It’s been a tough few years for Manchester United. After the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, arguably one of the greatest managers in history, United have endured a turbulent spell. Ferguson’s successor, David Moyes, came and went in a season as the axe was wielded swiftly, following a run of poor results. Dutch coach, Louis van Gaal, was instilled to lead United back to where their illustrious trophy-winning career suggests they should be.
Van Gaal’s second season in charge has seen a real sense of confidence bud in the United ranks, as they have battled through a difficult start to the season and have begun to slowly rebuild their title credentials. But how far can United go this season? Is a Champions League spot all they can hope for? Or are the team quietly, but surely, building towards reclaiming a title that was for so long in their grasp?
Can Manchester United Win the Premier League Title this Season?
Since United last won the Premier League in 2012/13, fierce rivals Manchester City and Chelsea have lifted the trophy. They finished seventh with 64 points in 2013/14 and fourth with 70 points the following season, finishing 22 points and 17 points short of the league leaders respectively. However, in recent weeks and months Van Gaal has slowly assembled a team which is keeping stride with the early pace setter, Manchester City.
But how far can United really go? The emergence of Crystal Palace, West Ham and Leicester City perhaps does not bode well for United as usually, by late December and January, a team’s entire squad becomes incredibly important. Players get injured and games come thick and fast, and no festive respite is allowed to anyone as the busy Christmas schedule rolls on. It is this time of the year that the better teams with larger squads are able to accelerate away from the chasing pack. Meanwhile, the teams with a more modest squad and transfer budget fall by the wayside and lose ground on the leaders.
So, which side will United fall on? Will they be hot on the trail of the leaders or trying to fit the wheels back onto their campaign like the likes of Leicester and Palace are likely to be? While this is mere speculation, this may be a season too soon for United.
United bought well in the summer; German World Cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger, French internationals Morgan Schneiderlin and Anthony Martial, Dutchman Memphis Depay, and World Cup finalist Sergio Romero were all recruited. Combined with the re-emergence of Luke Shaw before his injury, these players have all added to United’s firepower.
Their signing of the summer was in fact the retention of David De Gea, one of the best goalkeepers in the world, who penned a new contract with the club. This of course means that when Real Madrid eventually come back to sign him, which they will, they won’t be able to snap him up on a free transfer unless they wait until the end of his contract which they won’t be willing to do.
Along with the transfers comes Chris Smalling’s prominence in the team. His renewed sense of ability has been like a new signing for United as he has marshalled their previously sieve-like defence into a far more solid back four in comparison to last season. With so much talk this campaign surrounding United’s attacking options, it should be mentioned that much will hinge upon the fitness of the young English centre-half and whether he can stay fit. If he does, his partnership with Daley Blind will surely grow stronger as the games go by. United have been unlucky, though, as their young centre-backs, including Smalling and Phil Jones, have been susceptible to injury; it will be imperative they find a way to keep Smalling fit in this season and throughout the future.
United did lose a number of players: most notably Robin Van Persie and Javier Hernández. While neither of the two was in good form, it has left a huge amount of responsibility on the already-overburdened Wayne Rooney. Whilst the arrival of Martial has helped to share the responsibility, it must be considered that the Frenchman is still only a teenager. While he has been in fantastic form in his first few Premier League games, his real quality will have to shine through not if, but when, he goes through a dry patch in scoring.
When this happens, Rooney will have to be on hand to lead the team not only as captain, but with his goal-scoring prowess. Rooney’s form has dropped in recent weeks and injury has hampered his game time, meaning he has been unable to play himself back into required shape. The recent international break would have perhaps given him welcome respite, though, as he would have been able to play in a team that is not quite so dependent on him and had already qualified for next summer’s European Qualifiers.
Along with their signings, United have seen a number of teams’ downfall coincide with their own resurgence. Chelsea are enduring a horrendous start to their season, and much has been written about their demise. The manager and players have all been blamed for their current form as they currently sit 16th with eight points from as many games, whilst Liverpool have recently parted company with Brendan Rodgers and brought former Borussia Dortmund coach Jürgen Klopp in after their poor start. Liverpool currently sit 10th in the table, with 12 points from eight games.
This ties in perfectly with United’s good form, as the only other recognised title contenders near them are Manchester City. Arsenal cannot be seen as true contenders yet, as the past seasons have shown their strong starts don’t tend to convert into lifting the Premier League trophy; they struggle to keep pace once their inevitable injury problems set in.
While United are in the same position, with a squad not yet proven to be title-winning material, they will feel that if they can stay within a few points of City, then they can take advantage of the inevitable pantomime which is their local rival in the Premier League. Said pantomime sees City usually drop points and lose influential captain, Vincent Kompany, to injury which usually precedes a crisis amongst the ranks before they eventually steady the ship.
The score-line was 3-0 as United were beaten soundly by Arsenal at the Emirates which placed them third, level on 16 points with Arsenal and two points behind leaders, City. While this defeat has in no way put United out of the title race, it has raised some interesting questions. The first is, how will United fare against the better teams in the league?
While there is no easy game in the Premier League, it is one thing to beat the teams lower down the table, while it is another to do so consistently, and then beat fellow title contenders. Manchester City have so far been the early trend-setters with this year, as they blew Chelsea away and have been fairly consistent with only two blips against Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham.
The second question raised is: can United play the same style of football against the better teams? Against Arsenal, they were played off the park in the first 20 minutes and there was no way back for them, even with a much improved second half performance. It remains to be seen how effective United can be when playing better teams and it is here that they will be truly judged. It is far too difficult to win a title if 18 points are dropped across home and away games against City, Arsenal and Chelsea.
Is this United’s season? It is far too early to tell, however, it is unlikely they will win this year. Their lack of depth in striking options and a defence that, while growing in strength with each game, is still only fledgling at best, needs to be given time to reach the quality of, say, the Nemanja Vidić and Rio Ferdinand partnership.
In conjunction with this is the strength of Manchester City. Their squad has such enormous depth and their starting 11 is a who’s who of immense calibre. While United do also possess their own talent, it is perhaps more potential that they hold. In particular, Martial, while establishing himself as an astute buy, must justify his enormous price tag. This will happen over the coming years and Martial may follow in the footsteps of another great French forward, Thierry Henry, and he could light up the Premier League. However, there is an Argentine on the other side of the City already doing that and so, until United can challenge the goal scoring prowess of Sergio Agüero, it seems they will come up short in the title race.