Manchester United have had a large squad since time itself began; the logic for many managers is that a larger squad is essential to be competitive on multiple fronts. A club of United's stature would expect to be competing on all fronts—Premier League, FA Cup, and League Cup, as well as in Europe. Driven by necessity, Sir Alex Ferguson has adopted a rotation policy over the years to keep his best fresh and give his young players their chances.
The upcoming Premier League season, however, sees new rules introduced: Only 25 players over the age of 21 may be registered and eight of these must have trained with United for three seasons before the age of 21. The squad may be supplemented with as many under-21s as necessary. With United having been one of the most active English teams in this transfer window, it will be interesting to see who sneaks in.
This article will look at the most likely 25 players to be registered as well as the under-21s who should play a part.
Following Peter Schmeichel's departure in 1999, Ferguson struggled to find a true replacement for several seasons, until a £2 million move saw Van Der Sar arrive from Fulham.
United's current No. 1, Van Der Sar wasted no time in establishing his reputation at United. Known for being a calming presence in goal, the confidence he gives his backline is there for all to see.
United fans will fondly remember his brilliant displays during the 2008-2009 season where he set a record of 1,311 minutes without conceding in the league. On top of that, he has made several important penalty saves against teams such as Manchester City and Chelsea that have directly led to Premier League and Champions League success.
Although he will be 40 years old on the 29th of October, United fans need not fear too much as Van Der Sar still looked sharp against Chelsea in the Community Shield and can expect another reliable season from their veteran shot-stopper.
Rating out of 10: 8.
Perhaps not quite as agile as he once was, Van Der Sar is nevertheless still capable of tending a top-four side's goals. This season may very well be his last so expect a final flourish from a player who has had an illustrious career.
After famously having his name misspelled on his jersey during his first United start, Kuszczak has established a reputation as a solid if at times unpredictable "Plan B" when venerable Van Der Sar cannot play. Having started United's last season contemplating whether to leave following Ben Foster's promotion to the primary backup slot, Tomas eventually decided to stay and capitalised on some poor errors by Foster to establish himself in Ferguson's trust, finishing the season with 14 appearances across all competitions.
He will more than likely feature even more prominently this season as Van Der Sar's age will prevent him from starting every match.
Rating out of 10: 6
Probably the best backup keeper in the top four, but not destined to be United's No. 1. Reliable when called upon however.
Confident, talented, and composed are probably the three words that best describe Ferdinand in defense. Known best for his astute positional sense and for being pacier than your average centreback, Rio has been arguably United's best defender during the course of the past decade.
Injuries plagued him last season and he was restricted to only 21 appearance across all competitions—not helped by a four-match ban imposed by the FA following an incident against Hull—before a heavy challenge from Emile Heskey in training rendered him out of the World Cup. Many seem to have forgotten what Ferdinand is like when fully match fit and playing regularly.
Alongside Nemanja Vidic, Ferdinand is one half of a central defense widely considered to be the best in Britain, and his style complements his Serbian partner perfectly. Assured in possession and rarely caught out off it, Ferdinand's only real problem is keeping his head in the game. His aura of composure and blatant leadership qualities have seen him become United's stand-in captain as Giggs and Neville play less and less.
Rating out of 10: 9.
At his best, Rio Ferdinand is capable of being the best defender in England. At his worst, one needs only to look at the Manchester Derby at Old Trafford last season. Providing he can stay injury free, expect Ferdinand to return and remind people why United spent £29 million bringing him to the club in 2002.
At 28-years-old, Vidic is one of the most dominating defenders in world football, and at Manchester United he has formed a watertight partnership with Rio Ferdinand at the back. Long coveted by many European giants, the big Serbian recently put paid to any doubts over his future by signing a four-year contract extension.
Whereas his usual central partner, Ferdinand, likes to do everything with a touch of class, Vidic is an out and out bully of a defender. Many a frustrated winger has watched cross after cross headed forcefully away by a dominant Vida and his presence as captain against Chelsea at the weekend was as flawless and competitive as you will see this season.
However, if there is one department where the big Serb is vulnerable it is pace, and most United fans dread seeing him line up against the likes of Agbonlahor and Torres, both of whom have ripped him to shreds many a time in the past. He's struggled to deal with Torres so much that he managed to get sent off in three United vs. Liverpool derbies in a row.
Rating out of 10: 9.
More consistent than Ferdinand and better in the air, Vidic needs only fear those with true pace. Nailed on first choice defender.
One of United's remarkable collection of one-club-men, 30-year-old Wes Brown is generally regarded as a fairly mobile centreback who can also play at right back. His career is a tale of ravaging injuries and episodes of "all that could have been"—though this takes nothing away from him as he is still a competent defender.
Once proclaimed as United's best defender by his manager, Brown has spent the best part of a decade suffering season-ending injuries just after finding his best form—with the notable exception of the 2007-2008 season, in which he was magnificent and managed a career high of 52 games across all competitions. Now nearing the age where footballers naturally begin to decline, Brown is commonly used as backup for the right back slot more than anything else.
After such a promising youth career, Wes was simply unfortunate to see injuries persistently interrupt his development, although he still has one or two season left to show his best.
Rating out of 10: 6.5.
Competent though he is, Brown is very commonly injured and as such struggles build up form. Useful player, but his role must surely only shrink in the team from here on in.
Following rave reviews from Roy Keane after a loan spell at Sunderland, the then 20-year-old Evans returned to United for the 2008-2009 season and managed to make a very impressive 35 appearances across all competitions. Able to play all across the back line, Evans has looked capable of standing in for Ferdinand or Vidic whenever asked and made a further 28 appearances last season. His form led United boss Ferguson to admit "his United future is secure" and since his breathrough in the team he has set about forcing his way up the defensive ladder.
Now seemingly the first choice backup for central defense, Evans is nevertheless still a work in progress. At 22 years old, he is still very young for a central defender and at times he can make errors of judgment. His best is no doubt still yet to come, though he should still be considered a capable defender.
Rating out of 10: 7. C
an step in and mix it with the best of them, although at times top forwards have exposed his inexperience. Evans is only going to improve over the next few seasons as Ferguson looks to have him replace Ferdinand.
Arriving in a surprise £10 million swoop from Fulham in January, Smalling spent the last half of last season on loan at his old club Fulham. Armed with pace, height, and a no-nonsense approach to defending, United had to beat off competition from Arsenal for his signature. It is shocking to think that just two seasons ago he wasn't even playing competitive football.
Much remains to be seen as to what Smalling develops into as a player. In preseason, he has looked a little nervous, but judging a player by his preseason is never a great idea.
Rating out of 10: 5.
Not ready for a major role yet. Will develop mainly in the reserves and appear sparingly in low-key first-team games.
Originally seen as a centreback, John O'Shea has 361 United appeareances to his name and in that time he has appeared in virtually every position on the pitch for United—even deputising as an emergency goalkeeper and striker in times of crisis.
After his breakthrough in the 2002-2003 season, the Irishman fashioned himself essentially as the direct replacement for utility man Phil Neville after the latter departed for Everton. Dependable as well as pragmatic, those looking for thrills will not necessarily find O'Shea to their taste but his simple and safe approach to playing, no matter where he may be playing, has been a key factor in his time at United and he is sure to give a decent account of himself in most matches.
Having missed a large part of last season due to injury, O'Shea will be hoping to resume his role as United's first choice right back as well as lending his help wherever else he is required to.
Rating out of 10: 7.
Not necessarily the best player in terms of talent, but O'Shea is one of a rare breed of players who looks comfortable in a wide range of positions.
Having initially struggled to adapt to the Premier League following his signing from Monaco in 2006, Evra has since transformed himself into an untouchable presence on the left side of United's defense. As the only player to survive United's biblical plague of defensive injuries last season, he played all 38 of their league games and has spent the last two seasons in a tug of war with Ashley Cole for the title of world's best left back.
Whilst this writer believes that Cole is perhaps slightly better, Evra is still a superb player. Armed with pace and offensive awareness, Evra is blessed with the dual ability to get back and perform his defensive duties at the highest level, making him a real asset to the United team.
The 2010 World Cup was hugely disappointing for France captain Evra and he will be determined to bounce back for United. This could be one of his best seasons yet for the Red Devils if all goes to plan.
Rating out of 10: 9.
A nailed-on starter, Evra would get into any team in the world.
Club captain and life-long United fan, "Citizen Neville" is never far away from controversy. Whether organising a boycott of England games or celebrating a derby win in an exacerbating manner (see picture), Neville is a figure hated by almost all outside the Old Trafford Bubble.
A brilliant defender back in the day, Gary is 35 years old now and the ravages of age added to a horrendous injury streak have seen his playing time and ability decline in recent years. Still fully committed to the cause, Neville has nevertheless looked as though his legs can't follow him at times in this past season and seems to have fallen behind O'Shea, Brown, and Rafael in the race for right back.
Not a bad player to have as your fourth choice right back though.
Rating out of 10: 6.5.
Whilst his actual playing ability is not what it once was, Neville's passion and experience in the dressing room is still vital to the United cause.
Fletcher has experienced all the highs and lows of a football career and yet he is still only 26 years old. From seeing his youth development curtailed by a series of ankle problems, Fletcher emerged in United's first team and was initially view as a midfield laughingstock—leading to teammate Roy Keane's famous outburst of "I can't see why people in Scotland rave about Darren Fletcher" in late 2005. After riding the initial wave of problems, Fletcher began to emerge in the 2007-2008 season as a staple of United's midfield, only to experience further frustration as he was wrongly dismissed in the champions league in 2009 and was forced to miss the final.
Commonly seen as the most important member of United's current midfield, Fletcher has stamina and enthusiasm combined with a dose of vision and technical awareness holding him in good stead against many teams in the league. What really sets Fletcher apart, however, are his dominating performances on big occasions and against big teams. Seemingly upping his game when really needed, he was definitely a big miss in the 2009 Champions League Final.
Should command a starting berth going into the new season at central midfield.
Rating out of 10: 8.
Great at disrupting opposing teams' build-up play, Fletcher could well be a future captain for United. Greater proficiency in and around opponents' areas could well see him become one of the league's elite midfielders.
United's fourth highest appearance-holder with 644 games under his belt, there is little to be said about Paul Scholes that has not already been said. Singled out by greats such as Zidane, Edgar Davids, and Michael Essien as the greatest midfielder of his generation, Scholes continues to provide a breath of fresh air in modern football even at the venerable age of 35 years old. Whilst many footballers seem to put celebrity first in modern times, Paul once described his ideal day as training followed by going home to his family.
Still the best passer in the Premier League, Scholes's legs may not be what they once to be and in recent seasons he has commonly been seen dictating the play from the centre circle rather than throwing himself forward as he once would. After a man of the match peforrmance against Chelsea at the weekend, Scholes still demonstrates his endearing qualities to the United cause and will be a huge loss not only for the Devils but for English football in general when he finally hangs up his boots.
Until that day, he will continue to hurl himself into the "Paul Scholes death tackle" at every opportunity and his presence will always provide a boost to his team.
Rating out of 10: 8.
The last of a dying breed of English footballers, Scholes will still be a central figure for United this season. His career should end on a high this season.
Having arrived for a fee potentially reaching £18 million in 2006, Carrick's United career has been a mixed bag of success and disappointment. Initially seen as a direct successor to Paul Scholes due to his similar passing and crossing abilities, Carrick was integral to a side which won numerous trophies between 2006 and 2009.
However, following the midfield humbling by Barcelona in the Champions League final, Carrick seemed to have retreated into his shell last season, eventually being left on the bench for the last seven games of United's league season.
The new season is a vital one for Carrick. If he can rediscover the form he displayed upon his arrival, he could be set to end his career with the Red Devils, but every poor showing increases the calls for him to be sold.
Rating out of 10: 7.5.
Competent but not outstanding, Carrick can be a handful for the opposition when on form. The question this season will be whether he can discover that form.
After arriving at Old Trafford from Porto for a fee of £18 million in 2007, Anderson has at times struggled to live up to expectations. Capable of some great killer passes and full of energy, he has shown in flashes that United have a gem of a player if he can find some consistency. However, having struggled to establish himself in the first team, Anderson suffered a season-ending injury last year which further hampered his development.
Expected to be back in shape by mid-September, Anderson needs to step it up a gear this season. Nevertheless, he is a definite for United's 25-man squad.
Rating out of 10: 7.
So much depends on whether his head is in the game that Anderson is a hard player to judge. Capable but inconsistent, this will be the make or break season for the Brazilian.
Darron Gibson, the 22-year-old Irish international, first came to the attention of United fans when he smashed in a wonder goal against Hull on the final game of the 2008-2009 season. Possessing a fearsome long-range shot, Gibson has slowly worked his way through the ranks at Old Trafford, leading to his fruitful performance in United's champions league exit to Bayern Munich. It is clear that the management at United is willing to give Gibson a fair crack of the whip for the Red Devils.
However, good finisher though he is, I personally remain a little skeptical of Gibson's all-around game. He rarely plays the ball over the top or forward diagonally, leading to questions over his passing and vision. Something of a one-trick pony with a smattering of potential, Gibson will surely not be a long-term presence in United's midfield as he is unlikely to develop too much further.
Rating out of 10: 5.
Gibson is not essential to United's cause and will likely only feature in low-key games which Ferguson isn't too bothered about. Expect him to leave for a mid-table club next summer.
Having missed two full seasons after surgery on a long-standing knee problem, Hargreaves is once again on the sidelines as he returns to the USA to check on his previous injuries. Whilst the general indications coming from within the camp are that Hargreaves will return and be picked, he could be something of a gamble.
A fantastic defensive midfielder who arrived in the summer of 2007 for a fee of around £17 million, Hargreaves was the only member of England's 2006 World Cup Squad to emerge with his reputation intact. His debut season with United couldn't have gone better either; a Premier League medal combined with Champions League glory owed much to the versatile midfielder's destructive presence in the unattractive holding role. If he returns at his best, United can be sure of an even better defensive record than last year as Hargreaves will add steel and energy to the defensive midfield position.
Rating out of 10: 8.
Perhaps a little high for a player with such injury records, but United fans will be thrilled if the curly-haired destroyer returns at peak efficiency as he is one of the best defensive midfielders around.
Last year's Sport's Personality of the Year Winner (pictured above) is United's current vice-captain and all-time record appearance holder, with a whopping 839 games under his belt for the men in red. An illustrious career which has spanned 20 years has seen Giggs win almost every trophy there is to win.
Bursting onto the scene as a lightning fast left winger in the early 1990s, Giggs has recently developed into an experienced central player who is commonly brought on to provide intelligence and composure in tight situations.
The legs are no longer what they once were and he can't be expected to perform week in, week out, but he still retains an intelligence and technical prowess which makes him useful to the cause. Will likely only make sparing appearances this year but he is by no means finished as a player.
Rating out of 10: 7.
Not a lot to say really. Shouldn't figure in a full strength XI but his squad role is more than satisfactory in the twilight of his career.
Valencia arrived last year for £17 million from Wigan and instantly made the right-wing position his own. Probably the best crosser in the league, Valencia also has the rare ability to beat a man from a standing start and is blessed with good touch and pace.
After initial sceptiscm from some fans, Valencia soon won them over with 49 eye-catching performances which yielded seven goals and a handful of assists, culminating in his inclusion in the PFA team of the year.
Much is to be expected from the Ecuadorian this year as he builds on a solid debut season and looks to establish himself as a United legend.
Rating out of 10: 8.5.
One of United's most important players this season. Came back from an ankle injury in preseason to impress against the League of Ireland XI before ripping Ashley Cole to pieces in the community shield.
Arriving in the summer of 2007 with the billing of being the next Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani initially struggled to live up to the hype and put in inconsistent displays up until an outburst over Ferguson's man management in late 2009 led to speculation that he would leave the club.
The latter half of last season, however, saw Nani transform his fortunes with a series of high intensity performances against teams such as Arsenal and Bayern Munich. United fans will long remember the sight of the Portugese winger taking on two Arsenal players before lifting a ball into the box which Almunia could only help into his own net.
Having finally started to come good on his potential, Nani needs to keep his momentum going into the new season and put his troublesome United start well and truly behind him.
Rating out of 10: 8.
A very pacey, tricky winger, Nani will be essential to United provided he can perform consistently.
United's hard-working winger cum attacking midfielder virtuoso, Park combines a decent amount of technical ability with the work rate of a well-bred donkey.
Commonly picked for games where the pressure is on, Park thrives in an environment where he is playing against top-level, elite footballers, and made history in 2009 as the first Asian to appear in a Champions League final. In 2008, Park was lauded across all media outlets for his brilliant, tireless performance against Barcelona in the Champions League semifinals, landing the man of the match award in the process. Loved by true United fans, Park has recently signalled his intenetion to end his career with the club, stating "I've no reason to be anywhere else."
Rating out of 10: 7.
Hardly a flair performer, but dependable and incredibly athletic. Park will always be picked against tough opposition and will likely play a key role in the upcoming season.
Arriving in 2009 for a fee of roughly £3 million, his landing in Old Trafford caught many people by surprise but his performance last season as well as his good preseason gives reason for optimism.
Looking every bit the modern winger, Obertan combines pace with trickery to beat his man before playing a ball into the box. He recently scored his first United goal in a preseason friendly against Philadelphia Union.
Rating out of 10: 6.
Obertan enjoyed a decent first season with United, even though he was limited to just 13 appearances across all competitions. He won't perform a key role this time round, but expect further improvement.
It is easy to forget that Rooney is still only 24 years old. It seems an eternity ago that he burst onto the scene for United with a thrilling hat trick on his debut against Fernabache, and since then he has not looked back.
Versatile, powerful, pacey, technically gifted—there are few things that Wayne Rooney cannot do. Last season he banged in a career high 34 goals in 44 appearances across all competitions, including all four in a destruction of Hull City. Added to that, he managed a handful of assists bringing his direct contribution to United's goal tally last season to around 40.
Rooney was probably England's biggest underperformer in South Africa and will want to remind people of the heights he achieved last year. This potentially makes him deadlier than ever, and his cameo performance against Chelsea last weekend signaled that he was not suffering a world cup hangover—at least not for the Reds. No matter where or when he plays, Rooney will be the focal point of the United team and his name will strike ice-cold terror into the hearts of opposition players.
Rooney's only real downfall is an immature streak that can lead to outbursts when things don't go his way. Many will remember his foolish, sarcastic clapping several seasons ago; more recently, he was vilified for comments made after a poor showing against Algeria after which the England team was booed. He needs to keep his temper in check better.
Rating out of 10: 9.5.
United's talisman is going nowhere but up in his career as he is still to enter his prime as a footballer. Expect him to start whenever possible and once again score over 20 goals.
Never has a player been so divisive amongst his own fans. Love him or loathe him, one thing that cannot be denied is that Dimi does everything with a touch of class.
The positives of Berbatov are there for all to see. He possesses a magical first touch which makes him an ideal point man, and he is gifted with enough flair, vision, and general technical ability to produce some outstanding moments of magic—just ask James Collins. His first season at United was not brilliant but he nevertheless finished joint second on assists in the Premier League with 10 and managed 14 goals across all competitions.
However, his languid style can make him appear lazy and his lack of pace is often said to slow United up when attempting to counter swiftly. Berbatov did not help his cause last year after starting brightly; he lost form just as Rooney was ruled out of several important games against opponents such as Chelsea and couldn't adequately replace him.
He has looked very sharp in preseason, however, and his second half performance against Chelsea, especially his goal, was beautiful. If he can keep up that form, perhaps fans will begin to forgive him.
Rating outof 10: 8.
Another player facing a make or break season for the Red Devils, Berbatov will either answer his critics or fall victim to them this season. He needs to produce the ability that we all know he is capable of on a more consistent basis to justify his hefty price tag.
A former Ballon d'Or winner and scorer of 40 international goals, Owen's arrival on a free transfer for a pay-as-you-play deal was a shock to most people last summer.
Owen may be long past his best and only expected to play as backup, but he is certainly a worthwhile player to have around. Last season he scored an important equaliser against Aston Villa in the Carling Cup final as well as a memorable hat trick against Wolfsburg amongst his nine-goal haul before his season was curtailed by injury.
Still playing with youthful exuberance and a smile on his face, Owen may be fourth or fifth choice now in the striking ladder but how many fifth choice strikers can you think of that are as good as Owen? I'll bet the list is short.
Rating out of 10: 6.
Provides a wealth of experience for United's young hitmen as well as being reliable backup—his playing role should not be over emphasised, however.
Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez was unveiled as a United player in January in a shock deal that was the best-kept secret in football at the time. Possessing pace, technical ability, and two ruthless scoring feet—as well as a good nose judging by Sunday—he has already been likened to club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer by his manager and teammates.
United fans' first glimpse of him came in the World Cup where he was impressive for Mexico, before scoring in all the preseason friendlies that he played in for United (one against the Red Devils) and then scoring a hilarious goal on his competitive debut where he kicked the ball into his own face before it found the net. For a fee of just £6-7 million, he could well be the find of the season.
Rating out of 10: 8.
Looks very sharp, could well be a super sub this season. Will only improve as he gets older—could well net over 20 this season if he keeps his performance levels as high as they have looked so far.
There are other players—under 21—outside of this list who will no doubt appear this season. Notably, Rafael and Fabio, Macheda and Ben Amos.
I have tried to approach this in an optimistic fashion but remain realistic; this season's title race will no doubt come down to who can last the distance between United, Arsenal, and Chelsea once again but United fans have every reason to be hopeful.
Central midfield is once again the main weak spot, although perhaps things aren't as bad as originally feared.
And now, after spending a collective time of about six hours researching and writing this up, I'm going to watch The Matrix.
Read and comment if you agree/disagree/think I'm nuts!