The 2009-2010 United Campaign: Preview and PrognosticationsBy: Taylor Rockwell | August 14th, 2009
May 27th was a day of mixed emotions for me. On the one hand my club suffered a devastating loss that led many to question whether or not they could remain a world class side. On the other, my girlfriend experienced bloodlust for the first time, as obnoxious Barcelona fans nearly caused a small scale riot in our section of the bar. Any time your significant other gets that emotionally involved in a situation where she 1) was previously neutral and 2) becomes a de facto supporter of your club, you’ve got to be at least a little pleased.
Nevertheless, on Sunday, August 16th United return to Premiership action. It’s been a fairly tumultuous 81 days since that beatdown in Rome. Slave departed for Madrid. Tevez departed for light blue obscurity. Michael Owen’s brochure combined with at least 4 big bottles of red wine swayed Fergie into a signing. Carrington welcomed new faces from Ecuador (Antonio Valencia), France (Gabrielle Obertan), and Senegal (Mame Biram Diuof). Hargreaves made random, unabomber-esque appearances at various locales across the globe.
So here we are, only a few short days from the start of the season and a fair amount of questions remain. Thus, without further ado, here is my best attempt at explaining all of the thoughts that are on my mind regarding the coming season.
Squad Analysis: Goalkeepers
There wasn’t a whole lot to report on until a few weeks ago, when Van der Sar went down with (as The Fiver likes to put it) finger-snap, and was sidelined until October 3. This opened the door for The Future England Star and The Polish Failbot to “battle it out” for first team honors. And by “battle it out” I mean Fergie pretty much said, “Foster, here are the keys to the goalmouth. Try not to scratch it.” Those words fell on deaf ears, and the young keeper had a fairly disappointing performance in the Community Shield, with poor clearances, blundered saves, and an ineffective shootout performance casting doubt on his first team status. Does that open the door for 27 year old Tomasz Kuszczak? Probably not. At least, I sure hope not. I think Failbot (despite his nickname) could prove an excellent starting goalkeeper… for numerous other teams. However, I’ve seen enough of Foster to maintain that he will be a major player in the first few months of the 2009/2010 campaign.
Bold Prediction: Foster will have 1-2 more questionable performances, and then a relatively brilliant game (looking at the Arsenal game on August 29th) will silence the critics… but Van der Sar reassumes the throne in early October.
Squad Analysis: Defense
Last season, the United defense was the rock in a semi-turbulent campaign. The Liverpool and Fulham matches notwithstanding, United played the kind of defense that would have made a sorority girl avoiding a drunken frat boy proud. United conceded only 24 goals in 38 matches (tied with Chelsea for best in the league), and the platoon of goalkeepers managed to rack up a league leading 24 clean sheets. If you’re a United fan, this should be the main reason that you are optimistic about the coming season. Yes, Rio Ferdinand has looked shambles in his most recent preseason outings, but there’s no chance the 30 year old entrepreneur is past it. Barring continued injury concerns, the rest of the United defense will look equally (if not more) impressive than last term. Another year for Fabio and Rafael will allow them to gain increased comfort and familiarity. They never really got the chance to gel together on the pitch, and my guess is that when they do, our opponents will have some problems keeping up. However, neither of the twins should get too excited, as Patrice Evra and John O’Shea look the favorites to start on the left and right (respectively). Evra had a bit of a down period last spring, but has looked as determined as ever throughout the preseason (Michael Ballack’s shins will attest to that). Likewise, John O’Shea made more than a few doubters (pointing at myself here) eat their words, as the Irishman was finally able to cement a first team place in the 2008 campaign. Gary Neville will once again enjoy captaining United in the Carling Cup.
Semi-Bold Prediction: Wes Brown will find himself increasingly relegated to peripheral role. The United youth team product featured prominently in the Double Campaign of 07/08, but nagging injury concerns coupled with the development of Jonny Evans have left him the odd man out.
Bold Prediction: Rafael will, at some point this season, supplant John O’Shea in the first team. O’Shea has played well, but I think it’s safe to say that he isn’t a long term solution to the right back question. Rafael is, and another year in the Premiership should pay HUGE dividends for the young Brazilian.
Squad Analysis: Midfield
The state of our midfield is an issue that has been widely discussed since the Champions League Final, if not before. Owen Hargreaves was brought in two summers ago to provide the type of presence and consistency that Paul Scholes had always championed. Instead, the English-Candian-German-Operating Room native has been plagued by tendonitis. Fletcher and Carrick both had strong showings last season, but neither fills the creative, playmaker role that United so desperately need. Anderson could, but his inability to consistently create opportunities makes him anything but a sure thing. With Slave’s departure, Sir Alex Ferguson brought in a potential star (Valencia) and a potential diamond in the rough (Obertan) to play on the wings. Valencia looked excellent in the Audi Cup, but was conversely impotent in the Charity Shield loss. Ryan Giggs is a year older (I believe he’s approaching Methuselah territory) and Park Ji-Sung is never going to be a consensus first choice option. Thus, it could be Nani who ends up being forced into the spotlight. The Portuguese winger spent the majority of last season in a warmup suit on the bench or in an actual suit in the stands, but looks set to inherit considerable playing time this season.
I spent a decent chunk of time trying to figure out why I don’t have a lot of faith in Nani, and this is what I’ve come up with. His physical appearance aside (Thriller, anybody?), people seem to forget that Nani is 22. Sure, that’s VERY young by normal standards. But not in football. Most world class wingers have begun to establish themselves by that age (if not sooner). Nani is possessed of all the raw ability to make a star, but the question remains: does he have the ability to harness it? My heart says yes, my gut says no. For every brilliant finish and darting run, there are countless errant passes, poor decisions, and missed opportunities. Most notably, he tends to lower his head when picking up speed. One good tackle from Essien or Mascherano could send Nani (and his chances of becoming a regular) tumbling.
Bold Prediction #1: Hargreaves will return, but it isn’t going to be pretty. A lot of people say that he’s finished. It’s obvious that this amount of surgery will leave him physically weak, but more importantly, it leaves him emotionally scarred. How often does he go in 100% on 50-50 balls knowing that even the slightest touch in the wrong spot could send him back under the knife?
Bold Prediction #2: Obertan is going to end up as the best signing of the summer. I know he’s injured and I know he didn’t exactly set the world alight last season. I also know that he’ll be lucky to get games this season. I don’t care. There’s something about the fluidity of his movement and his overall quickness that makes me excited to see him in an EPL match (which, sadly, probably won’t be until we play a struggling team in the spring).
Bold Prediction #3: Zoran Tosic is going to be very, very good. You thought I forgot about him, didn’t you? I see the negatives (slight build, rather short) and the hypocrisy of that selection (he’s only 5 months younger than Nani). Regardless, I think his game is more developed and his style is more suited to the system Fergie will try to implement this season. But that’s not the most important factor. For me, Tosic is a definitive United player. He’s solid. He’s going to play Fergie’s way, even if it’s to his detriment. This is the Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, and Paul Scholes all are. It’s what Fergie has always valued, and it’s why Tosic will be a prominent figure this season.
Squad Analysis: Attack
The defense is the positive, the midfield is the semi-negative… which leaves the attack as the unknown. Seriously. There are more unanswered questions here than on Britney Spears’ IQ Test (BOOM! 90s JOKE!). Will Berba ever settle completely? Can he and Rooney form an effective partnership? Can Rooney and Owen? Is Michael Owen going to be the best signing of the summer? The worst? Is Macheda a real talent, or a right place-right time figure? Is Danny Welbeck a star in the making? What the hell is a Petrucci?
By the end of last season, United were a planet orbiting around Slave. He played when and where he wanted, and to hell with everything else. It wasn’t entirely his fault either. Fergie knew who was carrying the squad, and he knew that the road to success went through Slave. With the gelled one now out of the picture, Fergie can finally do something that United supporters have been waiting years for: unleash Wayne Rooney. The England international has always been semi-content to follow the tactics of Fergie, and consequently spent chunks of last season playing out wide. Most people assume Fergie will shift back to a more conventional 4-4-2, and that the Rooney/Berba partnership will blossom accordingly.
Bold Prediction #1: It won’t… At least, not to the extent that many are predicting. Rooney is a world class striker, and will most likely have an outstanding season. But, and here’s where I’m prepared to take some heat, I think the Berba-Owen partnership will prove more effective in the end. The two played off each other perfectly in multiple preseason friendlies, and I think that their styles blend a touch easier. I don’t think Owen will score 20 goals, and I know that he will never supplant Rooney as a first choice alternative… but I could see his partnership with Berba being more efficient overall.
Bold Analysis: The next point isn’t really a prediction, nor is it particularly bold. Regardless, I think it will explain the confusion many feel regarding our plethora of young attackers. United haven’t developed a true goal scorer in a very long time. Who is the last youth team player to become an out-and-out world class striker? I don’t even know, to be honest. To be certain, United have maintained an amazing academy when it comes to midfield and defense, but the attack has often left us wanting more. So I think a lot of people look at Macheda and Welbeck (as well as Diuof, Petrucci, and Ljajic) with a great amount of excitement, but also a great amount of hesitation.
Bold Analysis #2: Karim Benzema really fucked with my head, even though I wasn’t particularly devastated when he went to Madrid. Would he have looked quite nice in a red home kit? Absolutely. But he also would have brought drama and confusion. Would he start over Berba? Over Rooney? Would Berba have been sold? Those are all hypothetical and, ultimately, unimportant. What is important is the question of how much did Fergie actually pursue the French international. If there was limited to no contact and the media blew the whole situation out of proportion (as they/we are want to do), then United are fine. If, however, Fergie was desperate to land Benzema, then the situation is far more upsetting. It means that the manager believed that his major signing wasn’t going to cut it. It means he doesn’t rate Berba as highly as he once did. Most importantly, it means Berba isn’t going to be able to feel any more comfortable than he did last season.
For the Bulgarian to have a 20+ goal campaign (which I think he will), he needs to have the complete backing of Fergie. Which is why the Owen purchase was once again brilliant. It means that even if Ferguson did want to pursue other avenues, he’s moved on and decided that Berba is his man. Owen enters the team knowing his place, while Benzema would have come in demanding one.
Very Bold Predictions (First Five Games):
Before I continue, I would just like to note that, in this situation, when I say “bold predictions” I mean “predictions that are most likely idiotic and are very unlikely to come true.” That said…
August 16th – Birmingham City – Win
The season opener will go a long way towards confirming/rejecting the following predictions. If we win convincingly or play well for a full 90 minutes, then you can reject what’s to come. However, I see this as a scrappy 1-0 victory with the winner coming midway through the second half.
August 19th – at Burnley – Draw
If the above prediction holds, then be prepared for riots in Manchester when they draw against newly promoted Burnley.
August 22nd – at Wigan – Draw
Okay, I don’t really think that this is a likely one. However, for some reason, I don’t see us starting off with 13 points out of a possible 15. I pray that we do, as a strong start could be more vital than ever this year. However, United are notorious slow starters, and these early away matches are always tricky.
August 29th – Arsenal – Win
I see this as a convincing win, and a disastrous defeat for Arsenal. The scoreline may be tight, but I think a very strong showing from United could have serious psychological ramifications on a young, unproven Arsenal squad.
September 12th – at Hull – Win… Big Win
Hull are getting relegated. Jozy Altidore isn’t going to score against United. Our first big away win, I see this ending 3-0 with Rooney and Owen prominently involved.
So, if those highly unlikely prognostications bear fruit, then United will take eleven points out of a possible fifteen, with five coming on the road. For a comparison, last season, United started like this:
August 17th – Newcastle @ Old Trafford (1-1)
August 25th @ Pompey (1-0 victory)
September 13th – @ Liverpool (1-2 loss)
September 21st – @ Chelsea (1-1)
September 27th – Bolton @ Old Trafford (2-0 win)
And that’s not counting the 0-0 draw with Villarreal at Old Trafford in the Champions League or the 2-1 defeat by Zenit St. Petersburg in the European Super Cup. So, United earned eight points out of a possible fifteen. Obviously, the fact that those games included away matches to Chelsea and Liverpool makes the situation a bit different. Nevertheless, United are destined to slip up early on. The squad is too new and the strategy is too different for things not to take time. I’m not saying I’m okay with it, and I’m not saying it won’t make me rant and rave. I’m just saying that I know it’s coming, so I’m just trying to prepare myself.
Player of the Year: Wayne Rooney
New Player of the Year: Gabriel Obertan (Valencia finishes a close second)
Worst Player of the Year: Wes Brown
So, now the biggie. Who’s going to come out on top once all is said and done? Well, first I’ll tell you who won’t. Arsenal are too young, have lost too much, and have a coach that isn’t going to inspire a whole lot of confidence. Rumors linking Fabregas with Barcelona are most likely unfounded, but will continue to plague the already unsettled team. No chance of a title for them.
My biggest concern would have been Liverpool, but with Xabi Alonso gone, I’m willing to stick with Fergie and write them off before we’re even underway. Gerrard and Torres will have to stay completely fit, as will an already injured Aquilani, and I just don’t see it happening. They will play well, but they won’t push the way they did last season.
So it comes down to United and Chelsea. I saw Chelsea play in person this summer, and I will tell you the following things:
1) Chelsea should have sold John Terry. Branislav Ivanovic and Alex are better, and if Ancelotti clings to his again centreback tandem of Terry and Ricky Carvalho, the Blues could be in for trouble.
2) Yuri Zhirkov may end up being the best buy of the transfer window… at least for a Premiership club. He’s fast, clever, and creative. When started with Frank Lampard and Michael Essien, that Chelsea midfield will be tough to handle. However….
3) Ancelotti has publicly discussed utilizing a “diamond” formation. This means that he will expect Anelka and Drogba to play off of each other, and form an effective partnership. I don’t think they can do it. Drogba likes shooting too much, and Anelka likes sulking too much. They don’t complement each other, and they don’t seem to be completely capable of the intrinsic knowledge that all great strike partnerships have.
4) Don’t forget that the African Cup of Nations is once again being held this winter. That means Chelsea will probably say goodbye to Drogba, Kalou, and Essien for a fairly large chunk of time. Thus…
Wow, I can’t believe I’m going to say this. I was 99% set to pick Chelsea, and I may have just talked myself out of it. I think United will struggle at times this season, and it will be crucial that they soldier on. Draws and losses will come, but what matters most is how you deal with them. Fergie has more wiggle room than any of his counterparts, so United will be able to take things in stride much better than Pool, Arsenal, or Chelsea. So, I think that if we get our midfield together, if our forwards hit their stride early and maintain that momentum, and if our defense remains strong, then United end up hoisting their 4th EPL trophy in 4 years. Sure, there are some “ifs” involved in that equation, but there always are. Like I said, it’s dealing with the “ifs” that separates the Champion from the Also Rans.
One final point, I will be out of the country until next Saturday. Please keep commenting and checking in, as I will try to get something up before my return. Until then, come on you Red Devils! The 2009 season awaits!