2015-16 Barclays Premier League Season: After Fighting To Qualify For The UEFA Champions League Over The Last Two Seasons, Can Manchester United Rub Shoulders With The Premier League Elite And Mount A Title Challenge?

The 2014-15 Barclays Premier League season ended back in May, but in truth, it feels like the gap between the end of last and beginning of the upcoming 2015-16 season hasn’t been too long. From Manchester United’s perspective, last season was much better than the 2013-14 campaign, when they finished in 7th place and missed out on a European spot for the first time in a whopping 19 years. Louis van Gaal (LVG), therefore, deserves plenty of credit for taking the Red Devils back into the most-coveted UEFA Champions League after finishing 4th last season, all down to their impressive end-of-the-season victories over Liverpool (away), Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur (both at home).

The question, as we embark on a new season that has all the makings of being a highly competitive one, is can Manchester United rub shoulders with the Premier League elite, again, and fight for the Premier League title (No.21)?

The Big Picture

Van Gaal’s side will go into the new season buoyed by Champions League returning to Old Trafford after a two-year absence, and given the squad they have assembled, a league title challenge is, by no means, out of question, both from the players’ as well as their supporters’ perspectives.

Also Read: How Manchester United stack up against a robust Chelsea side?

They, however, have to hit the ground running once their league campaign gets underway in 6 days’ time, as they simply cannot afford another flimsy start and invite pressure onto themselves; remember, United have the Champions League to contend with, as well, this season, and their form in one competition can have a positive or negative effect on the other.

Their manager has aced the ongoing summer transfer window so far, and considering his managerial pedigree, you can be rest assured that he will be itching to prove his worth against the likes of Jose Mourinho, Manuel Pellegrini and Arsene Wenger – three managers who have won titles in England and are expected to challenge the Dutchman.

Last season was his first in the Premier League and van Gaal, for various reasons, did not manage to bring the best out of his squad until very late on in the campaign. LVG is going to be the captain of United’s upcoming season, and his tactical acumen will have to be at its best if the 2012-13 English champions are to win title No.21; again, last season being his first, he experimented too much with his players’ positions, though none of us can be oblivious of the numerous injuries – 68, the most suffered by a top-flight club last season – that plagued the Old Trafford outfit. As aforementioned, the Red Devils managed crushing victories over the Reds, Cityzens and Spurs during that red-hot March-April period, which was paramount to them finishing in the top 4.

With United back competing on four fronts, it will also be interesting to see how van Gaal manages the squad he has at his disposal. They, however, will first want to make sure that there are no slip-ups in the two-legged Champions League playoff round, opponents for which will be revealed on the 7th of August in Nyon.

Shifting focus to the dimensions of the Red Devils’ squad, I think they are slightly middle-heavy compared to the front and backlines; as much as van Gaal and United can expect Wayne Rooney to flourish as the central striker, the van Gaalacticos do not have a backup marksman if the Englishman does breakdown. In the middle of midfield, they have beefed up with proven quality players who will do them a world of good if they can settle in quickly. Again, it will be down to how van Gaal utilizes his midfielders, especially the new recruits in Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin; even bigger challenge is going to be that of combining them with Michael Carrick, in the presence of whom United won 72% of their games last season and the veteran completed an ultra-impressive 89.62% of his passes, most for a United player.

Transfers

Manchester United have been astute by capturing their coveted targets well before the beginning of a new season; something that they didn’t last term, and you could say their sluggish start to the season was also because of the shambles in the transfer window.

It has been 2-3 seasons since United had a solid engine room, but, come August 8th, regardless of the three midfielders who start the game against Mauricio Pochettino’s side, you can be rest assured that they will render defensive solidity and attacking dynamism, which are needed for the style of football van Gaal likes his teams to play.

Schweinsteiger, even at 30-years old, is a bargain at £14m, and the German, who has joined the Red Devils on a 3-year deal, should add more creativity to United’s engine room that struggled whenever Carrick was absent last season. Schneiderlin, brought from Southampton on a 4-year deal and for an undisclosed fee (Source: Sky Sports), is another signing who you expect to come good at Old Trafford; the Frenchman enjoyed a good number of minutes during the pre-season tour of United States and he should thrive playing alongside the two midfield maestros.

Further high up the pitch, the signing of Memphis Depay on a 4-year deal and for an undisclosed fee (Source: Sky Sports) is sure to add pace and penetration to United’s attacks, something that they palpably missed for much of last season. The 21-year old had a fabulous 2014-15 season at PSV Eindhoven, scoring 22 goals, registering 5 assists while also completing an impressive 54% (80/148) of his take-ons – stats that indicate what he will be bringing to the table to his new club.

Moving onto the backline, Matteo Darmian, the £12m signing from Torino on a 4-year deal, seems to be a very good player, as well, going by his exploits in pre-season while United’s new right-back also showed that he can operate on the left-hand-side of defence during his side’s 0-2 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). Right-back was another spot that United needed to fix after Antonio Valencia played there throughout last season, doing par for the course most of the time but also costing his team on few occasions: in the FA Cup quarterfinal defeat to Arsenal, for instance.

In the goalkeeping department, Victor Valdes’ prospective sale has meant that van Gaal needs someone as cover for the dazzling David de Gea, who, it has to be said, was probably ‘the’ reason for his side achieving a 4th-placed finish last season. Sergio Romero, the Argentine shot-stopper from Sampdoria, has joined United on a 3-year deal and, going by the recent developments to de Gea’s story, the 28-year old could actually play as the first-choice goalkeeper; various reports – at the time of writing – claim that van Gaal has decided to sell de Gea to Real Madrid.

Talking of outgoings, Angel Di Maria seems likely to move on after a solitary season at Old Trafford. The Argentine was not to be seen during United’s pre-season tour, and plenty seems to have happened mysteriously. If the reports are to be believed, the former Real Madrid winger will be moving to PSG in a £45m deal, with United having to put up with a £15m loss on a player they bought for £59.7m last summer. Losing Di Maria will not essentially mean the Red Devils have to go searching for another player, but the midfielder, who registered 10 assists in what was a tough first season, will definitely be missed.

Robin van Persie, who was expected to flourish under the tutelage of van Gaal, had a poor last campaign, scoring just 10 goals in 27 league appearances. He has joined Turkish side Fenerbahce for an undisclosed fee.

Pre-season preparations

LVG’s men flew out to the US on the 13th of July and based themselves in Seattle for the initial training camp. They played their first pre-season game against the Mexican side Club America on the 17th of July, with Schneiderlin’s fifth minute header winning the spoils for the Premier League giants.

United faced Major League Soccer (MLS) outfit San Jose Earthquakes 4 days later; beating them comfortably by 3-1 and witnessing Depay score the first goal for his new club while Juan Mata and Andreas Pereira scored the other two. The van Gaalacticos achieved the same scoreline against the reigning European champions, Barcelona, a game which saw the youngsters proving their mettle: Jesse Lingard and Adnan Januzaj got on the scoresheet along with Rooney, as their side comfortably saw off the Catalans’ challenge. The Old Trafford outfit completed their tour with a 0-2 defeat to PSG, and their performance in the game was a carbon copy of some of their league losses during last campaign: sluggish in possession, defensively vulnerable and far too predictable.

The major highlights of the tour were van Gaal giving more minutes to the players in his first-choice XI, as 9 of the players in the United touring party played each one of their four games during pre-season. Schneiderlin and Darmian, the two new signings, were impressive throughout and showed the qualities they would be bringing to their new club, playing in two key positions. Van Gaal too, eccentrically chose to play Depay as the No.10 in what was predominantly a 4-2-3-1 formation for much of the pre-season; his compatriot, though, seems to have developed an understanding with Rooney, and it is a partnership that could do wonders for United if they can hone in on their link-up play even more.

Moving onto the backline, van Gaal favoured playing Daley Blind at central defence with Chris Smalling and Phil Jones vying for the other spot. In the left and right fullback positions, Luke Shaw, having overcome the fitness issues that impeded him from flourishing in his first season at Old Trafford, gave a good account of himself while Darmian impressed on the other flank. It was disappointing to not get enough of Schweinsteiger, who played just 45 minutes in the entire pre-season tour; the German missed the first two games due to lack of fitness and then the third through to an injury, before playing the first 45 minutes against the French champions.

How do United’s fixtures shape up over the season?

For the second year running, Manchester United will kick off the Premier League season at home, and this time against Tottenham Hotspur on the 8th of August. Looking at the first 10 fixtures, United simply don’t have it easy: they play Liverpool (at home, on 12th September), Southampton (away, on 20th September), Arsenal (away, on 4th of October), Everton (away, on 17th October) and Manchester City (home, on 25th October) before the end of October, and it could well be a determining phase of their campaign. They did win 5 of those corresponding fixtures last season but, again, they started winning consistently only after the beginning of December; this time around, they can’t let that happen because their first six fixtures of last season seemed bread-and-butter on paper, however, it turned out very differently.

If they qualify for the group stages of the UEFA Champions League, their home game against Liverpool will be followed by Matchday One action, either on the 15th or 16th of September, in Europe; the away trip to Emirates will be preceded by Matchday Two action in the Champions League on the 29th or 30th of September; and the first Manchester derby will be played after Matchday Three action in the Champions League either on the 20th or 21st of October.

Talking of United’s major league fixtures, their 19th league fixture to round off the first leg will be a home clash against Chelsea on the 28th of December; the defending champions could well be the team to beat if any other side is to pip them for the title this season.

The second half of United’s Premier League campaign will see them face the Reds away from home on January 16th, 2016, followed by a home clash against Ronald Koeman’s side. Chelsea (away) and Arsenal (home) await them in February, with a trip to the Stadium of Light to face Sunderland sandwiched between these two glittering fixtures. Van Gaal’s side again has a crucial period to negotiate between the end of March and beginning of April, when they will play the Cityzens (away, on 19th March 2016), Toffees (home, on 2nd April 2016) and Spurs (away, on 9th April 2016) in three back-to-back weekends. However, their last five fixtures are against teams – Aston Villa, West Ham United, Leicester City, Norwich City and AFC Bournemouth, in that order – which you expect United to beat.

Though the Red Devils have tough fixtures falling one after another, both in the first and second half of their upcoming Premier League campaign, it can only work in their favor if they manage to achieve good results in most of them.

Note: the dates and order of the aforementioned fixtures are subject to change depending on United’s participation in various competitions, including the FA Cup, which will begin in the first week of January. Also, unlike the last term, when United had to play in the 2nd round of the Capital One Cup against MK Dons, they will be involved from the third round of the competition because of their involvement in Europe.

Potential problem areas

Ahead of the new season, I think United’s defensive frailties from last season have not been addressed, yet, though we have almost a month of the transfer window still to go. Smalling did well towards the end of last season, but United’s rearguard has simply not looked convincing since the departures of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, and van Gaal has so far failed to address it either. As aforementioned, de Gea accrued them plenty of points last campaign purely by his brilliance between the sticks, and that may not be the case again this season. It is important for van Gaal to shore up the defence, even though they have two solid No.4s – Carrick and Schneiderlin – who will give adequate defensive cover and ensure their side doesn’t concede cheap goals.

Van Gaal has also publicly stated that United do not have a star signing in the mould of Barcelona’s Neymar, particularly in the final-third of the pitch, who can terrorize defenses and come up with a game-changing moment when his side needs it the most. Depay is pacey, aggressive and will get sharp as the season progresses, but he is in his first season in England and may take time to bed in, in addition to the small matter of uncertainty over the position he will be playing in.

United have the potential to be really good this season, but for that to transpire, they need their rearguard and frontline to really come to the party and deliver the goods, consistently.

Final Thought

United, it is fair to say, are genuine title contenders, though none of us can dispute Chelsea being favorites to retain it and City and the Gunners being in the mix, as well. Van Gaal will need to have his thinking cap on all the time because, if his side is to mount a title challenge, it is totally dependent on the charismatic Dutchman, how he sets his team up week after week and the tactics he employs, especially due to his side’s weaknesses in crucial areas of the pitch.

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