With last season’s title race going right down to the wire with Chelsea edging it over Manchester United by a single point every game counted towards the title.
This summer has seen a distinct lack of major transfer activity from either club with Chelsea having something if a mini-exodus and bringing in only Yossi Banayoun, while United have made two additions, in Chris Smalling and a certain diminutive Mexican who’s already grabbed a few headlines with the most bizarre Wembley goal since Emile Heskey’s last one.
The question is are the new signings enough to bring the trophy back to Old Trafford, just what do United need to do to wrestle the title back from West London and is Dimitar Berbatov ever going to revert back to his headband? Here’s a list of ten things which need to happen for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men to overtake Liverpool in the title winning stakes.
1. More goals from midfield. While many a United fan is quick to point out the deficiencies of Berbatov and even Ferguson has lamented the injury to Michael Owen that robbed United of his services for the business end of the season, the fact remains the midfield did not score nearly enough goals last season. Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher, Antonio Valencia, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Nani managed 24 league goals between them, the same amount that Frank Lampard scored. While certain players –Fletcher for example- are not in the side to score goals, while Giggs and Scholes can hardly be expected to hit double figures at their age- it is still obvious United need more goals coming from the midfield department. If Rooney continues to operate as a lone striker –as he did for much of last season- then someone behind him needs to step up. Personally I’d like to see Nani and Valencia weighing in with a few more this time round.
2. A bit more stability in the starting XI. I fully understand that with United chasing honours on four fronts, the need for a large squad and a bit of rotation but surely it’s time for a little moderation. It seems every week there’s a new right back, its 4-5-1 then it’s 4-4-2, Berbatov starts, grabs a goal, then is dropped for the next game, Anderson’s in, then he’s out again, ditto Ji Sung Park. Admittedly injuries and the ages of certain players have to dictate Fergie’s thinking and the days of the man on the street naming the Saturday’s starting XI are long gone. However it could be time to give some players more than just one game in every three, and try and get a bit more cohesion going between certain ones. I’ve said it before and it may sound crazy but unless Rio Ferdinand can get back to proper full fitness, I’d make Jonny Evans and Nemanja Vidic my starting centre backs for every game. Stability has often been the key to United’s success and maybe a bit more is needed.
3. Give youth a chance. With Tom Cleverley not going out on loan, and the Da Silva twins and Macheda getting a chance both at the end of last season and in this pre-season then could we now see a few youngsters starting more than just the Carling Cup games? Hopefully yes. If United are not going to buy Mesut Ozil- to be honest I don’t think they will- then why not give either Darron Gibson or Cleverly the chance to have a run in the side. After all despite what a certain Scottish pundit may have claimed you can win things with kids. United have bags of experience in every department so throwing one or two youngsters into the mix shouldn’t lead to disaster and what better way for a developing player to learn than to play alongside the likes of Scholes, Giggs or Rooney.
4. Darren Fletcher to raise his game. At first this may seem blasphemous, after all ‘super Daz’ was one of United’s best performers last season, putting in the sort of barnstorming displays you’d associate with Roy Keane. However the reason I think he should raise his game is simple- because he can. While there’s no denying against the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, Fletcher bosses the midfield so much he even had Arsene Wenger complaining of his ‘anti-football’- so basically tackling people then- but against lesser opposition Fletcher can occasionally be a little less influential. I know it seems harsh to criticise such a dedicated player but let’s be brutally honest, there are times when his passing can go awry a little too often, and despite what I said earlier about him not being in the side to score goals that doesn’t mean he can’t. His brace against City and his superb volley – or should that be superlative strike- in the home game against Everton show that Fletcher knows where the goal is. I know he’s quality I just feel that if he were to perform against the likes of Sunderland as he does against the top teams, he could well be the difference between second and first.
5. Michael Carrick. This one doesn’t need a Fletcher-type apology or explanation, it’s shockingly simple. He’s got to start performing consistently. Carrick’s been at Old Trafford for four seasons now yet amazingly the jury still seems to be out on him. Three title winning campaigns would be enough to put most players in the pantheon of club legends but Carrick has a knack for going missing when he’s needed most and sometimes making costly errors. The games against Wolves away and Liverpool and Bayern Munich at home were cases in point. While Carrick’s mistakes in the first two may have been academic his failure to deal with the danger in the Champion’s League, then getting caught dilly-dallying on the ball, cost United two goals, and to some critics the tie. While I think there was more to it than just Carrick, the fact that he was dropped from the United side after his similar blunder gifted Liverpool an early Old Trafford lead, may mean that Fergie is running out of patience with a player who should now be hitting his peak not going backwards. If he doesn’t perform well at the beginning of the campaign, I feel it’s time to give someone else a chance.
6. Beat their title rivals. Ok this may sound like the sort of obvious statement you would associate with David Pleat but it’s true. The past two seasons have seen United lose home and away to their nearest rivals. In 2008-09 they got away with it mainly due the fact that by the time Liverpool came to Old Trafford and won 4-1, the title race was all but over. Last season however, even a draw in either game against Chelsea would have been enough to see United win the title for a record breaking nineteenth time but it wasn’t to be. United have usually performed well against their title rivals and there’s no doubt that a man has proud as Ferguson will be looking to regain that tradition this season. Winning against your rivals doesn’t just give you a points advantage it can often help psychologically convince you that you’re the better team and it’s time United took the edge on both counts.
7. Believe the hype and give Chicharito a proper run. I’ve tried not to get over excited about Javier Hernandez, but it’s been about as difficult as liking Ashley Cole as the ‘Little Pea’ shone in both the World Cup and United’s pre-season. Whether he’s banging in screamers against Argentina or using his teeth in the Community Shield, it’s obvious that he’s class and rather than wrapping him up in cotton wool or saving him for special occasions like the nice china, Fergie should unleash him and let him stake a claim for a regular starting place. He’s been compared to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, which is a bit unfair, but if he is going to be another ‘baby-faced assassin’ then he should at the very least be an obligatory substitute coming on after 60 minutes in every game.
8. Improve the atmosphere at Old Trafford. Whether United have money or not chanting and singing is still free- mind you give it time and they’ll probably charge us- so there’s no excuses for having a lack of noise at Old Trafford. United still have the highest attendance in the League, yet at times away fans of a mere few thousand are out-singing 70-odd thousand Reds. ‘We want Glazers out’ is one chant that seems to be heard without any problems but it’s hardly likely to motivate the team. While I’m not saying that shouldn’t be sung, I’m merely stating that the fact remains personally I’ve been a bit embarrassed by the lack of atmosphere at OT at times and think a bit more noise wouldn’t go amiss. United may have only dropped eight home points last season, but if they can get the sort of atmosphere you hear against City going every week, then there’s every reason to feel they won’t drop any. This isn’t something the club should be culpable for, it’s up to the fans and don’t worry I’ve brought plenty of vuvuzelas back from South Africa so message me and I’ll send you one.
9. Take the burden off Wayne Rooney. Sounds simple doesn’t it? It’s a bit like saying score more goals than the opposition or win more games than your nearest rivals, but the fact is, United cannot win the title with Rooney alone. When Cristiano Ronaldo was scoring goals like they were going out of fashion, a large part of that was down to Rooney. Last season Didier Drogba had Lampard to help him out, Arsenal will no doubt have Robin Van Persie and Cesc Fabregas this time round. Rooney needs someone to weigh in with not just their fair share of goals but also assists and being another option that players look for when United are attacking. Berbatov, Hernandez or one of the midfield, it doesn’t matter but when Rooney’s fit and playing it shouldn’t mean that if he has a quiet game so do United. When Rooney’s out, it’s time for someone else to perform; no doubt all eyes will be on Berbatov who came up short against Chelsea and Blackburn last season. Whether or not this will be the Bulgarian’s season remains to be seen, but someone needs to give ‘r Wazza a hand.
10. Play Edwin Van Der Sar in every league game. VDS performance in the Community Shield was yet another in a long list of exemplary shifts between the sticks at Old Trafford. The Dutchman was injured for the beginning of last season and Ben Foster was preferred to Tomas Kuszczak and all but ended both his United and England career with a series of inept displays. A loss away to Burnley and a disappointing home draw to Sunderland came on Foster’s watch, while Kuszczak oversaw the home loss to Aston Villa and the away loss to Fulham- although to be fair the entire defence was injured for that one. Van Der Sar may be 40 but if he can manage the league games and Fergie rests him for the cup ones, he may just be the difference between another near-miss or making United the most successful ever team-at least domestically- in England.