Manchester United Raising the Bar Again

English Premier League season preview Part I

By Tom Sheldrick

At half-time, Manchester City were sending Manchester United a message that they were ready to step up and challenge for the Premier League title. By full time, Wayne Rooney was able to say: “This shows who the best team is”, and describe the game as “a footballing lesson.” With Manchester’s rivals set to contest the Premier League title, and not just the Community Shield, the traditional pre-season curtain-raiser had added interest, and didn’t disappoint.

Full highlights right this way.

City left Wembley with optimism punctured, while Rooney – at 25 a veteran in the team that finished the game – talked ebulliently, genuinely, of a new generation of young talent to get pulses racing. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Not just at half-time, but at the tail end of last season, on that same Wembley turf. In the FA Cup semi-final in April, Yaya Toure put United out of their misery, as City’s vitality trampled all over their tired-looking near-neighbours. They came back in May to claim a first trophy of the brave new era, and United came back to be taught a footballing lesson by Barcelona.

It has been Roberto Mancini’s primary aim to build a squad – and, in fairness, City’s owners have largely let him get on with it, with distance and patience – to consistently challenge for the major honours. If he ever needed any pointers, Sir Alex Ferguson is just peerless in his success at doing just that. The Premier League was won – but not won well – last year, and he’s known for a long that the best team to change is a winning team. The Scot has spoken openly about striving to achieve the standard Barcelona set (and Rooney followed him by revealing a desire to compare to Lionel Messi, the game’s top individual performer). With senior players Carrick, Vidic and Ferdinand removed at half-time, it was a startlingly youthful United that forced its way back into the game in the second half, and the equaliser – Nani’s first goal of the afternoon – was worthy of a Barcelona showreel.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” The Independent’s author has it right; Ferguson’s newest set of kids seem to already understand the great tradition of the United comeback, while there are – certainly were on the pitch by full-time yesterday – very few old-timers around to explain it to them. This summer saw Paul Scholes and Edwin van der Sar retire, and John O’Shea and Wes Brown were let go. Gary Neville, who was there this time last year but isn’t anymore, should be added to that list. The £50million spent this summer shouldn’t be a seen as a reaction of panic, because Ferguson has been building this team for a while. Chris Smalling had plenty of game-time last year, the da Silva brothers have been in Manchester for three seasons already, and Phil Jones and Ashley Young will turn out to be great value at less than £20million each.

Playing equally significant parts – on yesterday’s showings at least – will be two attacking players returning from a season away on loan, and now ready to take their place in United’s frontline squad. Tom Cleverley will have learnt a great deal from a – successful – relegation battle at Wigan, while Danny Welbeck led the line and scored goals at Sunderland. With the pressure on to succeed in every competition – and the consistently high level of competitiveness in the Premier League guaranteeing very few easy games – it has become difficult for the top sides to blood their most promising youngsters.

The loan system is increasingly valuable in allowing players like Cleverley and Welbeck – not to forget the man (boy?) who’s rapidly becoming the fulcrum of Arsenal’s midfield, Jack Wilshere, who became street-wise after a few months at Bolton the year before – to get top-level experience before returning to their parent club to hit the ground running. Cleverley has been out on loan for three consecutive seasons. He now – like teammate Welbeck – finds himself in the England squad for this week’s friendly against the Netherlands. The loyalty of a one-club player deserves its recognition, but it must be beneficial for young players to see how things work in a different dressing room, with different approaches and targets and battles a world away from the Champions League final and Barcelona.

Before we get carried away, it’s worth acknowledging that it’s been a long time since a Manchester United graduate made the grade at Old Trafford. A lot was thought of Darren Gibson and Jonny Evans, but time is running out for both of them. Cleverley and friends are not there yet. The young goalkeeper, David de Gea, didn’t inspire a lot of confidence, while – for all the talk of Wesley Sneijder, or another to rival the Dutchman’s creative talents – it’s the ball-winning position in central midfield where a real void remains to be filled.

As for Mancini’s men in blue, they will – must – play better than they did yesterday. It’s easy to forget that they have the attacking talents of last season’s loanees Craig Bellamy, Emmanuel Adebayor and Roque Santa Cruz, available if needed. It’s unlikely that they will be. Sergio Aguero wasn’t allowed to step off the bench and show us what he can do yesterday, and Carlos Tevez – for all of the complexity that surrounds him off the pitch – has never been short of commitment or ability on it. City are not going away anytime soon. For the moment though, at the beginning of this season, Manchester United remain – as Rooney put it – “the team to beat.”

Premier League season preview Part II – Standing Still Means Going Backwards

Tom Sheldrick is a freelance writer and can be reached at: