And so it begins. For the 25th season of England’s top division, it’s most successful club will be under considerable pressure to at least make a fist of it having finished a lowly sixth last term. Because of the communal sharing of revenue down the league, the challenge has grown ever bigger in terms of genuine domestic rivals, so much so that it is unlikely that simply defending the league is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Indeed to win three on the trot, a feat that United achieved twice in the 25 years of the league, is no longer conceivable in a league whose unpredictability gets stronger with each passing season.
Sir Alex Ferguson always alluded to the tribalism in the country as a factor that made it hard for the club to pay much attention to European dominance. You are never short of a challenge domestically. Indeed, only this week, the fiery Scott said that he’d have treated Tuesday’s Super Cup game against Real Madrid as a friendly! Such is the draining effect of the premier league that you now need two good ‘XI’s to challenge both domestically and in Europe.
Not that any of this will come as mitigation in May if United fail to significantly improve their placing from last season. The club was largely afforded the leeway of a poor domestic season because of the success enjoyed in Cup competitions. Transitioning from a Cup team to the more consistent demands of a league season is the challenge before Jose Mourinho this campaign. Indeed, where the club are from and where they are expected to be heading is already clear to fans and manager alike. The pressure is very much on.
United’s first assignment is to beat West Ham United at home on Sunday. As ever, the adage is true that in the premier league, there are no easy points. You’d imagine Slaven Bilic will have his side set up to frustrate United in more or less the same way they managed it last season. United on their part will be required to be more ruthless than they were in this fixture last season. Indeed, Sunday’s game is the first that allows us to test the theory of whether United have addressed their goal deficiency from last season.This is after-all, one of the many ‘winnable’ games in which United dropped two valuable points.
Essentially the argument stands that the 24 points that separated United from Champions Chelsea were borne of the numerous draws in which the club simply failed to put away the chances created. 54 goals scored over 38 games was an embarrassment for a club that prides itself in attacking football and an in-built desire to entertain. United will require at least 30 more goals added to that total to get back in the title mix.
In this regard, a word for Romelu Lukaku: The Belgian is the new face of Schadenfreude among ‘Anyone But United’ fans, honorably taking over from Paul Pogba. As a measure of the scrutiny that will be on him, his missed sitter against Real Madrid in the Europa league attracted more social media attention than the beauty that was Isco’s goal for Real Madrid. This is why it saved him a world of madness that he put away his second opportunity.
The new challenge he must come to terms with is that every chance from hereon will be documented. For all his goal scoring at Everton, his missed chances barely made the match report let alone the subject of social media. Whilst its easy to be dismissive of social media, all these players nowadays are on it and so it will not be lost on them what the Twitterratti think of their game by game performances. Some players crumble when under this sort of pressure while others live off it and so it will be revealing to find out exactly in which category Lukaku is.
The other fascinating aspect about Sunday should be which formation the manager adopts. The presumption is that three at the back is being saved for what the manager will perceive as superior opposition but that does not make his selection in terms of personnel any more obvious. For starters, many fans expect that Lindelof and Bailly will form the first choice pick at the back. However, this is a combination that we have not seen in any of the pre-season games!
The manager explained that this is because of the suspension that Bailly has to serve in the Champions League and therefore there was a need to make his available players get used to playing alongside each other. That is nice and lovely but that is a problem that we’ll only have to deal with in September……one month into the new season! Shall the four or five league games before that be subjected to uncertainty? As it stands, Bailly is our best central defender and anybody else added to him will likely look OK because of the Ivorian. He’d therefore be a first pick on Sunday, except that it would mean that we start the season with an untried pairing or without one of the manager’s summer additions to the squad! Go figure.
Ultimately, fans will care less if De Gea lines up in central defence it at the end of the evening United have three points. Whereas it is only Matchday one, such is the need to win on Sunday. So, come on you Reds!