For a second consecutive season, Manchester United will cut the the ribbon to the new premier league season at Old Trafford on Saturday lunchtime. However, fans will be hoping that Louis van Gaal and his players get off to a much better start than they did last summer.
The New Boys
Having already spent the best part of £80m on new players, United are one of the big spenders in the market again. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin, and Matteo Darmian have, notwithstanding anything else, made United stronger than last season. Sergio Romero will provide the insurance cover in goal, pending the sale of David De Gea and or the signing of a replacement for the Spaniard.
It's not to suggest that the squad is free of blemish but with five new names added to the side, and ahead of the third season post Sir Alex Ferguson, there is a growing pressure around the club to finally deliver a season that will put all references to the great Scot to bed.
Having tried and tested no less than 8786 different formations last season, Louis van Gaal has finally settled for the 4-3-3 varied to a 4-2-3-1 formation ahead of the campaign. Contrary to what we believed, it appears that the manager brought in Memphis Depay to make a direct contribution in front of goals opposed to making inroads for the team out wide. If that is the genuine case, then perhaps it makes sense why LVG has not pushed out the boat for a 30 goal centre-forward that he yearned for towards the end of the previous campaign.
United should at least benefit from starting the season with formation that they will stick to throughout the season as opposed to the in-game experimentation for 7 months of the last season.
Of the sides that finished above the Red Devils last season, only Arsenal have made 'an improvement signing' so far. Petr Cech might have solved a decade long problem for them. I don't however believe that across the street City have made significant improvement with the addition of Raheem Sterling. In any event, their problem was never scoring goals. Chelsea have also remained pretty still meaning that for all the problems that still exist in Louis van Gaal's squad, United at least have not fallen further behind their rivals.
The downside though is that whereas those above us do not need to bed in many new faces, the jury is is still out on how United's new boys shall fare especially those making their premier league debuts.
In his 3 year plan for Manchester United over the course of his contract, Louis van Gaal had United pencilled in for a league title in his second season but definitely in ink after his third season if the second didn't go according to plan. The general expectation is that in the least, United must put up a fight for the league title going into April 2016. There will not be any champagne on offer because United are in the Champions League positions. The target will be steeper this time.
In any event, winning a league title has almost always been about endurance of squad over 10 months and hardly about the presence of a world class player in a team. Liverpool found that out to their cost a couple of seasons ago. Chelsea became more about their defence than den Hazard in the second half of last season.
It is understandable though to figure what van Gaal probably meant. The games that are beyond United now are those when the opposition 'park the bus' and hit United on the break. It's a tactic that has been used to frustrate Arsene Wenger for a decade and one that Sir Alex has himself employed to get the better of his opposite number. LVG has got to get United to vary it a lot more often to avoid United being predictable. The English Premier League thrives and rewards directness (which is why Ashley Young's style makes him a vital cog in the mix these days) and therefore, it will be a tad naive to approach all games next season without the necessary variety to overcome 38 different challenges.
It's not yet clear who the club intend to push out on loan and who shall remain to supplement the senior side but Louis van Gaal cannot complain about the youthful talent at his disposal. Having handed a record number of players their debuts last season, it remains to be seen whether the fiery Dutchman has first team plans for many of the players on the fringes of the first team.
Adnan Januzaj, Jesse Lingaard, Paddy McNair, Tyler Blackett and Adreas Perreira already look like they can make the step up to the first team if only to supplement the squad when the manager rotates his team. Certainly, a good League Cup run will aid them beef up their tally of appearances.
Last term, injuries made certain that Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett enjoyed more football than they would have hoped for at the start of the campaign. Given that United have not added to their options in central defence and that the injury-prone duo Phil Jones and Chris Smalling remain a tear away from the treatment table, the Irishman and Englishman should yet again see more action this season.
Januzaj seems likely to adopt the 'Memphis Depay route' upfront as Louis van Gaal's other decoy striker. Again, given that United have not strengthened in terms of an out and out striker having got rid of Radamel Falao and Robin van Persie, it is conceivable that the Belgian shall see a lot more game-time than he did last season.
It is Lingard and Perreira who have it all to do to break somewhere into a midfield that now boasts 12 players. Ironically, of the lot, it is the pair that looked the most promising on tour. Lingaard has already served and excelled at more than a season on loan and it feels like he should be kept as part of the first team whilst Perreira is a natural talent that can be harnessed into something really special at the cub for a long time. Given the ever increasing prices of talents these days, United would be smart to keep a hold of theirs this time.
The Fixture List
The fixture list has been reasonably kind to United but there's hardly an 'easy' game in the Premier League. That said, United have it in them to make a perfect start in August and September. In fact, bar the visit to Wales in late August and St. Marys in mid-September, on paper, United do not have many problems. Games against Spurs and Liverpool are at Old Trafford where the expectation will be to win. It does get rocky in October though, with the only home game being the Manchester derby. It promises to be a testing month with the possibility of Champions League football in between.
Ultimately, United have an easier last 7 games than they did last season. If up to April 2016, United are still in it, the fixture list suggests we should fancy them for a crack at the title.
Having achieved the minimum requirement of getting United back in Europe, Louis van Gaal will be under considerable pressure from the media, fans and indeed his employers to make a second season in charge count for progression. At the moment, that stands at anything between challenging for the title and winning it. If a bad start ultimately proved the undoing of United last season then the impetus should be on getting United to start well this time round. 2015/16 will be the first season since 2013 that United have started a campaign with the same manager who finished the last. It is therefore a matter of expectation that the patience the Old Trafford faithful have shown the new man in each of the seasons before will not be a requirement this time round. Even so, United in their current shape are good enough to win at least one of the two domestic Cup competitions on offer. They were good enough for the FA Cup last season and bar a terrible back pass from Valencia, would have won it. Delivering a first trophy post-Ferguson is quickly becoming an itch that must be scratched.
To sum up what would be expected of United this season would be to attempt to define something between success and reasonable success. It's just as well then that the catch phrase for the new Adidas shirt is ''Breaking Expectations''; for 2015/16 can only be seen as such if United achieve beyond our respective hopes in the new season!