WITH the start of the 2015-16 Barclays Premier League season fast approaching, Adam Higgins takes a look at Manchester United’s chances ahead of the new campaign.
A return of European football, a summer of spending and being mentioned as Premier League title contenders, it’s almost as if the Manchester United of old has never been away.
Following the dismal David Moyes debacle, United made steady progress under the stewardship of the daring Dutchman Louis van Gaal with a fourth-placed Premier League finish securing a two-legged Champions League play-off in August.
They may have struggled to make an impact in the domestic cups – dumped out of the League Cup by League One MK Dons and succumbing to Arsenal in the FA Cup quarter-finals – but the outlook is looking rosier for the Red Devils ahead of their league opener against Spurs on August 8.
After the British record transfer of Argentine superstar Angel di Maria 12 months ago, United have continued the expensive recruitment drive, and are still on the lookout for more players, in their bid to restore their status as one of the biggest clubs in world football following two trophyless years.
The double signing of midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin – from Bayern Munich and Southampton respectively – for a combined fee of £39.4 million could prove to be among the shrewdest business in the summer window.
With several young and fringe players leaving Old Trafford, plus the high-profile departures of strikers Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie, van Gaal has also successfully trimmed the wage bill and tightened the size of a previously overloaded squad.
For the fourth time in the last six years, United jetted off to America as part of their pre-season preparations. But, significantly, one of their prized assets was on the plane with David de Gea, a much-publicised target for Real Madrid, embroiled in one of the longest-running transfer sagas in the club’s recent memory.
Arguably the Premier League’s best goalkeeper in 2014-15, United’s chances of being crowned champions for only the second time in five seasons could hinge on whether he decides to remain in Manchester or return to Spain while problems have emerged concerning the other Spanish stopper with Victor Valdes on the way out after refusing to play for the club’s reserves.
Although the stark impact of van Gaal’s philosophy and methods was greatly felt, United still have room for improvement with goals drying up in the latter weeks of last season while the three straight league defeats to Everton, Chelsea and at home to West Bromwich Albion suggested signs of vulnerability and profligacy.
It was always going to be the case that patience would have to play a part in the rebuilding process and, after meeting last year’s aim of bringing the elite European competition back to the Theatre of Dreams, it’s van Gaal’s second season in charge that will be closely scrutinised as the club seek to compete for the major honours again and revive the glory days of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Memphis Depay (forward from PSV Eindhoven, £25 million): The 21-year-old was PSV’s top scorer with 22 goals on their way to the Eredivisie title and reportedly snubbed PSG, Bayern Munich and Liverpool to sign for United. A scorer for the Netherlands at last summer’s World Cup, the winger already has pedigree and was recently named the world’s best young player by a French magazine.
Matteo Darmian (defender from Torino, £12.7 million): The versatile former AC Milan full-back, who can play right and left or in midfield, arrives with all the typical attributes to suit Premier League football such as his pace, dynamism and positional awareness. The 25-year-old went to the World Cup with just one previous cap for Italy and has had another outstanding season with Torino.
Bastian Schweinsteiger (midfielder from Bayern Munich, £14.4 million): The 30-year-old World Cup winner leaves the Bundesliga champions after winning 22 trophies in 17 years to become the first German to play for United. He has been plagued by injuries in the past four seasons but still has plenty to offer and is captain of his country, whom he has represented at six major tournaments.
Morgan Schneiderlin (midfielder from Southampton, £25 million): The 25-year-old Frenchman, who made one appearance at the 2014 World Cup, excelled in a deep lying midfield role with extra responsibility during Saints’ surprise run to Europa League qualification last season. After seven steady years at St Mary’s, the ex-Spurs transfer target has proved he is ready to make the step up.
Sergio Romero (goalkeeper from Sampdoria, free transfer): The 28-year-old became Louis Van Gaal’s fifth signing of the transfer window. Penning a three-year deal, the Argentina number one is set to be the understudy to David de Gea. However, with uncertainity remaining over the Spaniard’s future at Old Trafford, and Victor Valdes set to leave, the World Cup finalist may find himself at the top of the pecking order before long.
Luis Nani (to Fenerbache, £4.25 million): The 28-year-old Portuguese winger departs Old Trafford having scored 40 goals in 230 appearances since arriving in 2007. He started their opening weekend defeat to Swansea last season but returned to his old club Sporting Lisbon on loan shortly after.
Robin van Persie (to Fenerbache, undisclosed fee): The 31-year-old former Arsenal striker also joins the Turkish giants having quickly become a United fans favourite with 58 goals in 105 games during three seasons including 26 in their 2012-13 title winning year. But the Netherlands’ all-time leading scorer is believed to have fallen out of favour under fellow countryman Louis van Gaal.
Tom Cleverley (to Everton, free transfer): The 25-year-old England midfielder, who first broke into the United first-team in 2011-12, heads to Goodison Park on the back of scoring three times in 31 appearances on loan at Aston Villa last term having been frozen out of the United squad.
Saidy Janko (to Celtic, free transfer): The versatile Swiss defender, 19, joins the Scottish champions on a four-year deal having made one first-team outing in two years at United. He was the reserve player of the year in 2013-14 but was loaned out to Bolton last term, where he impressed under former Celtic boss Neil Lennon and scored once in 10 appearances.
Ben Amos (to Bolton, free transfer): The 25-year-old former England youth goalkeeper, who had a brief loan spell at the Macron Stadium last term, failed to make a breakthrough at United and made just seven appearances in as many seasons whilst spending time on loan at six different clubs.
Tom Thorpe (to Rotherham, free transfer): The 22-year-old former United reserve captain made a brief first-team debut against West Ham last season before being farmed out on loan to Birmingham and the defender now returns to the Championship with the Millers on a two-year contract.
Angelo Henriquez (to Dinamo Zagreb, undisclosed fee): The 21-year-old, fresh from winning the Copa America with hosts Chile, joins the Croatian side permanently following a successful loan spell where he scored 29 goals in 37 appearances. He did not appear for United in his three-year stay and spent time on loan at Wigan Athletic and Real Zaragoza.
William Keane (to Preston North End, season-long loan): The 22-year-old former Wigan, Sheffield Wednesday and QPR loanee made just one first-team appearance for United in 2011 so the ex-England U21 striker will be itching to prove his ability at the Championship newcomers.
Reece James (to Wigan, undisclosed fee): The 21-year-old made one appearance last season in United’s humiliating League Cup defeat at MK Dons before spending time at Huddersfield and Rotherham on loan and has joined the Latics, who are looking to bounce straight back to the Championship following relegation to League One.
Wayne Rooney: Never does a season go by when the former Everton frontman is not deemed a pivotal cog in any team he is part of. Even at the age of 29, the United and England captain is still as inspirational as he was when he first burst onto the scene and, as he closes in on scoring records for both club and country, will want to improve on last season’s tally of 12 goals having spent some time in a deeper midfield role.
Juan Mata: The Spaniard has been in irresistible form since making the £38 million switch from Chelsea in January 2014 and consistently illustrated his exemplary talent during United’s surge towards a Champions League return last season with a healthy contribution of nine goals and four assists in the Premier League. But the 27-year-old, as he enters his peak years, will only strive for improvement in the hope of claiming more major honours in his already successful career.
Ander Herrera: Assuming David de Gea completes the protracted move to Real Madrid, a fellow Spaniard will be just as important if he can pick up where he left off last season. The ex-Bilbao midfielder netted eight times in all competitions as his calm influence on the team grew throughout his debut campaign. In the face of stiff competition for places, the stylish 25-year-old knows more top-quality displays are required if he is to flourish – and receive a first senior international call-up.
With Arsenal gaining strength in areas of weakness, Chelsea undoubtedly desperate to retain their title and Manchester City acquiring Britain’s most expensive player ever, United will know they face another gruelling challenge to fight for the nametag of top dogs which they feel belongs to them. The Premier League increases in competitiveness year on year with nothing guaranteed and the margin between the heavyweights battling in the upper echelons of the table only narrows. The results against the teams around them and consistent home form are always going to be decisive in terms of final league standings and a stronger United squad with additional depth in most areas will feel they can garner more than the respectable 18 points accrued against fellow top six sides last term. Sustaining any type of success is the hardest achievement in football and United, even with new recruits and a feel-good factor reverberating around the club, will find it difficult to build on their fourth-place finish last season. The Red Devils were able to apply their undivided attention towards the sole aim of securing a Champions League return, with the exception of a five-game FA Cup run, but will have to juggle the guarantee of more games on a regular basis. Nevertheless Louis van Gaal will undoubtedly ensure his players can cope with the demands and, with the right personnel and tactics, United are capable of beating any opponents regardless of the circumstances.
By Adam Higgins
* All signings and players out correct as August 5 *