Five Questions: Manchester United
The season is almost upon us and for Manchester United, it's a chance to right the wrongs of a desperate campaign under David Moyes. The 2013-14 debacle was a season to forget but there's renewed optimism under Louis van Gaal.
There are, as ever, questions to answer regarding the Dutchman's tenure. Will Wayne Rooney make a good captain? Can United's defence keep fit? Will Ed Woodward ever make a signing?
Here are five of the most pressing concerns ...
Can United hold their own at the top?
The numbers were ugly. Against the teams who finished in last season's top four, United collected just five points from a possible 24. Against the sides in the top six, they obtained six from a possible 36. These are woeful returns and by the end of a wretched campaign, United were not battling for the title of even the Champions League; merely another also-ran in the Premier League season.
At the very least, van Gaal will be expected to put up more of a fight against the best sides. Old Trafford last season and the memory of those dark days will sting until amends are made.
The manner of those performances was perhaps the most disheartening part. The players seemed detached from the cause and almost nonplussed in the face of humiliation. It was unacceptable. Liverpool and Manchester City both eased to 3-0 victories away at Moyes' men last season and in truth, the damage should have been greater.
United will play Everton at Old Trafford on Oct. 5 and host Chelsea later that month. There is plenty of time for the new manager to bed his tactics and system in before those games roll around. By that point, the players should have their sleeves rolled up too.
What kind of captain will Rooney be?
Rooney has pushed his luck with Manchester United supporters on more than one occasion. His transfer demands have left a large question mark dangling over his commitment to the club and some sections of the fan base are unforgiving. His elevation to highest-paid player in Premier League history last season did little to endear him to the scorned faithful, still irked by his repeated attempts to leave.
This seems incongruous for a man who has served the club with distinction for 10 years and who is rapidly climbing the all-time goal-scoring chart. A few badge kisses and spectacular strikes here and there have not been enough to restore his early reputation. A glorious reign as captain could.
Eric Cantona was the last striker to captain United and he led them to the double. While it would be expecting a lot for Rooney to do the same, he is capable of great things. United fans want to see him scoring the decisive goal when the chips are down, dragging his team to victory no matter the circumstances.
There is every chance he could be a great leader and for the sake of his legacy he needs to be.
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Can the attack save the defence?
Rio Ferdinand has gone along with Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Alex Buttner. Four defenders have departed and only Luke Shaw has arrived in their stead -- and he now has a hamstring injury and will miss the first month or so of the season.
Apart from the fact a clean sheet against Swansea on Saturday would be a miracle, van Gaal might ask sections of the crowd to come with their boots every Saturday in case they need late cover at full-back. This is going to be a tough year to watch United defend -- Alan Hansen retired from the Match of the Day sofa just in time.
If they are to turn things around and get back to where they want to be, a lot will rest on the performances and output of the attackers. If Rooney, Juan Mata and Robin van Persie surge forward with the force they are capable, United stand a chance this year.
While the state of the midfield has infuriated fans for some time, the situation in defence has quickly cropped up on the agenda and is a serious issue. Van Gaal wants to play three at the back but United are terribly injury prone. Shaw and Jonny Evans' injuries are just the continuation of a theme.
Which nearly men will step up?
There are too many passengers in the current squad. Van Gaal is apparently willing to wash his hands of Nani and Anderson already, which should come as no surprise. Similarly, the squad is full of personnel who have yet to take the step from adequate to excellent.
The continued presence of Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones would make former captain and all-round perfectionist Roy Keane blow a gasket. Flashes of promise are not good enough anymore; United need these players to take the bull by the horns and play well for long stretches of time.
Despite some promising performances in America, Ashley Young is yet to win over the majority of supporters. Nonetheless, he looks most likely to rise to the challenge so far.
Will United persist with Woodward?
Executive vice chairman Ed Woodward has copped most of the blame for United's ongoing indecision and failure in the transfer market. While his work in exploiting the club's commercial potential is impressive, his new role regarding player acquisition has proved too difficult for a man who can close deals for potato and paint providers but seemingly not players.
There is pride in the global profile of the club but there is something unseemly about the continued sale of the institution's image. Without the hostile Glazer takeover, there would be no need for these extraneous revenue streams and less manipulation of the famous red jersey.
Woodward's predecessor David Gill was dubbed "safe-hands" in the transfer market -- though more out of gentle ribbing than hero worship as he was not without his flaws -- while the former has witnessed little in the way of success in three transfer markets (signing Mata aside). Gill suffered his fair share of snubs but he is a well-known and respected man in the game. Woodward has struggled to schmooze his way into European football's top brass to broker deals.
Last summer's festival of incompetence was damaging and the 24 hours in which he signed Ander Hererra and Shaw earlier this summer do not make up for it. As a ruthless corporate man, the question can reasonably be asked -- would Woodward sack himself? Few would be sorry to see him go.