Sunday, August 8, 2010

EPL Preview 2010-11: Manchester United Always Win After a World Cup

The stars are beginning to align and as if that wasn't enough, Manchester United's preseason form has been bloody ominous.

The First Commandment of Management

Look back through the record books and you will find that from the year Sir Alex Ferguson won his first title as United boss in 1992-93, the Red Devils have won the English Premier League every year following a World Cup except for one. That was in the 1994-95 season, when they lost it on the last day of the season to Jack Hayward's money-rolled Blackburn Rovers...

Other than that, they won the title in 1998-99 (a memorable treble), 2002-03, and in 2006-07. Conventional wisdom or Manchester United folklore would suggest that Alex Ferguson has been able to tap into his players distraught at having decidedly average or poor World Cups, in some players' cases, and has used this as a tool to motivate them back to the top of their game.

Whichever way you look at it, there is no doubting that Manchester United has a unique set of playing values that few clubs in England can replicate.

Honesty of endeavour is the first and foremost of Ferguson's demands on his players. Just like the great managers before him, Shankly, Paisley, Busby, Clough, Nicholson, and even Jose Mourinho, the demand for a player to work hard for their team is the first commandment in their coaching books.

No player is allowed to shirk his duties, regardless of how ridiculously talented he is. A hard shift must be put in and the battle won before inflicting your game upon the opponents.

It is for this precise reason that Manchester United can never be ruled out of a title challenge.

Regaining The Title Will Be No Easy Task

For a start, Chelsea still has the strongest squad in the league. And that is with the likes of Joe Cole, Michael Ballack, Belletti, Stoch, and Carvalho (nearly) all being allowed to leave the club.

The Pensioners have removed almost £400k per week from their wage bill in those five names alone and still remain frighteningly strong. Plus they have added Yossi Benayoun from Liverpool, and are expected to add the Brazilian midfield enforcer Ramires to their ranks on top of a returning Michael Essien. So it will take every single one of Ferguson's tricks to take the title back to Lancashire.

Upon Chelsea winning the EPL last year, their ex-manager, Jose Mourinho, commented that Carlo Ancellotti's side had won a below par league.

He has a point—Sir Alex Ferguson's benchmark team remains his treble winning 1999 team, and they were some way better than the 2004-05 and 2005-06 sides that finished behind the Portuguese's title-winning teams. And those teams were arguably far better than his current crop. So Ferguson knows deep in his heart that his team needs work if they are to dominate at home and in Europe.

Players Need To Come In

Edwin van der Sar is not getting any younger, but he still remains Manchester United's best 'keeper by some distance. The only good thing going for Ferguson is that the gap between the Dutchman and his reserves is smaller than the gap between Petr Cech at Chelsea and his Championship level counterparts.

Either way, Ferguson knows that this will, in all probability, be the last year that van der Sar plays regularly. His reflexes are still more than good, and his concentration levels are exemplary, but he is not the shot-stopper he was, and if United are to progress back to Champions League winner level then a replacement must come in.

In defence, the signing of Chris Smalling looks good. The warning signs were there for all to see after he signed for United from Fulham in January only for his form to collapse. But his early assured performances make it look as if Nemanja Vidic has a partner with whom he can slipstream.

John O'Shea's return is a God-send for Ferguson. The most underrated and flexible player in the Premier League will slot straight into right full position, as well as giving vital cover for everywhere else.

The main problem in the defensive area that Ferguson faces is cover.

Rio Ferdinand can no longer be counted upon to be a first team regular. His back injury kept his playing time in the league down to just 13 games last year, and the early signs of recovery are not good. Jonny Evans' progression has slowed, but he still looks like a very good prospect.

In the wide defensive positions, United has some problems. Neither of the Brazilian twins, Fabio or Rafael, have progressed to the extent that Gary Neville can be allowed to retire, and their slowness at picking up the finer arts of defending remains a big problem.

Midfield is Where Most of United's Problems Are

On the flanks, they are comfortable, but still don't have the calibre of player from yesteryear. Antonio Valencia was arguably one the signings of the season last year, and Nani finally came good in the last couple of months or so. Even then Nani is far too inconsistent but Ferguson is tied to playing the Portuguese winger because his back-up is either limited in technique or is just too inexperienced.

Park Ji-Sung is one of the most honest players on the planet and works like a dog when he is on the pitch. His honesty of effort is the prime reason why Ferguson chooses to go with the South Korean over other more flamboyant players. But when all is said and done, Park just does not have the tools to put in consistent performances against the better teams.

The players behind him, Wellbeck, Obertan, Cleverly, Norwood, and Eikram all have huge question marks above them, so it is little wonder that Ryan Giggs is still picked to play in certain games.

However, the biggest problem area is central midfield.

It says much about the lack of midfielders and the death of the central midfielder in England, that Paul Scholes, at 35, is still the best English practitioner of play from the middle of the park at the tender age 35 that the country has to offer.

As he heads into his 17th season as a professional, all in a red shirt, Paul Scholes remains the standard that midfielders aspire to. It speaks volumes about Manchester United's lack of cover and of their lack of money that Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs have not retired yet.

When all is said and done, and you can only admire this duo, they really should have been forced into being bit part players at United by now by young and hungry up and coming players. But alas...

Their main rivals for the central midfield berths are Michael Carrick (who is usually linked with a player plus cash swap for Tottenham Hotspur's Luka Modric), Anderson (who is underwhelming at the best of times), Darren Fletcher (the best by far of United's midfielders but who is very good at best), and Irish international Darron Gibson, who has little more than a rocket of a right foot and a smattering of potential.

All this adds up to make Manchester United's current midfield probably the worst of Sir Alex Ferguson's 24 years at the club.

One can only come to the conclusion that Manchester United's £716 million worth of debt is impacting upon Ferguson signing two or three major players in one swift movement, as he has done before.

They are still more than capable of winning this current inception of the EPL though, just not the Champions League.

The Forward Line is as Good as You Could Hope

Unless Wayne Rooney picks up a long term injury. Dimitar Berbatov, or Berbaflop, as he is now known at Old Trafford, has been poor, to say the least, since his £31 million transfer from Spurs in 2008. His current contract is up in 2012, so it would seem just about the right time for him to start playing for a new one.

Javier Hernandez has hit the ground running with a goal on his debut, albeit a fluke. United's fans have taken to him immediately unlike they did to Diego Forlan, who eventually moved on after a barren run in front of goal. At 31, the striker is now the hottest property in Europe after winning the European Golden Boot twice and the World Cup Player of The Tournament in South Africa, so Manchester United fans should beware of judging a book by its cover too quickly.

Saying all that the signs do look good with stories emanating from Carrington that a certain Michael Owen has taken to showing the kid from Mexico one or two things. Many see Chicarito as the Mexican equivalent of Owen in his heyday, and the two do share a similar physique and playing style.

Combined, the four players should provide enough goals to fire Manchester United to the top of the table, but a lot depends on whether their defence can hold firm.

Most Important Player: Paul Scholes

Conventional wisdom would suggest Wayne Rooney after his 34 goal haul last season, but United's most important player remains Paul Scholes. The midfielder dictates the tempo of every game he plays in and knows exactly how to speed it up or slow it down at the right time.

Be it a defence splitting pass, covering his defenders or a well-timed miss-timed tackle; Scholes has midfield down to a fine art. He is a player for every occasion, and his experience will be vital to all and sundry in United's first XI.

Player to Watch: Javier Hernandez

At the moment, there is only one name on most Manchester United fans' minds, and that is Javier Hernandez. The little Mexican only came to Old Trafford in July after the World Cup and has already made himself feel at home with the first team squad.

Considering he has come from Latin America, this is no mean feat. Players from other continents usually take a year or two to settle, but Chicarito has found the family style of Manchester United most appeasing and has already put in a few performances of note.

He is still very raw and will take time to settle into the nuances of Premiership football, but he really couldn't have any better teachers than Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen, and, of course, Sir Alex Ferguson.

Prediction: EPL 2010/11: 2nd or 1st...

United are just too strong to even consider them dropping out of the top four. But the gap between them and the likes of Arsenal, Spurs, and, most importantly, Manchester City, is narrowing. The lack of finances at Old Trafford will catch up on United eventually, but not this season.

As we stand, Arsenal need at least two, if not three, players to even challenge for the league. Manchester City are still getting to know each other, and one feels that they also need two to three more players to overhaul Chelsea. Meanwhile, the Spurs are being pinched by their lack of a new stadium and their own glass ceiling.

In the end, the title race should boil down to Chelsea and Manchester United again, with the Blues just about coming out on top if they can avoid injuries to key players.

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