Manchester United, 2013/14: The complete, concise guide

Laurence Griffiths

A Manchester United season preview in full, from our key players, potential breakthrough stars, rivals chances, and what the managerial transition could mean.

What's changed?

Well, that should be pretty obvious. We're entering completely uncharted waters in replacing Alex Ferguson, but we don't know exactly what we're losing - we had nothing to compare him to, so we have little idea of exactly how good he really was. We won't know the extent of the psychological hold he had on our opponents, or the results of it disappearing. In short, anything could happen. But it's important to contextualise these things.

For example, when David Moyes came out with his comment about a rigged fixture list, it was almost certainly a joke. This is a good thing because if it wasn't, it would've been one of the most pathetic things ever to pass a United manager's lips since... well, Ron Atkinson wasn't our manager at the time, but you get the idea. People will then say "hold on, didn't Ferguson say a very similar thing?" Yes, he did, but Ferguson earned the right to be dishonest and machiavellian with mind-games and smokescreens - he'd won the trophies and had the record to back it up. David Moyes does not.

Basically, it's important both for the club and Moyes that he gives us a reason to believe in him as soon as possible. It could be anything - a comeback win against the odds, an early trophy, a remarkable run of form - but something to make us think he has what it takes. If he can't, then he at least needs to avoid doing the opposite - if, for example, we were to suffer a crushing defeat at Anfield, it would be very hard for him to escape the stench.

None of this is anything we've had to deal with for the past 14 years at the very least. That's what makes this season so terrifying and exciting in equal measure from the current point of view. Hopefully, it'll be more of the latter and less of the former.

What's the same?

Oh, just.. the entire team. No significant departures or acquisitions with the first game less than 24 hours away is a surprising and slightly worrying prospect. It would be absolutely incredible were United not to invest in the squad before the window ends, but there's a lot of confidence being placed in a hugely flawed side.

That means that United have looked very similar to how Ferguson used to play so far - a fairly fluid frontline, a completely static midfield and a slightly shaky defence. That won't be enough to win the league, but we'll have to grow into our situation, whatever it is, when the transfer window ends. It'll be a while before we begin to see Moyes' influence on the team, particularly before any additions are made.

Our rivals:

Here, we might have some cause for optimism. Chelsea have immense structural problems in their squad comparable to ours, with a midfield that makes no sense and a lack of defensive cover which they have so far not addressed. It could cost them, big-time, if United can get their own house in order.

Meanwhile, at Manchester City, the acquisitions have been numerous, expensive, and... not exactly impressive. Their first eleven isn't really any scarier than anything they could field this time last year, and that's nice. If United sign the likes of Cesc Fabregas or Luka Modric, our team would be vastly improved. City appear to have gotten themselves into a situation where it's difficult to improve their starting lineup - at least we don't have that problem.

Nobody else should be too much trouble. Tottenham Hotspur are probably a bit of quality away from being real cause for concern, while Liverpool haven't made any hugely impressive moves, and Arsenal are still yet to buy anyone. The twin causes of last year's success were Robin van Persie and the inadequacy of our enemies. This year looks like it could follow the same pattern.

Key players

Robin van Persie

Pretty much single-handedly responsible for our success last year (discounting Spanish goalkeepers), and regardless of our signings, it seems we'll need another big season from Van Persie to make our mark again. There is, ludicrously, still room for him to improve - not going missing at the most important stage of the season again would be welcome, for a start. The supporting cast seriously need to up their game, but Van Persie will still be the main man whatever happens.

David de Gea

Some utterly superhuman displays last year propelled De Gea into the tier of the very best players at the club, and his displays in big games give us another dimension to go into Champions League ties and games against big rivals. Adding some consistency could make him the best keeper in the league by quite a distance.

Shinji Kagawa

A somewhat disappointing year last time out, which was bizarrely blamed on his position out wide. A player of his ability - good with the ball at his feet, playing with his head up, nippy, two-footed - should easily be able to fit in in a variety of positions, however, and needs to impose himself more on games if he's to be the player we know he can be. A big season from him could be the single biggest factor in improving our team enough to match our rivals this year, and we know the potential is certainly there.

Rafael

Rafael's loss through injury in the Community Shield final visibly caused a loss of drive from United - without a midfield, he and Evra's marauding runs are even more important, and he occupies one of the positions where we can say we have the best in the league. His impetuousness has led him to blossom into a supremely confident player, while displaying the same exciting runs forward despite rarely neglecting the defensive side. An utterly superb player, whose importance to the side is often severely understated.

Michael Carrick

Michael Carrick might be ludicrously overrated these days, but the fact remains that he is important to United, even due to a lack of alternatives alone. He can be an excellent player on his day, but he also has flaws which age will surely only exacerbate - midfield additions are near-certain, but Carrick will likely still need to have another big season if United are to pick up where they left off.

Potential breakthrough stars:

Wilfried Zaha

The bizarre loss of form and fitness on United's wings last season was a major shock, one it was amazing we managed to overcome considering how reliant we'd been on what was the strongest area of the team since Cristiano Ronaldo's departure. Wilfried Zaha could give us a major boost there - his form in pre-season (a disappointing Community Shield aside) was exceptional, and he could even already be our best option out wide.

Danny Welbeck

Welbeck has already broken through, but his goal tally last year was hugely disappointing. While he's often been hugely involved in our best play (The Community Shield being an excellent example of this), he simply must add goals to his game to be considered in our strongest starting eleven. This needs to be the year he really proves that he belongs at Old Trafford.

Javier Hernandez

Hernandez is another player whose talents we are already accustomed to, but this could be a watershed season for him - with Welbeck often played in a deeper, or more creative role, and Wayne Rooney seemingly doomed to be either sidelined or transferred, Hernandez will be the chief backup to Robin van Persie. His goalscoring ability has never been in question, but his all-round play has developed tremendously of late. Another season of being under-utilised would surely call his future into question, but the chance to really make his mark on the team is there to be taken.

Nick Powell

Manchester United desperately lack goals from midfield. Nick Powell is very, very good at scoring goals from midfield. That could be all that matters, but Powell is such a versatile player and able to play in such a variety of positions, while displaying such prodigious technique, that it was a major surprise that he didn't feature more last year, scoring a goal in the sole short cameo he had in the Premier League.

This year, he'll hopefully get more game time when his fitness has recovered, and could be an option for United if they work with a rotating midfield three - even anticipating reinforcements, we are still hugely understaffed in the centre.

Adnan Januzaj

Nobody was expecting Adnan Januzaj to get too much first-team football this year, even though he was named on the bench for Alex Ferguson's last game in charge, but a hugely impressive pre-season has shown that he could be one of our most effective options, excelling in a variety of positions. He plays too far forward to be considered a potential answer to our midfield woes, but he is still a hugely creative player on his day and even at his tender age can turn a game in an instant.

Transfer review:

Well, there's been nothing so far. Despite United's words to the contrary, the smart money still appears to be on a Wayne Rooney departure, while it would be utterly amazing were a couple of high-profile signings not made before the end of the window. Midfield will almost certainly be strengthened, but the rest is anyone's guess.

Prediction:

No. We're not doing one. Not because we're scared (we are, but that's not the reason we're not making a prediction.) This is a season of such uncharted waters at United that it's comparable to not even having played the sport before. Anything could happen and it wouldn't surprise us. David Moyes out of a job in November with Alex Ferguson returning to the helm, cape swirling, a glass of chateauneuf-du-pape in one hand and a whip in the other, driving the team on from 13th place and still fighting on in the Champions League? It'd be no more than a raised eyebrow from us. Moyes finishing the season unbeaten with Cristiano Ronaldo and Fabregas vying for player of the year? Polite applause only here at TBB towers.

Well, we'd be a bit surprised, of course. But we wouldn't be surprised that we were surprised. There is no upper or lower limit to what this season can unleash, and pinning a 'yep, 2nd I think' to it would cheapen it somewhat. Let's just enjoy the show. Or boo it off, whatever. Let's just see.

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