Will Manchester United's Strength in Depth Win Them the Premier League?
After ten games of one of the most unpredictable Premier League seasons to date, it’s fair to say that it’s been a few years since the early race for the title has been this close. Any pre-season conceptions of Chelsea and Manchester City running away with the league have been promptly quashed, as the top six teams are separated by only a handful of points and last season’s champions are nowhere to be seen.
The fact that, unlike previous years, there are no runaway leaders suggests that we’re in for a close fight to the finish line come May. If this is the case, then squad depth and rotation will almost inevitably become a factor, and this could be where the unlikeliest of contenders Manchester United pip everyone to the post.
A hammering at the hands of Arsenal, a dour derby draw and an underwhelming cup loss to Middlesbrough doesn’t exactly shout out title contenders, but Louis van Gaal has all the foundations of a solid squad at his disposal.
The main cause for concern in previous years, or at least since the formidable partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic ended, has been United’s obvious defensive frailties. Over 40 goals were conceded in each of the past two seasons, more than in any of the five seasons prior to this, and question marks have consistently been raised over England internationals Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. Yet Smalling seems like a rejuvenated player this season, and it’s not a coincidence that during his return to form United have only conceded once in five home games. Since returning from injury Phil Jones has also settled into some sort of consistency at the back, and it seems that him and Smalling are starting to strike up a partnership that many anticipated would happen a few years ago.
After the horrific early season injury to another England international, Luke Shaw, anyone could be forgiven for thinking that chances of a United title challenge may have left with him. Shaw’s industry down the left adds both attacking impetus and reliable defending to the side, and without him there is a huge void in Louis Van Gaal’s side that needs filling.
Marcos Rojo has stepped up well though and, after a shaky performance in the away draw to CSKA Moscow which culminated in him being substituted on the hour mark, he was more than comfortable in the Manchester derby last week. City’s talisman Kevin de Bruyne barely had a sight of goal all game as Rojo kept him at bay well.
With the pre-season addition of the young, raw talent of Matteo Darmian, United’s backline starts to appear more complete. The experienced head of Daley Blind, the youth of Paddy McNair and the utility of Antonio Valencia suggests that there may just be enough strength on the bench to see the side through a potential injury crisis as the season goes on.
During last season in particular, one man that United fans didn’t want to see injured was the club’s Player of the Year and Real Madrid target David de Gea. His consistent match-winning performances arguably ensured the club’s top four finish and place in the Champions League, yet Sergio Romero’s six game cameo at the start of the current campaign goes to show that he’s more than a suitable replacement if needed. Four clean sheets in six games is merely a glimpse at his potential for the club.
Further up the pitch, little proof is needed of how strong the Red Devil’s midfield is; it’s a line-up that would give any manager a selection headache. Defensively the duo of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin are starting to warm to the heart of the United midfield, with the vastly experienced German becoming the ‘go-to’ man for the big games. Hand in hand with these two are Manchester United stalwart Michael Carrick and the ‘love him or hate him’ character of Marouane Fellaini, who have both seen less first team action since the end of last season. This is hardly a reflection of talent though, as Carrick has been perhaps the most underrated player of the last decade for United, with five Premier League titles and the Champions League on his honours roll.
Juan Mata is another man who’s not a stranger to a Champions League medal after being a part of Chelsea’s successful campaign back in 2012, and him and Ander Herrera have created a Spanish connection which has proved very much effective so far this year. The statistics don’t lie when saying that most of United’s goals come through the Spaniards one way or another, as the pair currently share five goals and four assists between them.
Waiting in the wings behind these two are United youngsters Andreas Pereira and Jesse Lingard, both of whom Van Gaal has introduced to the first team in recent times. In the case of Lingard, he’s been tried and tested in the Champions League already, proving that he’s more than a worthy member of the starting line-up, and Pereira has shown promising glimpses of what he can do during Capital One Cup matches against both Ipswich and Middlesbrough.
After this Middlesbrough game, Paul Scholes was seen criticising the home side for possessing a “lack of creativity and risk” when going forward. With the calibre of players like Rooney, Martial and Memphis in the team comments like this do defy believe, especially when you consider the flexibility of these three. Even if Louis Van Gaal hasn’t quite decided on the perfect attacking formula yet, as injuries crop up throughout the year the flexibility of these key men will essentially determine whether the title comes back to Old Trafford or not. Add to these the out-and-out striker James Wilson, who has shown last year he’s capable of performing in the Premier League, and it starts to look as if there are suitable replacements for each position throughout the side.
The Premier League is only truly starting to pick up the pace now as we head towards the busy winter months. Title challenging squads will be severely tested during the hectic Christmas period, the time of the year that all managers hate and the time of the year where all hopes for the remainder of the season could be destroyed in days. The customary clan of Arsenal, City and Chelsea will inevitably be in the frame but maybe, just maybe, United can survive any injury crises and have enough in the tank to pip everyone else to the line come May.
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