Predicted position: 3rd
Last season’s position: 1st
Odds to win the League: 13/5 (Oddschecker)
You get the sense that when David Moyes looks back over at his first Manchester United pre-season, it will not be with any particular fondness. The new manager admitted it was never going to be easy taking over from Sir Alex Ferguson but even Moyes will be wondering what he’s done to deserve such a saga-laden beginning to his United career.
Ferguson’s words echoed around Old Trafford when, like a departing teacher instructing his pupils to behave for his replacement, he sternly reminded the crowd of their duty to support their new manager. Moyes has a six-year-contract and in keeping with the club’s tradition, will not find his position under threat after one season, perhaps barring a fifth place finish.
United are entering into the great unknown. The smoothness of the transition will depend heavily on the size of the shadow that Ferguson casts over his replacement, something that the elder Scot has reportedly already worried about. Do not expect to see shots of Ferguson’s face in the directors box for the foreseeable future.
Crisis is one of many overused terms in sports – Moyes, at the very least, has a serious headache. The point-blank refusal to sell Wayne Rooney to Chelsea, who appears ready to try and force his way out of Old Trafford, suggests Moyes knows the striker’s departure would leave his team thin on options up front. Any injury to Robin Van Persie would leave United with the decidedly lightweight front pairing of Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck, who in the last league campaign scored a combined total of 13 goals to Van Persie’s 26.
The club’s chief executive Ed Woodward will also be extremely reluctant to sell Rooney to a revitalised Chelsea and hand Jose Mourinho the keys to a shiny new striker with a chip on his shoulder and a renewed hunger to prove himself.
The relentless pursuit of Cesc Fabregas is a similar reflection of United’s concern over midfield options for the coming season. If striking options are lightweight, the midfield is beginning to look like a little featherweight. Paul Scholes has gone and with the exception of Michael Carrick, United’s engine room is lacking in either experience or consistency.
Despite Tom Cleverley’s sharp passing and energy, he remains unproven at the highest level and rarely got a sniff in United’s biggest games of the season. As for Shinji Kagawa, he faces his defining season as a United player. The fact that Anderson is still at Old Trafford, despite six seasons of mediocrity, suggests either that Moyes thinks he can get more out of the Brazilian than his predecessor or more likely that without Fabregas, United simply don’t have the numbers in central midfield to even weed out the chaff.
A bright spot among some dark clouds is Wilfried Zaha. The 20-year-old has impressed Moyes during a sparkling pre-season and will present a renewed threat down United’s flanks which have been lacking in focus after a discouraging season from Antonio Valencia and patchy one, to say the least, from Nani. Zaha, who is also capable of playing as a striker, will bring the drive and hunger once seen from Rooney.
At the back, there is more uncertainty. The 20-year-old Uruguayan Guillermo Varela remains Moyes’ first and thus far sole signing. Ahead of him is Rafael de Silva who has come off a much improved season but will still be waking up in cold sweats over his treatment at the hands of Cristiano Ronaldo last season at the Bernabeu.
United will not be able to guarantee the fitness of elder statesman Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic and though Jonny Evans has proved himself as a worthy deputy for the most part, it remains to be seen whether Moyes will happy to move forward with only Phil Jones and Chris Smalling as cover and whether anyone can emulate Vidic or Ferdinand’s exceptional positioning and fraternal understanding.
Make no mistake, United’s rivals will smell blood.
Jose Mourinho may have re-branded himself as ‘the Happy One’ but his recent broadside at Cristiano Ronaldo shows he has lost none of the combative instincts that so endeared him to Chelsea fans and impressed, if exasperated at times, everyone else. And Manuel Pelligrini, whose man-management has already brought onside senior Manchester City players who fell out with Roberto Mancini, will be on the lookout for weaknesses.
United’s supporters have prided themselves their refusal to boo their own players but it will be fascinating to see the reaction to Moyes if things start badly. At the time of writing, United are no closer to the obtaining the player who they clearly believe give them the confidence in their own squad they thus far seem to be lacking. Without Fabregas, it will be a difficult and nail-biting season for the champions.