SHANGHAI, CHINA - JULY 25: Players of Manchester United give thanks to fans after the Friendly Match between Shanghai Shenhua and Manchester United at Shanghai Stadium on July 25, 2012 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Hong Wu/Getty Images)
In an ideal world, I would have liked to do a detailed position-by-position preview of the Manchester United squad and I would have loved to have written about Luka Modric when discussing our midfield. Instead, I will do a brief overview of each position and gush over Paul Scholes. The two systems that manager Sir Alex Ferguson is likely to use for the 2012/13 season are a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1ish one and a 4-3-3/4-5-1 one. The former has been the dominant choice for the past two seasons -- especially for domestic matches -- but the latter had been used often for 'big games' a few years ago over a span of numerous seasons. Without further ado, here's a brief overview of the squad:
Goalkeeper: David de Gea, Anders Lindegaard, Sam Johnstone
* Comment: It was a difficult acclimation for the 21-year-old de Gea in his debut season at Old Trafford. He had difficulties commanding his box on crosses and he allowed a few soft goals in the early going. However, after Lindegaard became the No.1 briefly before bowing out with an injury, the young Spaniard was superb for the season's latter half. While still not inspiring full confidence in commanding his box, he did show clear improvement though as the season wore on. In addition, his impressive reflexes and tremendous shot-stopping abilities were on full display and especially so during a superb save on a Juan Mata curling free-kick at Stamford Bridge in stoppage time when the scoreline was 3-3. Overall, a decent debut season for de Gea -- not nearly as poor as some would have you believe -- and his latter half of the season has many excited for the future. He distribution is strong as well and that is vital in the modern game for a club that looks to build attacks from the back.
Lindegaard looks more than capable of being a back-up and if de Gea were to go down for an extended period of time, I would not worry much about his cover. The Dane seems to command his box decently well and his shot-stopping appears adequate. His distribution leaves a bit to be desired though. Ben Amos has gone on loan to Championship side Hull City while 19-year-old Sam Johnstone joined the club on their pre-season tour this summer.
* Comment: Evra used to be world-class, then disappointed in 2010/11, and was even worse in 2011/12. Specifically, the constant criticism last season was his propensity to being caught out and having the opposition counter in the space behind the Frenchman. It was apparently concerning enough to where the positionally sound Rio Ferdinand was shifted over to his side in order to provide cover. His biggest strength though is his ability to get forward and combine with Ashley Young or Nani on the left flank. This is key because both United wingers have the tendency to cut inside in the attacking third when they're deployed on the left-wing. After a possible unsuccessful attempt to bring Leighton Baines to Old Trafford, left-back is Evra's and he doesn't really have an established back-up. Fabio is on loan to Queens Park Rangers.
* Comment: There is better depth at right-back in comparison to left-back but there isn't an established starter. Gary Neville's retirement was supposed to pave the way for Rafael to make right-back his own. The young Brazilian has certainly impressed at times and his talent is clear, however, his proneness to injury and his inconsistent displays has left many frustrated. He's brave in tackle, fearless with his forward forays, and both his technical and athletic ability is impressive. Furthermore, he forms a solid partnership with Valencia. It would just be nice to see Rafa get through most of the season healthy and with consistent displays. This is needed for him to convince that he is United's right-back of the future.
Jones and Smalling offer a bit more defensive solidity but the future of both is still likely to be in central-defense -- although the former's is possible in a number of positions. Both provide solid cover at right-back though. Valencia saw some time in the pre-season tour at right-back due to the injuries of Smalling and Jones and also because of Rafa's Olympic involvement with Brazil. The option to use Valencia is an interesting one due to the possibility of using him in a Dani Alves sort of role.
* Comment: Talent, experience, promising youth, and depth in this unit. Yet, for the first time in quite some time, central-defense is a bit of a concern ahead of the season. Vidic was a clear world-class player prior to falling in Basel last winter but the seriousness of his injury leaves some doubt as to what kind of player he is at this moment in time. Rio was tremendous from January-May last season and he never missed a game in that span due to injury. Nonetheless, father time is catching up with the great English center-back and he's still always a concern to miss a game due to a possible knock. Evans was superb last season filling-in for Vidic and it was unexpected after many (me included) assumed that he wouldn't cut it at Old Trafford. However, off-season surgery has prevented him from having an adequate pre-season so he can't be counted on to contribute much in the season's early going. The talented young duo of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have knocks as well and each is unavailable for the season-opener at Goodison Park on Monday.
At season's beginning, it looks as if Vida and Rio will be counted on to start and central-midfielder Michael Carrick will provide cover. The midfielder could possibly even get a start or two until Evans, Smalling, and Jones return. Vida would be a welcome return for Everton, especially if he's in good enough form, after Marouane Fellaini completely overpowered United in aerial duels during the infamous 4-4 match at Old Trafford last spring -- a contest that may have lost United the title.
An eventual return to world-class form for Vida, 30-40 games for Rio, Evans to build on a superb campaign, Smalling to continue in his development, and finding out if Jones has the physical ability to be a consistently top-level center-back are the questions ahead of this campaign for this unit.
Comment: There's two tremendous registas in Scholes and Carrick, exciting potential in Cleverley, and not much else to be genuinely excited about. After Scholes returned from retirement in January, he and Carrick bossed nearly every game they participated in together. However, they were exposed by the power of Yaya Toure in the title-decider or perhaps more accurately, the lack of an energetic ball-winning battler was exposed as there was no one to protect the United deep-lying playmakers. United still don't have this player unless Jones can step up to this role or if Fletcher can return to full-health. Relying on Fletch is not something we should count on though due to the unpredictable nature of his illness. Ando... not expecting much there and any contribution will be treated as an unexpected bonus from me this season.
I love the ball-playing ability of Scholes, Cleverley, and Carrick. The midfield is likely to be built around the latter as he also provides stamina and positional awareness when United are out of possession. However, United desperately need a combative player of quality to balance the midfield -- especially when they're up against elite midfield competition. Criticism of Park Ji-sung by some last year in this combative midfield role was never fair as he was simply being asked to play out of position due to this glaring squad need. This is my biggest fear in the center of the park ahead of this season.
Two fun things to watch for this season for me: (1) I'm going to enjoy the sublime Scholes for one more season. (2) Can Cleverley provide an extra dimension in central-midfield by providing drive into the attack -- especially as possibly the most advanced central-midfielder in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 system?
Wingers: Antonio Valencia, Nani, Ashley Young, Ryan Giggs
* Comment: We're loaded here with both quality and with each winger offering up something different. With our new #7 Valencia on the right flank, you pretty much know what you're getting -- an old-fashioned winger that is going to have a go at his marker, beat the defender to the byline, and pummel the box with accurate crosses. He will do this over and over while stretching the attacking space by providing width and tracking back to help his full-back. Nani may be inconsistent but he has the genuine brilliance to unlock a defense at any moment and from either flank. The Portuguese winger can also be unplayable on his day. Young can play on either flank as well but he prefers the left. From there, he predictably cuts inside but his curling shot from outside the box is always a threat. The England international has the underrated ability to pop up into dangerous pockets of space in the attacking third and he too is a solid defender with his willingness to track back.
* Comment: Valencia is probably better starting from a deeper position and perhaps this is why he sometimes is less effective in a 4-3-3 in comparison to a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1. Nani and Young are capable as wide forwards as is Rooney, Welbeck, and Kagawa. Don't be surprised to see the latter three considered in this role when Fergie elects to deploy his side in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 due to Robin van Persie joining the squad.
Number tens: Wayne Rooney, Shinji Kagawa, Ashley Young, Ryan Giggs
*Comment: This role exists when United play in their 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 shape. One player occupies the space between the lines and in behind a lead striker. From here, this player links the midfield and attack, spreads the ball out wide to the wingers in the attacking third, and looks for incisive throughballs for the lead striker or midfield runners. In the past two seasons, this has been the main role for Rooney. He excelled in it for the 2010/11 season run-in and in the beginning of the 2011/12 season. However, his influence waned in this role late last season and a trusted alternative was seemingly not on the squad. Kagawa thrived in this role the past two seasons for German champions Borussia Dortmund and he could potentially excel in a role in behind Rooney, van Persie, Welbeck, or Javier Hernandez (Chicharito).
With the van Persie signing, it's likely that Rooney will be first-choice in this role but Kagawa has made it clear that this is his preferred role. Young has done well in this role at times for the England national team but he's rarely had the opportunity for United. Giggs has not inspired in this role in recent seasons.
* Comment: We're loaded here as well. RvP will likely feature as a true number 9 while Rooney can play the role of a false 9 or as a support striker. Welbeck is versatile as well and his strength is in his movement while working the channels and also in dropping deep to link play. Chicharito is a fantastic finisher in the box but his all-around game is lacking. Berba is likely on his way out and it's hard to see Kiko getting many games if the other strikers remain healthy. It'll be interesting to see how Sir Alex sorts all this out.