What a mess that was, huh? If ever you could fill up the Internet beyond the breaking point with opinion, Manchester United’s season would have done it. It’s hard to tell quite what generated the most content. Was it the resignations of Sir Alex Ferguson and (less spectacularly, but possibly just as importantly) David Gill? The appointment of David Moyes? The passing of two transfer windows where United acquired big hair in the form of Marouane Fellaini (a poor fit) and a big name in the form of Juan Mata (a great player but not the answer to United’s midfield woes) but didn’t address the massive issues in central midfield, central defense and on the wings? The massive contract handed to Wayne Rooney despite his age? The finish out of the Champions League places and behind Everton and Spurs? The fact that city rivals Manchester City won the title? That’s a lot of huge negative storylines for any club over the course for twelve months let alone for Manchester United.
In fairness, there were a couple of bright spots along the way. United effectively undermined long-time rival Arsenal’s title challenge by allowing them only one point over two matches despite not being in strong form for either match. Adnan Januzaj emerged and showed that he could be a rising star. Louis van Gaal has been hired and United appear to have the money to right the ship and won’t have the added exertions of Champions League football to contend with as they look to rebound.
Predicted Finish: The consensus was that the defending champions would likely fall behind Manchester City after another huge spending spree but you’d have to search high and low for anyone who predicted anything lower than fourth.
Actual Finish: Um, not good (seventh).
Quick Review: While Arsenal changed the recently held opinion of the club as cheap and unable to attract top talent with the acquisition of Mesut Ozil last summer, United created a new worry as their new chief executive Ed Woodward failed to land any top recruits despite glaring needs in a number of positions. That he reportedly paid more than Marouane Fellaini’s release clause because he misjudged the market and waited until after it expired just made him appear even less savvy. Things went downhill from there pretty quickly as United fell to seventh in the league. They did enjoy a solid Champions League campaign that saw them bow out in the quarter finals to a Bayern Munich team that no one expected them to beat.
From a roster point of view, Adnan Januzaj was the big revelation with Danny Welbeck improving incrementally as well while Phil Jones, Jonny Evans, Tom Cleverley and Wilfried Zaha failed to make the leaps forward that supporters would have hoped for. At the same time, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Ashley Young, Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs all declined with age. Finally, Robin van Persie was not nearly as healthy as he had been the past two seasons and his partnership with Wayne Rooney seemed to regress with the transition from Ferguson’s management to that of David Moyes.
Departures/Likely Departures: Nemanja Vidic (free), Rio Ferdinand (free), Ryan Giggs (retired)
Needs: Center Back (or maybe two), Holding Midfielder, Left-sided Midfielder, Right-sided Midfielder, an eventual Patrice Evra replacement at Left Back, and maybe a Right Back depending on what Louis van Gaal thinks of Rafael.
Summer Preview: For a team just over twelve months from winning the title there are a lot of needs to discuss here. Rather than try to write this one in paragraph form, let’s go for position-by-position bullet points:
Left Back - The team got a break when Patrice Evra, who could have left for a big payday at PSG, Monaco or Inter, decided to stay for one more year to help ease the transition. United has frequently been linked with a big money move for Luke Shaw which may still happen – Evra would be a great mentor for a year.
Right Back – Rafael was fairly highly thought of as a good young player with an even greater ceiling not too long ago. Whether the perception that right back is a need is an artifact of performance specific to David Moyes’ system or a broader issue related to the player’s development regardless of system is unclear. As the summer plays out and Louis van Gaal either buys or doesn’t buy a replacement we’ll have our answer. We’ll call this one an uncertainty so far.
Center Back – With Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand both gone and Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones all having missed the opportunity to establish themselves as ironclad first teamers, this appears to be a position of need at United for the first time in years. United have been linked with a lot of names here and the expectation should be that they’ll sign at least one high priced player entering his prime. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Jones/Smalling/Evans trio was given the opportunity to compete to be the other starter with the remaining two representing a solid set of reserves.
Holding Midfielder – What has been a nagging need for a few years has become a massive one as Michael Carrick started to show his age last season. Carrick has always been a thinking man’s player lacking obvious holding midfielder traits like Roy Keane’s steel at the base of midfield, Claude Makelele’s athleticism, or Xabi Alonso’s pile driver of a shot. Best described as a poor man’s Andrea Pirlo (which is not an insult by any means), Carrick’s time seems to be up. United have been linked with a host of possible replacements from Bastian Schweinsteiger to Kevin Strootman to Toni Kroos. This is United’s biggest need and if they are going to break the bank on one transfer this season, this should be it.
Left-sided Midfield – Ashley Young fell off a cliff this past season. He certainly regressed in 2012-13 but 2013-14 signaled the clear demise of his time as a contributor on a top half team. Adnan Januzaj was tried in a wide role to some effect but he seems to be best suited to playing more centrally than was Young’s strength. With van Gaal having had Arjen Robben and Frank Ribery at Bayern Munich in his most recent club management stint, it seems likely that the Dutch manager will at least want midfield options capable of playing wider than Januzaj.
Right-sided Midfield – The area patrolled by David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo in recent years was a pretty big gap for United this past season. Antonio Valencia is a solid squad player but shouldn’t be starting for a title contender. With United flush with central attacking options (Mata, Januzaj, Rooney, Kagawa, Welbeck and van Persie), they would be well-served shopping for a player like frequently linked Marco Reus, perhaps with former Borussia player Shinji Kagawa going back in return.
If they get it all right and Louis van Gaal brings the gravitas that David Moyes apparently could not then United could rebound quickly. Too many setbacks or misjudgements in the transfer market and it will be a second season in a row on the outside of the Champions League positions looking in. Unless something major happens to undermine a competitor for those spots on the order of Suarez-to-Real Madrid then I'd put the odds at about 50/50 on United jumping back into the top four at this early stage in the summer.