By Alison ChinFollow @@AlisonChin9
The rollercoaster ride that was the previous campaign will be fresh in the minds of Red Devils fans, especially the manner in which the team imploded inches from the finishing line and handed the title to Manchester City. Although United stalwarts Rio Ferdinand and Paul Scholes conceded that Roberto Mancini's squad deserved to nick the championship, they are motivated by the last-gasp loss to wrest the title back.
Sir Alex Ferguson's team might not be licking their wounds in public, but they will be determined to prevent a repeat of what happened last term. Nonetheless, the upcoming season is likely to be one emphasized on rebuilding and transition.
The old guard - an asset and a liability
A quick glance through the United team sheet will reveal several players on the wrong side of 30. The likes of Ferdinand, Patrice Evra and Ryan Giggs no longer possess the speed or stamina they used to, but are still considered important fixtures of the first team.
One cannot blame Ferguson for his continued faith in these experienced heads, as young guns like Phil Jones and Tom Cleverley still need time to prove themselves consistent and dependable players. As United new boy Shinji Kagawa will require a bedding-in period, one can expect Scholes and Giggs to still feature in the first half of the season. However, Ferguson will keep a close watch on the physical condition of the old guard, so as to ensure they remain options in case of a recurrence of last season's injury crisis.
With this campaign being Scholes' swansong, the aging playmaker will be phased out as the season progresses, for the Red Devils manager to ascertain the readiness of the next generation of midfield generals. Antonio Valencia will be expected to pick up where he left off in the last campaign, while Ashley Young must put a torrid Euro 2012 campaign behind him. Playing time will also be a precious commodity for Anderson and Nani, both of whom must make the most of their opportunities after an extended stay on the treatment table.
The rotation of midfielders looks secure, but the United manager will be wary of doing so in defence. Jonny Evans deputized well in captain Nemanja Vidic's absence, and he may well be Ferguson's saving grace, affording the Scot the option of rotating between Ferdinand, Vidic and Evans in central defence. Had Evans failed in his task to replace Vidic, the Red Devils boss would be left with the inexperience of Jones and Chris Smalling, both of whom lack the proficiency required to step into Vidic or Ferdinand's shoes.
After being spurned by England manager Roy Hodgson for Euro 2012, 33-year old Ferdinand will be eager to prove he still has what it takes to play at the highest level, while Ferguson will be hoping the long injury lay-off has not dulled Vidic's no-nonsense style. There is also distinct lack of cover for Evra, after Ferguson sent Fabio out on-loan. The experienced Frenchman was a shadow of his former self last season, and was criticised by United supporters for his lacklustre performances.
Although the Red Devils were heavily linked with Everton's Leighton Baines earlier in the summer, speculation has since cooled. Ferguson appears to have placed much of his efforts pursuing Lucas Moura and Robin van Persie, overlooking the left side of defence. Unless the Scot has an ace up his sleeve or Evra returns to form, rival clubs will surely take advantage of this chink in the armour.
Versatility in midfield
The centre of the park is an area where the Scot has a bevy of options, with an ideal mix of youth and experience.
Ferguson will look to shift some playmaking responsibilities from Scholes to Kagawa by slotting in the former Borussia Dortmund man in the hole, a position Kagawa favours. Playing in the increasingly popular 4-2-3-1 formation could see the Japanese support Rooney, while flanked by Young and Valencia, allowing Scholes to take on a deep-lying playmaker role alongside Carrick.
The Old Trafford faithful will be eager to see what Kagawa has under the bonnet. To his credit, the Japanese appears comfortable with early expectations. Despite critics questioning his ability to adapt to the physical nature of the Premier League, Kagawa's industrious nature and intelligence should see him do well in his debut season.
As Ferguson's unsung hero of the previous campaign, Carrick has proven his versatility by playing at centre-back for a few of the team's pre-season fixtures. His absence in midfield was easily countered by Ferguson reverting to a traditional 4-4-2, with Kagawa, Cleverley, and Scholes available to fill the two central midfield spots. The surprise return of Darren Fletcher will also be an added boost to the Red Devils' ranks, with his versatility and unquestionable commitment to the team's cause.
With Young, Kagawa, Cleverley and Scholes providing the creativity, Valencia supplying the runs and penetration down the flanks, Nani's skills on the ball and the untapped potential of new signing Nick Powell, the Red Devils midfield might just be what powers the team to success.
Overreliance on Rooney must end
As United's main man upfront, Rooney blasted himself to fourth place on the club's all-time scorers list last season. Despite the accolade, the Englishman will not soon forget the mid-campaign slump he experienced.
Rooney's barren run started in the middle of September and lasted till early December. The Red Devils were leading the league table then, but relinquished top spot to City when their principle striker struggled to make chances count. Although Rooney's form returned and his goals pushed United back into the lead at the tail end of the campaign, strikes from an additional source could have eased the pressure on his shoulders.
An extended run as Rooney's partner earned Welbeck a place on the PFA Young Player of the Year shortlist, and the striker bolstered his reputation by scoring at Euro 2012. Welbeck is recognized as a player that has been steadily improving, but for all his intelligence on the ball and movement off it, he has yet to prove a consistent scorer.
Hitting the back of the net posed little difficulty for Hernandez in his debut season, but the Mexican's form has suffered after being plagued by injuries in the last campaign. Chicharito is still favoured by Ferguson, but the former Guadalaraja striker has not looked particularly impressive in pre-season performances so far.
It is for these reasons, that Robin van Persie enters stage left. Last season's Golden Boot winner chose the Red Devils over City and you can bet the United manager intends to make full use of his instinct upfront.
There can be little doubt that van Persie's move will shove Welbeck and Hernandez lower in the pecking order, as the combination of playing Rooney and van Persie places big fat ticks in the finishing, pace and trickery boxes. Since both are equally comfortable playing as a lone man upfront, they could take turns playing off one another and dropping deep to create opportunities for the other to finish.
If Ferguson chooses to go all pace and agility upfront, who is to say that he will not pair van Persie and Welbeck, with Rooney playing in an advanced midfield role just behind them? The English duo would continue their supporting legwork, while van Persie's composure in front of goal should see the score-line pile up in United's favour.
The four Red Devils hitmen could form a fearsome attacking quartet upfront if the manager needs the team to go for broke. By lining up Hernandez with Rooney, opposition central defences would have their hands full dealing with the duo's agility and strength, while their full-backs would have a torrid time with van Persie cutting in from the right to take shots on his preferred left foot and Welbeck terrorizing the left flank.
A determined and driven squad
On a whole, the Red Devils will fancy their chances to regain the Premier League trophy. Unsurprisingly, defending champions City will be their biggest rivals, but United will also be feeling the heat from Arsenal and Chelsea, two teams who have strengthened their ranks considerably this summer.
While City may have enviable squad depth and talent on paper, Ferguson's men have always stayed in contention regardless of the circumstances. This season should prove no different, as the Red Devils, a squad United by desire and determination, pursue not only their 20th championship, but the start of their next period of supremacy.