The Barclay's Premier League 2013-14 season kicks off Saturday and before a ball has been kicked, the negativity and pessimism surrounding reigning champions Manchester United's title credentials have reached a fevered pitch. It's an unusual, rare spot United find itself - being second-guessed. And the detractors have lined up to take a dig.
Heed my warning - rule out Manchester United at your own peril.
No more Sir Alex Ferguson 'earning' points. The new manager, David Moyes, has never won a trophy (never mind last weekend's Community Shield) nor managed past the qualifying stages of the Champions League. No desired marquee central midfielder landing at Old Trafford thus far in the summer transfer window. And how can we forget a less than stellar pre-season tour and a disgruntled Wayne Rooney. All these factors weigh heavily as to why many predict United to finish no better than 3rd in the table come May 11.
Without a match being played, the narrative among pundits, bloggers, opposing supporters and even some who live and breathe United football; the upcoming season will prove to be one of adjustment, transition and struggle. Many reminisce about yesteryear and the difficulty the club had in replacing the likewise legendary Sir Matt Busby. When the predecessor sets the bar so high, and if the incumbent doesn't meet the lofty standard of past years, the new manager is assumed destined to fail. All this is on the plate of the new man, Moyes. And by the way, Sir Alex and Sir Bobby are upstairs watching. Good luck with that.
Sir Alex Ferguson's message to supporters after his final victory at the Theatre of Dreams to "stand by the new manager" was heard, but whether it's abided during inevitable blips that will come over a lengthy campaign will be a true test of patience and belief in the manager. Moyes was Ferguson's personal choice as successor. Yet Ferguson's choice has come into question already. The suggestion players won't want to play for Moyes the way they wanted to play for Ferguson is far too simplistic. But to the average onlooker and inactivity in the transfer window to support the notion, initial panic and criticism of the hire has been widespread. United's difficult start to the schedule (Swansea, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City in their first five matches) will be a further test.
The return of manager Jose Mourinho to Chelsea and cross-town rival Manchester City spending upwards of another £90 million in the transfer window are sexier storylines. Time will tell how much, if any, these two teams have improved from a season ago. But for a team that's only lost a seldom-used Paul Scholes from a squad that ran away with the Premier League a season ago, the predicted demise of United is completely overblown.
Doomsday talk is nothing new. After selling Cristiano Ronaldo, or not keeping up with City's big spending, or even losing 1-0 to Everton in last year's opener, shots are taken at United whenever the team shows the slightest vulnerability. That's what happens when you spend your time at the top. Man United finished 11 points atop the league last May. I've heard more times than I can count that Ferguson earned the team upwards of 10 more points than they deserved. What a crock. Apparently Ferguson was the one finishing late in matches, as Robin van Persie did multiple occasions early in the season when United looked a step off. 26 goals and eight assists say much about the quality of the player. Or how about the stand out play of Michael Carrick, being the straw that stirred the drink in United's midfield in a season the production from typically useful wing players simply was not there. A combined two goals for Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Nani in a year they ran away with a title. A title came in a year Shinji Kagawa was both misused and under utilized. A title still came as captain Nemanja Vidic recovered from knee surgery, deputized under a watchful eye. Through it all, title number 20 was celebrated
United have won the title three of the last five years, and the one year they lost, it was on goal differential in the most dramatic fashion imaginable. We all acknowledge the greatness of Sir Alex, but the man doesn't walk on water. The players had something to do with it. And the team remains in tact.
Vidic, Giggs, Ferdinand, Evra, and Carrick remain the stalwarts. They bring a balance - a quiet confidence to the bunch. A track record of winning will do that. They may not come with the style of others, but the substance is undeniable. They've helped cultivate a winning environment and one of internal accountability. With a new manager and coaching staff, the transition is eased with players as such.
The more astute United observer recognizes the Ferguson era was marked by development with in. Bringing young players through, whether developed at United or purchased before their prime, has been instrumental to success. As has the marquee signings but without the nucleus of youth, a team lacks a proper balance. This changing of the guard from Sir Alex to Moyes is another chance for the club to take advantage of the stockpiled young talent by giving them a chance.
18-year-old Adnan Januzaj was arguably United's brightest star pre-season. A gifted left-footed player who's better suited playing a more central attacking role has earned his chance to play. Wilfried Zaha, an outside right midfielder, was Ferguson's final purchase, and a proper one at that, for £15 million from Crystal Palace. Zaha looks ready to slot into a starting position and has worked his way into the England side, all at the age of 20. Right-back Rafael, 23, continues to develop into a top defender in the league, and goalkeeper David De Gea was voted into the PFA Team of the Year last season. De Gea is 22.
These are a few of the many cases where United is well position for the present and future. It may be less sexy than spending outlandishly, over-paying for talent to appease a fan base or the pundits. But they provide substance, they provide a backbone and they illustrate a plan.
It will be strange seeing Moyes on the touchline and not seeing the wily Ferguson animated, checking his watch and chomping his gum. The Ferguson era was special. It's hard to believe there will be another like it - 26 years and 49 trophies. Now, without Ferguson comes another kind of excitement. It's anticipation of the unknown and that's not a bad thing.
A tactical refresher and a different voice may be what this group of top players needs to remain fresh. Moyes knows the Premier League. His away record at the top teams while at Everton is irrelevant. He's at Manchester United now, surrounded by talent he could only dream of at Goodison. The commitment to United's vast array of sponsors and overall pressure that come with the job has heightened. But football is football and that's what Moyes will be evaluated on.
Moyes will learn on the job what type of players he needs to add to fit his system. Patience is being preached and not being well received. Whether it's Fabregas, Ozil, Modric, Fellaini or other, players will arrive. Rushing to judgment right now before the transfer window has even closed and before we've seen a Moyes team even play a truly competitive match serves no purpose. It's a fruitless exercise playing fantasy football manager. It makes more sense for Moyes to rely on a group currently champions than carelessly shaking things up, going about his business like a drunken sailor.
But that seems to be what the masses expect. It's the biggest mistake made in modern football; throw money at something and problems go away. The message isn't not to spend. It's to spend wisely and timely and on your own accord.
The support of United in this piece isn't meant to serve as cheerleading material. It's to warn not to count this group out. Not just yet. The team has its vulnerabilities. It's plain to see upgrades to the central midfield are needed long-term and an unhappy Rooney doesn't jive either. Both issues will be settled in due time.
Sir Alex was often questioned throughout his tenure at Old Trafford despite his success. His greatest responses to criticism weren't behind a microphone, they happened on the field. Time and time again, Manchester United proved critics wrong. They've shown they are bigger than one man. They have proven to be winners. Moyes and Manchester United's newest challenge starts Saturday.
Rule out Manchester United at your own peril.
TSN 1050 Radio will host doubleheader action from the Barclay's Premier League this weekend. Join myself and Kristian Jack on Saturday for Arsenal's match against Aston Villa before Swansea faces Manchester United. The action unfolds on TSN 1050 Radio at 9:30am et/6:30am pt.
On Sunday, Crystal Palace faces Tottenham ahead of Chelsea and Hull City going head-to-head. Sunday's coverage on TSN 1050 Radio begins at 8:30am et/5:30am pt.
You can reach Gareth at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter, @WheelerTSN