Soccer BPL Preview: Man United prepared for return to glory

Mike Beauvais,
8/13/2014 10:32:34 AM
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The new Barclays Premier League season gets underway on Saturday and prior to the first kick, presents a week long look at some of the teams and stories that will shape the up coming campaign. Last season, defending champions Manchester United endured a disaster season under David Moyes, finishing seventh and missing European qualification entirely. Can new manager Louis van Gaal reassert the Red Devils' dominance once again in his first season in charge?

Manager: Louis van Gaal

Last Season: 19-7-12 (seventh in Premier League)

Notable Additions: Ander Herrera (Athletic Bilbao) and Luke Shaw (Southampton)

Notable Subtractions: Ryan Giggs (Retirement), Alexander Buttner (Dynamo Kiev), Bebe (Benfica), Patrice Evra (Juventus), Nemanja Vidic (Inter), Federico Macheda (Cardiff City) and Rio Ferdinand (QPR)

That was Then: Taking over the helm of United from the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson would be a great challenge to just about any manager in the game of football, but David Moyes seemed primed and ready for the challenge of succeeding a man who 38 trophies in his 27 years at the club. The long-time Everton gaffer entered into Old Trafford with a massive banner hanging from the rafters proclaiming him "the Chosen One." By the time he left Manchester United in April, fans hoped that the Scotsman's year in charge of the club would be a forgotten one.

Moyes' reign in the red half of Manchester was an abject disaster and there were signs of impending doom as early as last summer's transfer window, when vice-chairman Ed Woodward, taking over the mantle of top executive following the retirement of David Gill after 16 seasons at United, couldn't seem to get any business done. Everton dismissed "derisory" bids for Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini, while nothing came to fruition with very public courtships of the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Sami Khedira and Ander Herrera. United settled with signing Fellaini for 27.5 million pounds on transfer deadline day of August 31. If the fee seemed astronomical to supporters then, it must be noted that United refused to activate the Belgian's release clause of 23.5 million pounds only weeks previous.

(The Canadian Press)

A Community Shield victory over Wigan on a Robin van Persie double got the year off to a bright start under Moyes, as did an opening day 4-1 thrashing of Swansea City, but the defeats began to mount, starting with a 1-0 defeat to arch-rivals Liverpool at Anfield on September 1.

Against the "Big Four" opponents of Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City, United could muster only five points in eight matches and were outscored 11-3 in them, including a 4-1 rout by City and an embarrassing 3-0 loss to Liverpool at Old Trafford.

If that weren't galling enough, United began to drop points to clubs who would have had no business beating the team with Ferguson in charge. The likes of Everton, West Brom, Newcastle and Sunderland inflicted home defeats on United with the Toffees completing the double with a victory at Goodison Park, as well, the first time it had done so since 1970. Moyes never managed to beat United once while in charge of Everton.

Following a 0-0 draw with Chelsea in the season's second game, United found itself in fourth place in the table. The team would never be in a top-four place again afterwards.

United's domestic cup campaigns were disastrous, as well, going out in the third round to Swansea City in the FA Cup and losing to Sunderland in the League Cup semi-finals on an embarrassing gaffe by keeper David De Gea.

What was all the more confounding for United players and supporters alike was that this was virtually the same team with which Ferguson had won the league the previous year by 11 points. Yes, there were injury woes with van Persie only making only 21 league appearances and the likes of Michael Carrick and Jonny Evans missing significant time, but the team just wasn't very good under Moyes.

Phil Jones and Rafael seemed to regress badly. After a stellar 2012-13, Rio Ferdinand looked his age. Tom Cleverley looked lost at the centre of midfield. Nani and Ashley Young embarrassed themselves more often than they looked competent. The less said about Fellaini's year, the better.

By the time Moyes left, United finished with their lowest points tally in the BPL ever, its worst home form in over a decade and it missed out on European football for the first time since 1989.

This is Now: 2013-14 was humbling for United...well, that's a relative term since clubs like United are never really humbled...or humble.

What better way for United to wipe the slate clean than to bring in a manager whose arrogance and swagger are only matched by his pedigree? Fresh off of a third-place finish with the Netherlands at the World Cup, Louis van Gaal assumed control of Manchester United in July and installed tnow retired United legend, Ryan Giggs, as his number two.

A winner everywhere he's been (Ajax, Bayern Munich and Barcelona), van Gaal represents a 180 shift from Moyes. Prickly, acerbic and unafraid to clash with star players, van Gaal brings with him a rigidity and authoritarian style that gets results, but often at the cost of longevity. He spent only three seasons at Barcelona (briefly returning again in 2002) and three at Bayern, where he famously clashed with stars Rivaldo and Mark van Bommel.

(The Canadian Press)

Still, van Gaal is a winner and that's exactly what he plans to do at United, but a championship in his maiden season might be a bit too ambitious. While he says that claiming a 21st English championship is his goal for this season, a far more modest (and, perhaps, attainable) aim for the Dutchman is a return to the top four and a Champions League spot. How van Gaal plans to go about his task is a complete shift in tactical make-up.

The basic make-up for United will be a 3-4-1-2 similar to the one favoured by van Gaal with the Dutch at the World Cup. In an ideal employment, United can use this going forward and can collapse into a 5-3-2 to defend. The keys here will be the wings where new signing Shaw and Young, who's seemingly found a new lease on life at Old Trafford under van Gaal, are expected to start. Ander Herrera, who some earmark as Xavi Hernandez's natural successor on the Spanish national team, will be the cog at the centre of midfield with countryman Juan Mata in the number-10 role and van Persie and newly named club captain, Wayne Rooney, as a preferred strike pairing with England international Danny Welbeck ready to spell either. As witnessed in United's pre-season fixtures, this system can be both deadly and a treat to watch when firing at all cylinders.

Though this is what United will likely look resemble, more or less, in the season's opening fixtures, it's unlikely the finished product, with van Gaal intent to do more on the transfer market, both buying and selling. The likes of Fellaini, Nani, Anderson and Javier Hernandez, surplus to requirements under the Dutchman, could be sold off as van Gaal continues to attempt to put his stamp on the club. One or more defenders could be on the way in (with Sporting's Marcos Rojo and Ajax's Daley Blind linked to the club in recent days), as well as some more depth in the midfield (Serie A trio Arturo Vidal, Juan Cuadrado and Kevin Strootman are among those said to be coveted by van Gaal) where Carrick is on the shelf and vice-captain Darren Fletcher's health a seemingly constant tenuous proposition.

There is reason for optimism at Old Trafford. A lack of European football means laser-like focus on the league. While City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool prepare for midweek fixtures, United will have the luxury of rest and preparation for their next league match. Sure, the lack of European football stings from the loss of revenue, but the potential domestic advantage gained over its domestic rivals could be priceless.

While any new manager can expect some sort of grace period in taking over a club, van Gaal will not expect one and it probably won't be offered from supporters. Though, van Gaal has warned players and supporters alike to expect growing pains, the importance of a strong start for United is obvious considering its schedule.

The team's first six fixtures are against three teams who finished in the bottom half of the table last season (Swansea City, Sunderland and West Ham) and the three promoted sides (QPR, Burnley and Leicester City.) Contrast this with Liverpool, who get City and Spurs in its first three matches, or Arsenal, who have Everton, City and a Champions League qualifier with Besiktas in the next month. United must use its weak schedule to its advantage.

Returning to the summit of English football could be wishful thinking for United in 2014-15, but there's no reason to doubt that this season will mark Manchester United's reassertion as one of the dominant forces in the English game.

Burning Question: With a relatively quiet transfer window, is a new tactical set-up and confidence under van Gaal enough for United to return to the top four?


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