The Olegarch’s Belated Season Preview

I meant to write this much earlier, but time got away from me, much like Rashford got away from Zouma this afternoon.  The glorious 4-0 win flattered United a little bit, and it’s certain to colour the foregoing assessment.  Now, without further ado, the seminal, suboptimal, categorical, indescribable, insatiable, distasteful: The Olegarch’s Belated Season Preview 2019/2020:

Contracts & Transfers

Our transfer window was disappointing.  I know that seems unreasonable in the afterglow of today’s win, but there are 3 key reasons why I feel it was ultimately unsatisfactory:

1. We should not have lost Ander Herrera.  Credible reports say we bungled contract negotiations for two consecutive years, which ultimately soured relations.  Ander has the mentality and attitude that Ole would have wanted to instill in the team.   We are a young squad – we had the youngest starting XI in the league this week – and we need role models in the dressing room.  We lost that when we lost Ander to PSG. 

2. The squad is uneven.  We are bloated with players in positions like centre-back and left-wing, while we’re still light at right-wing, left-back, and centre-mid.  We did address some key needs at the back but the rebuild was incomplete, at best.  I don’t mean incomplete as a whole, which it clearly is, because no rebuild can be completed in one window.  I am disappointed with what we’ve been able to achieve in this phase of the rebuild. I think we ought to have capitalised more on a buyer’s market in which City and Liverpool were largely dormant, and Chelsea were muzzled. In the case of Bruno Fernandes, I understand that the hype was largely driven by the media, and that the club was never definitively in for him.  What I struggle to understand is why.  He seemed to fit the profile of an exciting attacking central midfielder who wanted to play in England and would have added goals and leadership.  We could use both.  Let’s be frank, we are one Paul Pogba injury away from being very unconvincing in midfield. It’s not good to be so reliant on one player in such a key area.

3. We should have handled our business earlier.  Under Ole, the squad is developing a personality and unity that comes when you have a clear goal.  That clarity of vision did not appear to be shared by Ed Woodward.  Ole wanted his players in early, but the marquee signing of Harry Maguire arrived days before the league started.  The same core problem frosted relations with Ander Herrera, and leaves David de Gea in a similar contract purgatory.  We are clearly paying for the money-splashing sins of Ed Woodward’s ham-fisted first 5 years at the helm, and agents are within their rights to try and extract the best deal for their client.  I think it is a good thing that United are no longer behaving like a malfunctioning ATM and I recognise that rebuilding credibility takes time.  But this is an area that needs improvement.

Having said that, a lot went right in this window.  Marcus Rashford signing a new deal was a very welcome sight, and all 3 new signings made marvelous impressions in today’s game against Chelsea.  It’s still early days, but signing players who are young, eager to learn, and want to be at the club seems to be a great profile, looking forward.  Who’da thunk it.  Now, it’s important to focus on what we’ve got.

The Squad

Even accounting only for our first team players, we are a young squad.  This means we’ll be streaky, susceptible to highs and lows.  Younger players make less informed decisions, and are more likely to lose their heads in tense situations.  It’s important to remember this is a squad being built to grow together, and will blossom in 2-3 years time.  I’m really excited for their growth, but they should be judged according to where they are in that process.

Ole has obviously emphasised conditioning in training, and it looks like that will pay dividends across the board.  This is a fit, fast squad, capable of playing the way Ole wants to play, hunting in packs with the high press that leads to searing counter attacks.  It’s good to have cohesion between the manager’s style of play, and the skills of the players at his disposal to execute it.

This is the best backline we’ve had in a decade, when Evra, Vidic, Ferdinand, and G. Nev protected Edwin van der Sar.  It will take some time to gel – as it did a decade ago – which is why the Maguire signing was so important.  Harry Maguire is not as a good as the Virgil Mary, but I hope he has a similar effect on our young defence: I hope he inspires calm and confidence.  The Virgil Mary’s divine presence elevates the rest of the Liverpool defence.  I hope Maguire can have a similar effect on Shaw, Lindelof and Aaron Wan-Bissaka (henceforth known as “the Spider”).  DDG needs that new contract stat.

I think we’re light in midfield.  Behind Pogba and McTominay are Fred, Andreas, Matic, and then Angel Gomes and James Garner.  There isn’t a lot of depth there.  I have high hopes for the continued development of McTominay and an improved showing from Fred, though the jury is still out on Andreas’ ceiling.  Like I said, we are one Paul Pogba injury from looking very exposed.  Too much depends on too few, in a very demanding position.

I worry we’re going to be a little light for goals this year.  We lost around 17 goals a season when we sold Lukaku, and we didn’t replace them.  Our forwards are young and will therefore be streaky.  Against Chelsea today, we converted an absurdly high percentage of our chances – that’s not going to happen everyday.  A lot depends on Martial and Rashford each adding around 8 goals to their totals last season.  Rashford had 13 in all competitions, while Martial had 12.  It’s seems like a lot to expect both to be 20 goal a season strikers this year, but we’ll see. 

I think our youngsters are really exciting.  Mason Greenwood is the face of a core of young players who have shown signs of real promise.  Chong (never serve NS), Gomes, Garner, and Tuanzebe are other young talents who augment the team.  We have a lot of promising youngsters, and I am keen to see them get some first team exposure over the course of the season.

5 Predictions for this season

1. United will rely on our home form.  Young teams don’t travel particularly well, but thrive in familiar surroundings.  I think we’re going to be really tough for anyone to beat at Old Trafford, but will drop sloppy points on the road.

2. We will halve our goals conceded from last season as Maguire comes to define our defence.  He will bring a commanding leadership to the heart of our backline, which will bring the best out of Luke Shaw and Lindelof.  We conceded 54 goals last season.  I think we come in under 30 this year, possibly 27.

3. Liverpool win the league.  It’s either going to be this year or next year.  Liverpool’s squad is in its prime now, and they have a 2-year window to win the league with these players.  I think they have the best starting XI in the league, with a clear goal – winning the league.  City have the better squad but it’s very, very hard to win the league three times in a row.  Only The Gaffer has ever done it.  To me, City are more interested in winning the Champions League this year, and focus matters when margins are this thin.  

4. Spurs close the gap.  Last year, Spurs finished in 4th, 26 points off Liverpool, as attentions turned to the Champions League Final.  Spurs have strengthened well and are a well-constructed team that plays a fluid system.  They’re also developing a reputation for winning matches late at New White Hart Lane.  That creates an aura.  I think they run much closer to City and Liverpool, but ultimately still fall short. 

5. United will finish… 4th. In truth, I think we finish at 4.5.  I think Arsenal have just as much cause for optimism, having bought well and retained key players.  In truth, theyprobably have more quality in their squad. But at the end of last season, top 4 was theirs to lose… and they lost it.  How do they react to that?  Have they improved their mentality?  I can see Arsenal leading the race until the end of the season before frittering it away, leaving United in 4th.  I project a long season for Chelsea, which is to be expected after losing Hazard while under a transfer ban.  They will still be tricky opponents, with Mason Mount among several impressive young players hoping to make the most of the opportunity, but probably lack the quality to challenge for the top 4.

Alright, let’s do this

I think many United fans were rightly underwhelmed with elements of the transfer window, but it’s time to put that behind us.  Sure, the suits should be doing a better job building the squad.  But early signs are that we have a plan – to recruit young, hungry players who are willing to learn.  Our rebuild would greatly benefit from finishing 4th, but that shouldn’t be the yardstick against which to measure this club.  I noticed something today – every outfield player celebrated every goal against Chelsea together.  They embraced the moment, then regrouped and refocused.  I suspect this was Ole’s initiative.  There’s an identity forming in this squad, and a very real sense of togetherness being displayed by the players, even at this early stage.  Even if we don’t finish in the Top 4, I’ll be satisfied if our young team shows signs of maturing into a platoon of warriors willing to die for one another and the club on the pitch this season.  

God, I’m so glad football’s back.

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