They say football is a complicated sport. But in reality, it has one basic principle (like any other sport): out-score your opponent. That is something that the greatest manager in club football history - Sir Alex Ferguson - did with aplomb, leaving the rest of the league trailing in his tracks.
Broadly speaking, there are two philosophies in football:
1. The defensive school, where emphasis is given to set-pieces and the team has less possession and heavily relies on defensive solidity. Its basic thought is to nullify the opposition’s attacking threat throughout the game and score clinically whenever the chance arises at the other end.
2. The attacking school, where emphasis is given to open play creativity, more possession, and high pressing. The basic principle here is to play imaginative football freely while not caring too much about defensive duties. It works as long as you can score more than your opponent (the fundamental axiom).
Ideally, a mix of the two styles in the right proportion (which may vary with the skill sets of the players in the squad) is required to win the league.
Since Ferguson has left, it is evident that the Manchester United backline requires a new Ferdinand/Vidic-esque leader at the heart of defense. The current players would not have made the squad in the era where Gerard Pique and Jaap Stam were unused substitutes at times.
The current backline leaked 54 goals last season, and United had an abysmal goal difference of 0 when Jose Mourinho was sacked. And this was achieved while playing a defensive style of football.
Winning is the ultimate answer to critics, but neither did Mourinho and his predecessor Louis van Gaal entertain the crowd nor did they win any noteworthy silverware during their tenures. To say that winning the Europa League was the biggest victory for Manchester United just shows the fall of grace of the Red Devils, who were once considered next to Invincibles.
So by elimination, the style most suited to United is the attacking one. Frankly, this was the strategy which the great Scot adopted and which made the club one of the most loved ones around the world. Now Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will try to follow in those same footsteps.
With the pace of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, Romelu Lukaku and new addition Daniel James running at full throttle, opposition defenders will have their task cut out. The whole of the front line can interchange places and increase the attacking fluidity by several notches, making them a menace for defenses all across Europe.
Add to this the blistering runs of Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Diogo Dalot and Luke Shaw from the wings and the creativity of Paul Pogba, Andreas Pereira and Juan Mata from midfield, and United will be a force to be reckoned with when they decide to step on the gas and take oppositions apart.
Another thing that separated Manchester United in their glory days were their academy starlets. Who can forget the famous class of 92 (Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, the Neville brothers, Nicky Butt among others) which made the Red Devils nearly untouchable at the turn of the century?
Promoting the young academy products to the starting ranks certainly earns you their trust and respect, which moving forward creates the perfect dressing room atmosphere. Also their desire and hunger to prove themselves to the world are usually much higher than big name signings.
Angel Gomes has been touted as the next big star in the making but I believe it is Mason Greenwood who will be stealing hearts as well as points from the opposition. Greenwood has raw talent, with all the attributes to become the future superstar of the team - as was evident in the pre-season, where he scored two goals.
The ability to score with both feet clinically in front of the goal is a rarity nowadays, and Greenwood will fit the bill perfectly for Manchester United (just like a certain Robin van Persie, who also happens to be his idol).
This is not to discount Gomes' talents, which have deservedly earned him rave reviews from fans and critics alike. He scored a superb individual goal in the recently concluded International Champions Cup from an angle that was next to impossible to score from.
Tahith Chong and James Garner are the other academy starlets who will likely see game time (more likely in the League Cup). Another academy graduate looking to make it big this season will be Axel Tuanzebe, who impressed with Aston Villa last season. Given the injury scares in the backline, Tuanzebe will be the perfect back-up defender in the upcoming campaign.
However, it is Scott McTominay who will likely have the most impact this time around. Nemanja Matic has already started showing signs of aging and could end up as a square peg in a round hole in this vibrantly fast Man United lineup. The time has come for the veteran warhorse to move on to new pastures.
McTominay might not be the flashiest of pieces in the squad but he will surely be a vital cog in providing cover to the fragile backline. His passes are simple yet effective, and with his no-nonsense style of defending, the team will surely give the opposition creative forces a hard time.
The blockbuster addition of Harry Maguire for a reported fee of £80 million, together with Victor Lindelof (who had a great sophomore year), would finally give United a stable partnership at the back after half a decade. And in David de Gea they boast of a world class goalkeeper who can catch thunderous strikes out of thin air.
Providing the Spaniard with some leadership in the back four will take United a long way in achieving the highs of the early 2000s.
The only thing lacking right now is complete command over the players by Solskjaer. Ferguson ruled with an iron fist; no matter the stature of the player, the moment he thought he was bigger than the club (read David Beckham), he was shown the door. Pogba for one would have probably been on a new team (again) if Ferguson was still around, but it is the Frenchman's creativity in the heart of midfield that United are missing at the moment.
For now, Solskjaer might have to bear with the flashy 26-year-old because he can be a real asset if he can keep himself in the right headspace. If only Manchester United could find a player half as good as Paul Scholes and add Bruno Fernandes to the squad, then even the all-conquering Pogba would become dispensable.
The one thing that separated United from the rest of the league during its golden era was discipline. From top to bottom everyone knew their role in the club, and they certainly did know who the boss was. That helped the club stand up to the most difficult of challenges in the hardest of circumstances, and still come out victorious.
It is high time the club gets the last of its fundamentals right and gets back where it belongs - ahead of the pack.Published 06 Aug 2019, 03:29 IST