As the opening weekend of the Premier League season races towards us, managers across the land study their player rosters in earnest as they ready their finalized 25-man selection for the 1st September deadline. United’s summer has seen the retirement of Paul Scholes and Edwin Van Der Sar, and the departures of Wes Brown and John O’Shea to Sunderland; experienced players that will not be easy to replace. However, with a fresh injection of youthful new signings the future is bright in the red half of Manchester (although not necessarily oranje).
Below is a preview of United’s squad for the forthcoming season complete with a rundown of who may and may not make the cut come the start of September. Remember: players born on or after the 1st January 1990 do not need to be registered although squads must contain a minimum of 8 ‘home grown’ players, the names of which are shown in italics.
Keepers: David De Gea, Andreas Lindegaard, Ben Amos, Tomasz Kuszczak
Since the aforementioned retirement of Edwin Van Der Sar all eyes have fallen upon the young Spaniard, David De Gea, a £18m summer purchase from Atletico Madrid. De Gea is a player in the same mould as the Dutch legend and has all the characteristics to suggest he could well develop into a like-for-like replacement. He has in the past cited the recently retired shot stopper as a personal idol, and former teammates in Madrid even nicknamed him ‘Van Der Gea’ due to his similar approach in tending the nets. United fans will pray that such a transformation will take place sooner rather than later so that the club can avoid suffering a similar crisis of recruitment between the sticks to what followed Peter Schmeichel’s departure from the club in 1999.
Speaking of the Great Dane, there’s something about Andreas Lindegaard, the other new goalkeeping recruit at Old Trafford, that triggers memories of another of United’s former hero goalies. With an imposing physique, impressive throwing arm and a commanding presence behind the back four, Lindegaard has a passing resemblance to Schmeichel about him. With the young De Gea settling in to a new city, country and style of football, Lindegaard, who joined in the January transfer window, makes for a steady and dependable back up when form or injury troubles the new No.1.
With De Gea and Lindegaard occupying the first and second goalkeeping berths in the squad, it seems odd that Tomasz Kuszczak still remains at the club. After declaring his desire to takeover the number one spot from Van Der Sar or leave for first team football, he still lingers having not been touted by the club for sale or publicly pursued for purchase. Looking around the Premiership it seems strange that, with Ben Foster moving to West Brom and Brad Friedel swapping Villa for Spurs, Kuszczak hasn’t received more interest. Hopefully a new club and a new dawn beckons for him, as with Ben Amos proving his talents and growing dependability as a third choice keeper, a precious spot on this season’s 25 man roster seems unlikely for the Polish international goalkeeper. His absence during the team’s preseason preparations could suggest moves are already underway for his departure.
Prospective keepers: Andreas Lindegaard
U21: David De Gea, Ben Amos
Total squad number: 1
Defenders: Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Fabio Da Silva, Rafael Da Silva, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans.
The moving on of Wes Brown and John O’Shea may not be as headline grabbing as the retirements of Scholes and Van Der Sar, but over the past few seasons United have shown the value of keeping experienced and versatile utility players on the books even after their first choice heydays have passed. Thankfully, the arrival of Phil Jones from Blackburn and the emergence of former non-leaguer Chris Smalling bring new found enthusiasm, energy and adaptability to the back four and beyond. Jones, whilst preferring to play out of the centre of defense, is capable as a defensive right back and midfield sentinel. Smalling too can fill in on the defensive flanks where his abilities going forward are also given new impetus. Undoubtedly both play at their best in the back two and provide two incredibly polished covers for the first choice pairing of Vidic and Ferdinand, the latter of which looks increasingly injury prone.
After a disappointing slump last year, Jonny Evans will look to push on from a promising preseason where he went some way to recapturing his form of two seasons ago. With Jones and Smalling looking the obvious choices for central cover, Evans may well find himself playing out on the left more giving Evra some much needed mid-season rests, a luxury he’s had to go without in recent times. After a luke warm campaign from left back last year, hopefully Evra can pick up the slack and regain his form as a word class full-back.
Last, but by no means least, we come to the twins, Fabio and Rafael. As if United’s youthful backline wasn’t exciting enough! The two brothers will look to cement their growing reputations on both sides of the pitch. A year older and a year wiser, Rafael seems to have smoothed out many of the defensive kinks in his game whilst Fabio must look to mount a serious challenge to Patrice Evra’s first choice status at left back.
Prospective defenders: Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, Patrice Evra, Rafael Da Silva, Fabio Da Silva
U21: Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Rafael Da Silva, Fabio Da Silva
Total squad number: 4
Midfielders: Ryan Giggs, Nani, Anderson, Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick, Ashley Young, Park Ji-Sung, Tom Cleverley, Darron Gibson, Antonio Valencia
Although his influence waned as last season went on, we should cast our minds back to August 2010 and the early term plaudits that were being sent Paul Scholes’ way. It looked as if it were to be a season of back-patting awards, such as when Giggs won the player of the year award the year before. Such a presentation was akin to the Oscar presented to an aged auteur in acknowledgment of his earlier work, pouring champagne all over an Indian summer in order to make up the under appreciation of his best years, now long since passed. It is undeniable that Paul Scholes leaves a gap in the club that will not be easily filled, and indeed no real replacement currently exists that could realistically be poached to cover his retirement. Giggs remains as a potent creative force but he can no longer be relied upon to deliver the impetus for innovation week-in week-out.
This is no time for doom and gloom however. It is becoming something of a cliché to answer the Paul Scholes question with the answer of Tom Cleverley. The attacking midfielder’s return from a season-long loan spell at Wigan has brought an added sense of energy and fluency to United’s preseason forward play. When combined with Nani, Wayne Rooney and the newly signed Ashley Young, his technical yet tidy ball work, calmness under pressure and enterprising hard graft greased the wheels of the team’s flexible and fluid attacking moves in the Charity Shield. This was perfectly summed up in the exquisite football of Nani’s first goal, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the anarchistic combinations of Tevez, Ronaldo and Rooney.
Another player who offers hope in the absence of Paul Scholes is the indefatigable Park Ji-Sung. For the past two seasons Park has shown his mettle and craft in bringing the ball up through the midfield with some fantastic sucker-punch goals and sprinting counter-attacks. Park continues to surprise both the opposition and the fans and seems unfairly labeled as a hard working yet limited laborer.
Much is made of Darren Fletcher’s absence in both recent Champions League final losses to Barcelona. Whilst its true his grit and doggedness has been sorely missed in a midfield also devoid of Owen Hargreaves, Fletcher was not the player to decide the outcome of either matches. He is, however, an important soldier in Sir Alex’s new model army, providing experience, ball-winning traction and an assuredness in possession that is often overlooked.
Elsewhere in midfield Anderson looks like he could be about to make the step up and ignite a personal renaissance similar to the Nani’s breakthrough season two years ago. If he can turn his inconsistent glimmers of quality into persistent form, his power play from midfield may yet inspire Michael Carrick to enhance his own performances of late. Darron Gibson is supposedly on his way out of Old Trafford but after his proposed move to Sunderland broke down, an obvious exit route has yet to appear. He isn’t a bad back up player to have around however and has unfairly suffered at the hands of his own clubs fans.
Out on the wings, Nani and Ashley Young bring guile and panache to the side from wide positions whilst also offering in-roads into the opponent’s half with their cuts infield to compress play. Antonio Valencia is still Valencia; possibly the most effective one-dimensional player around. Every opponent knows exactly where he wants to go and exactly what he wants to do, but you try stopping him.
Youth FA cup winners Paul Pogba, Ravel Morrison and Oliver Norwood could make a few cameos but its most probably a season too soon for them. Expect to see them promoted next year along with Ryan Tunnicliffe who’s been sent on loan for the season at Peterborough, assuming Fergie Jnr isn’t sacked!
Prospective Midfielders: Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs, Ashley Young, Darron Gibson, Nani, Antonio Valencia, Anderson, Tom Cleverley, Park Ji-Sung
Total squad number: 15
Forwards: Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez, Dimitar Berbatov, Danny Welbeck, Michael Owen, Federico Macheda, Mame Biram-Diouf, Bebe.
Rumors of Dimitar Berbatov’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Last season saw Wayne Rooney’s star fade for some fans and as his form plummeted, Berbatov finally stepped up to become the main man in attack. Unfortunately Berbatov is still a figure of derision to some sections of the United faithful who view his relaxed, languid style as sheer apathetic laziness. Berbatov and Tevez’s fates have seemed almost inexplicably linked ever since the former’s arrival at Old Trafford with the two currently sharing the spoils of last season’s top goal scoring accolade in the league. Tevez is a gutsy player with the work rate and engine of a steam train. Perhaps if Berbatov played without such a permanent comparison, his sophisticated and cultured approach would be praised. Unfortunately an elegant swagger looks disappointingly pedestrian when placed next to a wild, romping frenzy.
Wayne Rooney isn’t quite the feral youngster he once was but his hyperactive all-round play style and decisive playmaking mark him out as the team’s keystone in the final third. With his form newly refreshed Rooney will look to further forget his nightmare start last term with a solid season that turns transition into success. His link-up play with Hernandez was one of the highlights of last year and, as the Mexican looks to grow as a player and add to his arsenal, the partnership can only become stronger.
Another beneficiary of the newly fluid attacking system unveiled at Wembley could be Danny Welbeck who, on returning from his development loan at Sunderland, will look to cement himself into a regular berth in the match day squads. After his free, overlapping exploits with Asamoah Gyan in the northeast, Welbeck is ready to add to the unpredictable chaos theory of United’s forward line. Michael Owen offers an experienced old head as back up whilst the role of Mame Biram Diouf is less certain. It seems likely another loan move or something more permanent might come his way.
Prospective Forwards: Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez, Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen
U21 Forwards: Danny Welbeck, Federico Macheda
Total squad number: 19
With a possible final squad size of 19 registered players, yet more new signings could be a possibility before the end of the summer transfer window, although major moves aren’t a necessity. The proposed move for Inter’s Wes Sneijder looks increasingly shaky and perhaps even unnecessary if the inexact science of preseason form reading is anything to go by. The second half fight back in the Community Shield is hopefully a glimpse of what we can expect from United in the new, up-and-coming footballing term.
Throughout what was ultimately a glorified friendly, the team’s approach did not feel, as with some games last year, like a patchy performance upgraded by the tactical manipulations of Sir Alex Ferguson. The swaggering confidence and craft on show harks back to the smooth swashbuckling of the 2008 vintage, and heading into the new season it feels as though Manchester United are back! Such a declaration seems odd coming off the back of a record 19th title and a Champions League final, but winning isn’t everything. The manner of victory is important too and these are exciting times for the beautiful game at Old Trafford.
For in-depth analysis of how Manchester United lined up in the Community Shield match, check out Zonal Marking’s tactical review here.