Manchester United season preview – A new dawn rises at United, and all for beating Barcelona

Despite capturing the Premier League last season and reaching their third European final inside four years, Manchester United have spent the summer reassessing, with improvements as extensive as they have been fast.

In light of Barcelona’s second dominate display in a Champions League final against his men, Sir Alex Ferguson’s focus has been about restructuring the English champions, even at the end of a season that saw them secure the League title by the biggest points margin in six years.

Ferguson described the 3-1 Wembley defeat as the worst ‘hiding’ he had ever experienced at the club, and declared within days of the final that his intention was to stay for at least three more years, and to catch the Catalans.

Primary work towards reaching that target is reflected in two key areas – transfer strategy and playing style. The club’s market activity is tantamount to an upheaval, with the retiring experience Edwin van der Sar, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes replaced with quick-fire signatures of David de Gea, Phil Jones and Ashley Young. At the same time, Wes Brown and John O’Shea are high-profile sales, with the manager expected to increase further his use of Chris Smalling and Fabio and Rafael da Silva in key first-team roles, and Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck anticipated to then regularly make matchday squads.

With plenty of new faces coming into the senior set-up, pre-season has shown signs of a new style of play also emerging. Performances in the US tour, that included a 2-1 win over a weakened Barcelona team, have seen a passing and tactical fluidity seemingly re-enter the Red Devils’ styling, whilst the comeback 3-2 Community Shield win over Manchester City also offers promise of this characteristic being transferred into competition proper.

However, central midfield remains a notable weak-point, and in David Gill’s admittance that they are unlikely to bring in one of their targeted central playmakers, it is where the biggest question mark over the team’s potential remains. How far United can go in retaining the League and pushing for yet another meeting with Barcelona, could well be determined by either United’s late work in the transfer window, or Ferguson’s tactical insight to make the most of what is available.

Crucially for developing United, time is on their side, with the average age of the squad dropping rapidly this summer, and League opponents enviously eyeing the defending champions’ squad, packed with potential and variety both in defence and attack.

Barcelona may have ended the 2010-11 campaign on a sour note for the red half of Manchester, but in prompting the significant changes made this summer, they may have inadvertently heralded the dawn of another Manchester United team’s growth into dominance, at least domestically.

Favourites for the League again, you get the sense that Ferguson’s main focus however, will be on Europe. Indeed, as a side being prepared for Barcelona, how they fare in 2011-12 may only be determined by how close they get to the Allianz Arena on May 19, and if Barca are there too, how close they get to Pep Guardiola’s men.

Manager – Sir Alex Ferguson: Ferguson will celebrate 25 years at Manchester United in November – likely to be marked with the home game against Sunderland – and turns 70 midway through the season. However, his motivation remains, and is best reflected in his players’ attitude on the pitch.

Key signing – David de Gea: At just 20, De Gea’s shining potential is what prompted United’s £18.9m investment. However, in facing the challenge of replacing Edwin van der Sar and with a sense of continuity the team will demand, United’s youngest first-choice goalkeeper in years may find it is his spirit that will be most tested.

Key departure – Paul Scholes: So far, the player described by Ferguson as irreplaceable, has proven irreplaceable in light the team’s active but unsuccessful search this summer. His creativity, experience and commitment leaves a significant, Scholes-shaped hole in the squad, and has likely prompted a tactical refocus in the middle of the park.

Possible XI:

De Gea

Rafael – Vidic – Ferdinand – Evra

Nani – Carrick – Fletcher – Young

Hernandez – Rooney

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