The media consider us to be fifth favourites to win the Premier League (City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs, since you’re wondering). The schedule opens with a hopefully straightforward home game against Sheffield United, before we take to the road for the not inconsiderable challenge of Arsenal. August should give us a reasonable gauge of how the season will turn out. It’s difficult to see beyond the two big boys of the division, but who knows?
In the meantime, here’s a look at the 25-man squad we’ve assembled, the boys to entertain you, which would make a marked difference from what they did during the dirty Jose days, am I right?
In my account of the FM 2018 game with Manchester United, I called my blog De Gea Plus Ten. The reason for that, reasonably enough I’m sure you’ll agree, is the presence in my side of the demi-god that is David De Gea (28, ). Even if the gloss has washed away a little, David remains a great keeper with perfect reflexes. He’s still in the conversation when it comes to discussions about the best in the world, though that might say more about those sorts of conversations than it does the guy’s quality (how long past his best did people still bang on about Casillas? Cassy-arse, more like). In any event, we feel we’re in safe hands in David’s, er, hands, an important player for us who seems happy enough just to be here.
Every good side needs a great goalkeeper. We’re lucky in that regard, but you can’t say the same for the poor Joes who are warming the bench and haunting the reserves. United’s main back-up is Sergio Romero (32, ), who has somehow clawed his way to 96 caps for Argentina but is some way off the pace, indeed he’s turned out for his country more than half the number of times he has played for his various teams, over a career that stretches back to 2003. His best years were with AZ Alkmaar and Sampdoria, where he started regularly, but elsewhere it’s been a bit hit and miss, and in his four years here he’s made a total of seven league appearances. For all that Sergio looks a decent alternative if the worst comes to the worst for David, not that any of this will stop me from putting him up for sale when the opportunity presents itself.
As for Lee Grant (36, ), this season – his second with us – will be his last. I can understand the reasons why we acquired him. Sensible teams sign a third choice keeper, ideally someone who will only trouble the first team at the direst end of need. But he’s a makeweight, nothing more, and I guess he has to be happy enough with the £30,000 we’re paying him weekly for doing absolutely nothing. The future is hopefully represented by Dean Henderson (22, ), on loan with Sheffield United again and, on this occasion, getting to test himself and develop within the heady climes of the English top flight.
We sold Ashley Young because he was ageing, on the decline and commanding a big wage for someone I barely expect to play. It helped my decision that we have Aaron Wan-Bissaka (21, ), a £45 million capture from Crystal Palace who spent the entirety of 2018/19 playing in such a way to wave his hand about, demanding the attention of passing bigger teams. These are early days for Aaron. The last season was his breakthrough, so our acquisition of him represents a gamble, though I think it will be a happy one. With natural pace and acceleration, and fantastic technique in the tackle, we want to see his numbers improve throughout his first term with us. His back-up, still considered a prospect by the club, is Diogo Dalot (20, ), signed from Porto for £19.5 million in 2018 and having made 16 league appearances for us. Part of me thinks we should have kept Ashley on as a wise old head and found a loan move for Diogo. He’s very raw. But he brings a nice complement of skills, excelling in the attacking areas whereas Aaron is more of a defender currently. My main aim for this year is to blood Diogo in Europe and see how it goes. He’s had an impressive pre-season.
So the only natural player we had on the books when I joined was Luke Shaw (24, ). Marcos Rojo could fill in here, but oops I sold him. Matteo Darmian, excised to Parma, was another possibility, but neither was a left-back by trade, which leaves Luke, now a veteran of the side but with so much still to prove. While there’s nothing really wrong with him, particularly his mighty fine pace, he gives the impression of being one bad tackle away from a six month lay-off, which is why I have sought a second player for this role. I didn’t want to spend huge money, and after looking at the likes of Aaron Martin (Mainz didn’t want to sell) and Jordi Alba (transfer listed by Barcelona, but only gettable at a heavy price), I plumped for Borussia Dortmund’s Marcel Schmelzer (31, ). The German’s age should give you an idea of how long-term a signing I expect him to be. He’s here for now, because he can provide cover, because he’s here, but his numbers look absolutely fine and he’s amassed 16 international caps during his long career. Essentially I’ve put this one off for now, but I expect ultimately to draft someone in who’ll really challenge Luke’s place. It could even be Brandon Williams (18, ) who stakes his claim in the end. The teenager is spending the year with Bolton Wanderers, hoping to get in some quality game time and hone his skills. He’s some way off, but the place is potentially up for grabs.
Successive managers have been adding central defenders to the squad for some time now, with none coming close to equalling the great Sralex partnerships of Bruce and Pallister, or Vidic and Ferdinand. Good money has been spent also, on players whose contribution has rarely come close to meeting their exorbitant price-tags. This summer, they went a step further and broke the world record for a defender to bring in Harry Maguire (26, ). Impressive spending no doubt, and almost certainly £80 million was bang over the odds for even a fine professional like Slabhead, but it does mean we have a tall, strong and organised centre-half who removes the need to look for someone to fill this role at the present.
Who partners him is a choice between several players who have happily failed to convince all their critics yet have something to offer. The pick is probably Victor Lindelof (25, ), whose qualities are much the same as Maguire’s, to my mind, and is clearly at least pretty good. He still has much to prove, though. The same can be said for Eric Bailly (25, ), a no-nonsense £32.5 million acquisition so under-valued that I’m recommended not to renew his contract due to the unlikelihood of him winning a new work permit. I respectfully disagree. It’s no effort to trigger the two-year extension to his deal, because I’m happier keeping this hard tackling strong man around than giving him away. The coaching team’s feelings, what feels like a blase attitude by the club to blowing big wads of cash money, is giving me a strong hint about the high rolling, consequence-free, short-term thinking that has brought United to where it is.
Phil Jones (27, ) is on the transfer list when I arrive, a status I quickly restore to normality. I don’t love Phil, or even think he’s much more than a squad player, but I think he has more to offer than just letting him go, at least until Chris Smalling returns in 2020 and I get to make the choice of who to keep between these two English, distinctly average ballers. The answer may yet be Axel Tuanzebe (21, ), the back-up on the fringes of our first team who will mainly be honing his skills in the Stiffs. I see him as a decent alternative at any rate, and you have to respect the presence of homegrown players who can come in and do a job even among such lavishly signed peers. All told, a reasonable group of players, with room for improvement and fortunate enough to have De Gea behind them.
United had no one to fill this role as a natural fit and I wasted no time in sealing a £15.5 million deal to bring Lucas Leiva (32, ) back to England. Despite previously spending a full decade at Liverpool, the Brazilian is only 32 and remains at the top of his game. I think we will appreciate his organisation, his technical abilities and his sense of leadership in one of the most important positions on the pitch. More critically, he gives us breathing room while we go and look for the younger, longer term future of this position. There are some great DMs available for a side with deep pockets like ours – we’d love to see Florentino Luis here, or failing that perhaps West Ham’s Declan Rice takes your fancy. Minds greater than ours are working on this, and in the meantime we get a top professional like Lucas to hold the place.
You think about the great midfield partnerships of recent history, like Gattuso and Pirlo, or Keane and Scholes, or Simeone and Veron, or Makelele and Lampard, and you appreciate that we aren’t there yet. I would argue we have half of that dream team when I arrive in the shape of Paul Pogba (26, ), and I’m sure he sees himself that way. In his bloated ego’s way he’s probably about right too. He’s my choice as United captain, part of my campaign to make him feel as though he matters, and in any event I reckon I’d be bonkers not to build the side around him, to provide a showcase for his vaunted talents. Technically he has it all, and his physical attributes are off the scale, so it seems our future lies in this pampered prince of a footballer, to whom we have promised Champions League qualification in order to keep him happy. And that seems a fair enough deal to me.
United have no one who comes close to meeting Paul’s levels of excellence. Not Ander Herrera, who was given away in the summer, nor Nemanja Matic, who I happily sold off upon my arrival. Don’t look for the answers in Fred (26, ), something of an albatross after being the subject of a loadsamoney bid and never hitting the heights. I’m ambivalent about him and make it clear that he’s no more to me than a squad player, Pogba’s back-up in reality. If we can find a buyer who is prepared to spend a bit of dough on him then fair enough, he can go, but for now Fred’s torturous time in England is set to continue. The other consideration is Scott McTominay (22, ), an Academy product who I don’t see as anything more than a squad option, but useful and willing nonetheless. Scott’s game time has increased in recent seasons. He’s like the modern Darren Fletcher, not a star by our standards but perfectly reasonable as a ball winning midfielder, and someone who can be viewed as a consummate team player.
I have spent the bulk of my transfer monies on Rodrigo Bentancur (22, ), a £50 million signing from Zebre who is expecting to do nothing less than grow into the deep lying complement to Pogba. A big ask truly, but I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think the Uruguayan was capable, and what has really impressed me is his high work rate, his sheer determination, a quality I want the entire side to develop as they push for the heights. Bentancur has built a winner’s reputation, and this is what I want the squad to have as a whole. And if he helps to keep Mr Paul happy then I guess we’re all fine with that.
Finally there’s Academy honed Andreas Pereira (23, ), at the moment the third ranked advanced playmaker but who I hope will walk into Fred’s shoes before too long. Capable of playing in a more attacking role as well as centrally, the young Brazilian comes with a level of flexibility that I really appreciate, but he’s nothing like a finished product yet. He has a high level of technique and flair that might serve us very well in the years to come. Everyone loves a good dribbler, don’t they?
Attacking Right Wingers
Without a good, natural fit in this role we have had to put our hands in our pockets and came up with Federico Bernardeschi (25, ), part of the Juventus squad who became less celebrated as the signings around him grew flashier. I’ll admit to being excited about working with the Italian international, who ticks all the boxes as an inverted winger and brings a dedicated work rate to the cause. My hope that it all works out is underlined by his loan status, which will turn into a costly permanent transfer in summer 2020.
Jesse Lingard (26, ) is the alternative, a homegrown product who can play pretty much anywhere across attacking midfield whilst being master of none of those zones. There’s a welter of bad feeling from the supporters towards Jesse; they suspect that when it comes down to it he isn’t good enough. For now, I disagree. What impresses me is that he makes up for his comparative lack of technical qualities with a fierce determination and willingness to run himself into the ground. Every team needs that, and his graduation from the Academy is something on which we frankly can’t put a price.
Attacking Left Wingers
United are blessed here, lopsided really, with two top drawer practitioners and a plucky youngster who could develop into a star. The riches begin with Anthony Martial (23, ), who can play equally comfortably on the wing or up front, and who will almost certainly be fielded in the latter role for now. Van Gaal signed the Frenchman in 2015, and since then he’s gone on to make a varied contribution – sometimes essential, at other moments lacking form and suffering a string of niggling injuries. I really rate him. At 23 Anthony has room for improvement still, is a good finisher and rates very highly in terms of flair. Football is more exciting with people like Anthony being involved in it.
As I mentioned I will normally be using him as my striker, mainly because it’s a choice between him and Marcus Rashford (21, ). Both are natural wingers, but Anthony is closer in terms of his qualities as an outright forward, whereas the young Englishman is to my mind more devastating from the flank. The jury remains out on just how good Marcus is. Some see him as rated far higher than his actual ability, which is wholly unfair on a player who’s still developing despite being part of the United wallpaper for four years. Rashers is lightning fast, knows where the goal is, and crucially works and works and works to get the result. I think he is becoming an important part of the cause, and I am fully prepared to support him.
Which leaves Daniel James (21, ), signed from Swansea for £15 million in the period before I arrived. Daniel knows the drill – this season is his opportunity to grow into the side, playing back-up to Marcus and getting chances in the first team, where his talent as possibly the side’s fastest player is augmented with improving crossing abilities. The pressure is not on him, and he knows this. Only a fool would have their entire season depend on such young shoulders, whereas I think he could grow into something a bit special.
Attacking Central Midfielders
There are plenty of players who can fill this role – Pogba, Pereira, Lingard – but only one obvious choice, which is Juan Mata (31, ). Celebrated beard wearer and winning awards as the nicest guy you could ever hope to meet, Juan is one of those players who leaves you constantly trying to find better options while quietly making himself essential. I know what I’m talking about. I chewed over the idea of replacing him with James Rodriguez, on the Real Madrid transfer list but of course an utter superstar, and in the end Juan’s age acts against him. We’re a young side and the temptation is to usurp him for a much fresher model. For now we’re stuck with him, which is a bit like going into the shop to buy The Queen is Dead and leaving with Meat is Murder instead i.e. it’s okay and possibly better, in fact. Technically and in mental categories there are few who offer more, and the trick will no doubt be to keep him happy and then sell him next summer as he’s entering the last year of his contract and his powers are beginning to wane.
United are potentially short on numbers here after the sale of Romelu Lukaku and our failure to replace him. For the record I’ve absolutely no problem with letting the Belgian go and getting good money for him. Lukaku on paper has everything, carrying the best qualities of much smaller men physically while still being a behemoth of a player, but in reality he seemed an ever more lumbering presence up front. Goodbye and good luck to him then, but mainly goodbye. I’ll miss his uncanny ability to score goals from the ball rebounding from bits of his enormous body and into the net.
In his place the choices are Martial, Rashford, and 17 year old Mason Greenwood (17, ), who I have sent out on loan to Aston Villa where hopefully he’ll play many games, help to keep the Midlanders up and return to us a better player. To fill the hole we’ve signed Moussa Dembele (23, ), who comes with the stigma of having excelled in the Scottish Premier League but is still perfectly good enough to act as second fiddle to Martial. Relatively cheap at £22 million, after he achieved an almost ‘one goal for every two matches’ record in his one season at Lyon, Moussa is just fine as an advanced forward and probably our best natural finisher. In reality he’s a stop-gap, someone we could get relatively inexpensively while we wait for the funds that allow us to procure a god, or wait for Greenwood to reach a level of divinity, yet the chance is his and hopefully he can take it.