Can United rest back the Premier League title from their noisy neigbours?
Last Season: 2nd
In: Shinji Kagawa (£13.2m, Borussia Dortmund), Nick Powell (£6.6m, Crewe Alexandra)
Out: Paul Pogba (free transfer, Juventus), Ji-Sung Park (£2.7m, QPR), Fabio (loan, QPR), Tomasz Kuszczak, (free transfer, Brighton & Hove Albion), Michael Owen (released)
If they were an Olympian: Rafael Nadal. Hugely successful with an enormous following, unmatched appetite for victory, often succeeds by wearing down opponents. Not always the prettiest, but ruthlessly effective. Questions over how long the success can last.
Finishing a season without a trophy is not something that Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson take too kindly to, having it happen two season in a row would be a full blown disaster, such are the standards the club has set.
Last season was a curios one at Old Trafford. They were criticised for defensive failings, yet they only conceded 4 more goals than Manchester City. They were accused of lacking creativity, yet the scored only four fewer goals than the eventual champions. Many said that Wayne Rooney was not at his best yet he had his best ever season in terms of league goal scoring. People were queing up to hail the everlasting brilliance of Ryan Giggs and the returning Paul Scholes, yet after Sergio Aguero's stoppage time winner on the last day of the season, these two veterans were seen as symptomatic of United's midfield failings.
On paper United's squad is stronger than last year but the major problem for Ferguson in the past two years has been injuries and United have regularly had half a dozen players out with long term injuries. If United can keep players fit, they have the greatest depth in their squad of any top team. At the back they have five centre halves, in Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, whom one would have few doubts about playing. Not even City can rival that as their reserve pairing is Stefan Savic and Kolo Toure, one of whom is yet to hit his best and the other who is past theirs.
Left back is more of a concern as not only has Patrice Evra struggled in the past two years but there is no obvious replacement for the Frenchman. Rafael is able to play there but is more comfortable on the right and is still prone to lapses in concentration. This explains the club's lingering interest in Leighton Baines, although Everton are seemingly reluctant to sell for anything less than £20m.
The return of Vidic is massive for United. Before his knee injury, he was the best "penalty box" defender in Europe. When it comes to winning headers, making clearances and last ditch tackles there are few who can rival Vidic, although Vincent Kompany comes close. The question will be whether Vidic can regain the form that saw him establish as the Premier League's most dominant centre back. Equally it awaits to be seen how Vidic's movement has been effected by his injury as even before he damaged his knee he was increasingly vulnerable to pace in behind him. With Rio Ferdinand also feeling the effects of age, Jonny Evans, who proved his doubters wrong last year, will surely become a more regular fixture in the team.
Midfield has been the area of greatest scrutiny for United in recent seasons, the failure to win the league last year was blamed on the lack of midfield creativity and the return of Paul Scholes from retirement in January was seen as indicative of this. On paper United have 6 central midfielders, including long term absentee Darren Fletcher, who is set to train with Scotland this week. However the concern is that there are plenty of "passers" but no player who can provide direct vertical movement towards goal.
The purchase of Shinji Kagawa from Dortmund, is an excellent purchase and for the price the club paid, good value for money for a player who is only 23. Kagawa's best position is as a second striker playing in between the lines and this should provide United with greater options in the middle of the pitch.
United have always had good wingers and Nani, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young can all be expected to contribute service from wide, although both Nani and Young are prone to disappearing for spells in the season.
Up front United have options with Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez along with Kagawa playing behind them. Dimitar Berbatov and Frederico Macheda are still at the club but no one would be shocked if they are not there come September 1st.
If United continue with the 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 that they have favoured in recent times than there first choice strike pairing looks likely to be Kagawa playing behind Rooney. Whilst presenting plenty of promise this partnership also has potential difficulties as with Rooney's tendency to drift all over the pitch it could mean United often being without a centre forward which would in turn require their wide players to come inside into goal scoring areas which is not a particular strength.
United have missed out on Lucas Moura, who has moved to PSG for a ludicrous fee in excess of £35m and wages of over £150,000 a week, but are continuing to pursue Robin Van Persie. With City and Juventus both cooling their interest it seems that the Dutchman now faces a straight choice between United and staying at Arsenal. Were United to sign Van Persie it would probably see Kagawa shifted into a wide position with Van Persie partnering Rooney, since if United are prepared to spend £15m+ on a 29 year old they must have plans to make immediate use of him.
Ferguson himself admits that United have underachieved in Europe during his reign and with his time at Old Trafford drawing to an end, he will want to lift the Champions League one more time. It is not beyond United, with them reaching 3 out of the last 5 Champions League finals, but for them to reach the final at Wembley in May (possibly for a rematch against Barcelona) they will have to address the defensive failings that saw them concede 8 goals in 4 games against FC Basel and Benfica in last year's group stage.
With Vidic returning, youngsters such as Smalling, Jones and Tom Cleverly a year older and the arrival of Kagawa and possibly Van Persie, United are this blogs pick to lift their 20th league title in May. The hurt of that gut wrenching finale to last season should provide all the motivation that the squad needs. The fixture list has been kind to United, their first four games sees them play Everton, Fulham, Southampton and Wigan before they face Liverpool and Tottenham at the end of September. The two dates to pencil in are December the 8th, which sees United travel to the Etihad before they host their neighbours at Old Trafford on April the 6th.
Predicted Finish: 1st
Key Man: Nemanja Vidic. The loss of Vidic hit United hard last year and they will be grateful to have the Serbian back at the heart of their defence. The 30 year old is still United's best centre back and adds steel to the silk of Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans.
Underrated: Luis Nani. The Portugese divides opinion amongst supporters with his undoubted ability tempered by his play acting and tendency to drift in and out of games. However Nani has delivered 30 direct assists in the past 3 seasons which puts him right at the top of the league's providers. Far more dangerous now that he has improved his left foot, the winger can go inside or outside the full back and Ferguson will now look for the 25 year old to produce on a more regular basis.
Watch out for: Shinji Kagawa. Unfairly seen by some as a marketing signing due to his popularity in the Far East, Kagawa has been of Europe's most effective players in the past two seasons. Kagawa was involved in 30 goals in 46 league games at Dortmund and will prove a big hit at United. After two years in Germany he is fully adapted to the physical demands of European football.