early months, and that probably guarantees his place in the new manager's thoughts.
Here are the 10 players who could most do with catching Van Gaal's eye.
10. Jesse Lingard
Jesse Lingard excelled at this stage last season, becoming United's leading goalscorer during their 2013 tour.
This season affords him the opportunity to show his stuff to a manager who will be paying close attention. Van Gaal's reputation for prising talent over reputation is well known. He will be keen to give chances to the young players who impress him.
Lingard gained valuable experience on loan in the Championship last season and will be looking to establish himself at United. If he can prove himself ready, he could be a breakout star at United this season.
He is 10th on the list rather than higher, because his position is almost entirely positive. He has much to gain, and relatively little to lose. It is hard to imagine this is the last chance saloon for Lingard.
9. Javier Hernandez
This one works both ways. Javier Hernandez needs to prove his worth in the area of the squad where United are strongest. Van Gaal needs to prove to Hernandez that it is worth him staying around to try.
He has more to prove than Lingard, given he is a more senior player. However, his colleagues are ranked higher up this list because, ultimately, Van Gaal will know what he will get with Hernandez. A fine finisher, with excellent movement but perhaps not much else.
Hernandez needs to prove that is enough.
8. Michael Carrick
Michael Carrick had a poor season under David Moyes. He was not alone in that, but the drop-off in performance from the man who had won the previous season's players' player-of-the-year award at United was precipitous.
One goal and no assists in the league does not tell the whole story, but it is indicative of the season he had. If Carrick does not improve his performance levels, then he will find himself atop this list next year. However, he rates lower on the scale in his need to prove himself on the basis of past glories.
This is his last chance to rely on those. He has the season to prove himself, and pre-season would be an excellent place to start.
7. Shinji Kagawa
Shinji Kagawa has not yet lived up to his true potential at Manchester United. There are those who would disagree with that notion, believing him not to be cut out to be a success at Old Trafford.
His former manager, Jurgen Klopp disagrees with them. He said in a May 2013 interview with Donald McRae in the Guardian, that "Shinji Kagawa is one of the best players in the world" adding that his "heart breaks" to see Kagawa on the left-wing at United.
Will Van Gaal believe the Japanese playmaker has enough to offer? Given United's rich talents in attacking midfield it is not impossible to imagine Kagawa playing on the left of a 4-3-3.
Unlike his place on the left of a 4-4-2 under David Moyes, this would be similar to the left-wing role Kagawa plays for his national team, giving him the freedom to cut inside.
Kagawa has more to prove than Carrick, due to the latter's seniority. He has less to prove than his colleagues further up this list because he has only been given limited chances in his best role.
I wrote on Tuesday about the phenomenon of "good Nani" and "bad Nani." The Portuguese winger has been plagued by inconsistency over the past two years.
Even before that, whilst his numerical output was consistent, he still made errors at key moments in crucial games.
Nani must surely be running out of chances to prove himself. If he does manage to show Van Gaal enough promise then Nani's powerful running and flair could see him perform a similar role to Arjen Robben's in the Dutch national side. However, speaking personally, I find it hard to imagine that outcome.
It is testament to how many United players have significant things to prove that Nani does not top this list. There are fine margins between everyone from here to first place.
Nani has more to prove than those listed before because he has underwhelmed for so long. He has less to prove than those above him not so much because of what he has done right, but because of what they have done wrong.
5. Ashley Young
Ashley Young probably possesses less raw talent than Nani. He has certainly never matched the best of Nani's output in a red shirt.
However, in a way he is a less problematic player than his Portuguese counterpart. More often than not, you know what you are going to get with Young. There will be plenty of endeavour, but the final product will be lacking.
However, because of the perception that he is less talented than Nani, he may have more to prove. Can he add end product to his work-rate? Can he show enough to Van Gaal for the Dutchman to consider him a key squad member at United?
Like Nani, Young could be higher up this list. His "known quantity" status is what prevents him from attaining a less desirable ranking. But make no mistake, Young has an enormous amount to prove.
4. Marouane Fellaini
Marouane Fellaini arrived at great expense, several weeks into Manchester United's worst season of the Premier League era. Brought to the club by an unpopular and unsuccessful manager, he was also dogged by injuries over the Christmas programme.
His critics might point to his lack of pace. They may point out that whilst his close passing is tidy, it is often too safe. He also lacks bite in the role of a midfield enforcer. Whilst he may be ready with a sharp elbow, he is less ready with a more direct physical challenge.
His defenders might say that he has to be given more time at United given what turmoil the team was in when he arrived.
Either way he has an enormous amount to prove. More than Young because at least he has occasionally delivered (and again, these are fractional margins). Less than those further up the list because he may get one free pass based on his abilities as a second striker when a direct option is needed.
He may not get long to show what he can do.
3. Wilfried Zaha
Wilfried Zaha was barely given a chance under Moyes before he was sent on loan to Cardiff City. He underwhelmed there, leading Alan Shearer to question his attitude on Match of the Day 2 (h/t Wales Online).
Zaha looked to have the world at his feet when he signed for United, having impressed at Crystal Palace. However, since then there has been little in the positive column and much in the negative.
He is in a position where he will have to build a United career as if from scratch and thus rates above Fellaini, who at least has some credentials at a Premier League club.
Zaha has never proved he belongs at this level. He would be higher up the list but for the length of time the man in the No. 2 spot has been a question mark.
Once upon a time, Anderson put two goals past Manuel Neuer in a Champions League semi-final. Admittedly, it was Neuer playing behind a less effective defence than he currently works with, but still. It is fair to say their careers have taken opposite trajectories since then.
Neuer has just won the Golden Glove at the World Cup, which, of course, his nation won. Anderson has not played for Brazil since 2008.
He has barely played for United since then, either. That is obviously a bit of an exaggeration, but Anderson's time at United has been defined by his battles with injury. He has been given plenty of chances to prove himself and never been able to take them.
This must surely be the very last.
He belongs so high up on this list because almost everyone associated with United has given up hoping he comes good. He would be No. 1 were it not for the fact that the man in the No. 1 spot seems to have more chance of actually improving.
1. Tom Cleverley
Once upon a time Anderson and Tom Cleverley looked like they would be the future of Manchester United's midfield. Shining against Manchester City in the 2011 Community Shield, Cleverley was the young, dynamic hope.
Technically proficient, attack-minded, able to play lovely one-two passes with Nani and Welbeck, that player appears to have been lost. Those of us who once had high hopes for him would love him be found again.
He is No. 1 on this list because he has been dismissed by most of United's fans as a hopeless case.
At a similar age, Darren Fletcher was written off by many, and he came good. Perhaps it is not too late for Cleverley.
It would take an enormous shift in perception for people to consider him to have proved himself worthy of a place at United. However, it is worth considering just how much of a knock Cleverley's confidence has taken from the way he is talked about by fans.
Van Gaal's track record in improving players is noteworthy. He may move United away from a 4-4-2 into a formation that better suits Cleverley's abilities.
It is just possible that what some would call a miracle will come to pass, and Tom Cleverley will prove himself a United player. Pre-season could be crucial.