Three reasons why Man United shouldn’t be ruled out of the title race
Ned Bristow examines three reasons why Manchester United shouldn't be discounted in the Premier League title race
1) Rooney and Depay’s lockers
Club Brugge may not be among the strongest outfits any Premier League side will face this season, but take nothing away from Manchester United’s performances in their Champions League qualifiers. Memphis Depay and then Wayne Rooney provided stunning displays in the first and second leg respectively, and those performances would have been excellent regardless of the opposition in front of them. The hard truth is that those players – along with their attacking colleagues – have not replicated that form in domestic competition. Be it the pressure of a slow league start or the debilitating mental side of the Premier League’s marathon format as opposed to the quick-fire nature of knockout competition, Rooney and Depay, along with Juan Mata and United’s other attacking outlets, have not translated their aggressive forward play into their opening English fixtures. Having scored just three goals in their opening four games, there is cause for concern regarding United’s slow and fruitless attacking build-up play, but we have seen that the goals can flow from the current crop. Rooney is one goal off equalling the all-time England record with 48, and also has 233 for United since his move from Everton in 2004. This is a man who can score goals in most formations, and if Louis van Gaal can accommodate him in a familiar position then he will reap the rewards and see Rooney return to the blistering form that has seen him terrorise defences for the entirety of his Premier League career. Similarly, Depay scored 22 Eredivisie goals for PSV last season, and his two goals in the first leg against Club Brugge showed that he can provide the goals and creativity that can launch United back into contention.
2) More to come at the back
Before Sunday’s defeat in Swansea, United had conceded just once in their opening five competitive fixtures. With David De Gea out of the picture, Sergio Romero had put in a series of promising performances before yesterday’s shaky display in south Wales. However, the signs are there that Romero could provide performances to help United back to the top, and he will be the main beneficiary of the return to fitness of two key defenders. Phil Jones and, perhaps more importantly, Marcos Rojo have missed the opening stage of the season, which has led to the ever-improving Chris Smalling being partnered by natural midfielder Daley Blind. Rojo has been given extended leave following Argentina’s Copa America final defeat, but should return imminently and will surely stake a claim for a prolonged partnership with Smalling at the heart of defence. This would provide a more natural pairing, and also allow Van Gaal more flexibility in formation given Blind’s adaptability and admirable performances thus far. With a more concrete defence featuring either Phil Jones or the more experienced Rojo – who himself is not a 100% natural centre-half – United could plug the gaps that were exposed against the Swans and, while another more experienced centre-half would not go amiss, the return of the injured duo will help the club no end in their pursuit of a title challenge. With full backs Matteo Darmian and Luke Shaw leading by example so far, it could only take a consistent and comfortable pairing to get United back to the top.
3) Distracting De Gea
Despite admirable performances in his opening performances, questions still remain over Romero’s ability to provide a long-term option in the United goal. With Van Gaal standing strong in his refusal to include De Gea in the first-team, while his Real Madrid transfer saga lingers on, distractions are rife at Old Trafford. It cannot be an easy time for Romero, knowing his place in the side hangs in the balance and almost certainly depends entirely on Real’s next potential offer. Van Gaal has been open in admitting that De Gea will be considered should he still be a United player on 2 September, and rightly so – the Spaniard has been the club’s player of the year for the past two seasons and has fast become one of the best goalkeepers in the world despite a shaky start to life in Manchester. His on-going saga is having an effect on the entire squad, who perhaps doubt their ability to push for the title should the 24-year-old return home to Madrid. A return to action for the Spanish number one would be as good as a new signing, and would help settle the defence as well as reinvigorate the attacking unit. If the club are to compete for titles, world class talent in key positions is something they need, and de Gea must stay to match Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal in that respect. Thibaut Courtois, Joe Hart and Petr Cech represent some of the world’s finest goalkeepers, and de Gea’s performances would make the difference between another fourth place push and a title challenge. Should he leave, Romero will need to settle quickly and will need the support of his teammates if he is to replicate the performances that have seen him make 65 Argentina appearances since 2009. At his best, Romero can challenge his Premier League rivals as the last line of defence and help boost United into the discussion at the top.