Optimism at Man United tempered by absent striking quality
MANCHESTER, England (AP) — For a club of Manchester United’s standing, two years out of the Premier League title conversation is two too many.
There are reasons to be optimistic that the run won’t stretch to a third season, even though the 20-time English champions head into the new campaign with as many questions as answers.
Louis van Gaal is starting his second season in charge and feels his philosophy — his buzzword since arriving at Old Trafford — is beginning to permeate the club. The Dutchman also believes his squad is better balanced after the offseason signings of midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin, Italy right back Matteo Darmian, Netherlands forward Memphis Depay and Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero.
Throw in its return to the Champions League and another strong set of preseason results on the tour of the United States, including a victory against European champion Barcelona, and there’s every reason to feel United should improve on seventh- and fourth-place finishes in the league in the last two seasons.
Not everything is rosy at Old Trafford, though.
United looks short up front following the departure of Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao this summer. Wayne Rooney starts the season as the club’s only senior striker, although Javier Hernandez — currently injured — is back from his loan spell at Real Madrid.
There remain question marks over the future of goalkeeper David de Gea, arguably United’s best player last season and the main reason the team is back in the Champions League. De Gea is heavily linked with a move to Madrid and has barely featured in preseason.
And Van Gaal has acknowledged that his squad still the lacks the kind of star quality in attack that is sprinkled throughout the forward lines of European heavyweights Barcelona, Madrid and Bayern Munich. Argentina midfielder Angel Di Maria was supposed to have added that but he is on the verge of joining Paris Saint-Germain, to end an underwhelming year at United following his club-record move for 59.7 million pounds (then $99 million).
“We can use much more creativity,” Van Gaal said during the U.S. tour.
United’s first task this season will be to win its Champions League playoff at the end of August to advance to the group stage. Another of Van Gaal’s priorities will be to start the league season better than last year, with United’s title chances virtually over after picking up just 13 points in the opening 10 rounds.
If that happens, United could yet be back as a genuine contender in the title race, as it should be after spending about 230 million pounds ($360 million) on new signings in the last 12 months. As it stands, there is a general feeling that Chelsea will again be too strong this season, perhaps even Manchester City and Arsenal.
Here are some more things to know about United ahead of the new season:
RELIANT ON ROONEY
Rooney is back as United’s No. 1 striker, and there is pressure on him to deliver now that Van Persie and Falcao are gone.
“I hope to score 20 or more goals again,” the England captain said. “If I am playing as a striker, then I will be disappointed if I cannot do that again.”
If he achieves his target, he will become United’s record scorer. Rooney’s tally for the club is currently 230 goals, 19 behind Bobby Charlton’s record.
THE NEW RONALDO?
Comparisons are already being made between Depay and Cristiano Ronaldo.
That may be premature, but there is hope at Old Trafford that the 21-year-old Dutchman can provide an attacking spark to take United to the next level.
He was among the top players in the Dutch league with PSV Eindhoven last season — he has pace, trickery and a dangerous free kick — and has impressed in preseason.
The Premier League is a huge step up, though, and many players have struggled to deal with being labeled the so-called “Next Big Thing” at England’s most successful team.
Just ask Di Maria.
The arrival of Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin, as well as the emergence of Ander Herrera toward the end of last season, indicates a refreshing of United’s central midfield. But Van Gaal will surely still find a place for his on-field brains, Michael Carrick.
Carrick’s return from a long injury coincided with a 10-match unbeaten run for United from November to January that left the team in touching distance of the leaders. He missed the last six games of the season because of injury, and United won just one of them.
Schweinsteiger, the captain of world champion Germany, will surely start although he is injury prone. Schneiderlin and Herrera offer energy, but Carrick’s discipline and awareness make him a crucial component of Van Gaal’s lineup.