Manchester United's starting line-up on the opening day of the season will be the most anticipated of any Premier League club, thanks to the appointment of a revered tactician and the new formation he has introduced.
Louis van Gaal is generating plenty of excitement, even if the club have not followed up his appointment with any major signings, bar two young talents they secured in the early part of the window.
So, how will Manchester United look in the coming season?
A NEW ERA
The Manchester United team which started the final game of last season - a 1-1 draw at Southampton for caretaker coach Ryan Giggs - contained three of the most influential players of the past decade at Old Trafford.
But Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic have all departed from the defence, and Giggs has also retired to remove the most decorated player in British football history from the midfield.
Both of these areas have been strengthened, with left-back Luke Shaw arriving from Southampton for £27m and Athletic Bilbao midfielder Ander Herrera joining from Athletic Bilbao for a fee of £29m.
Slotting them into the team based on last season's formation, United's XI for the new campaign would look something like this:
However, as pre-season has made clear, United will abandon this formation and adopt a new shape in a fundamental change to their approach.
A NEW FORMATION: 3-5-2
Van Gaal has delighted in instructing journalists on his tactics since joining United and he has seemingly inspired a wider movement that is challenging the prevailing orthodoxy of 4-2-3-1. Even Harry Redknapp is now going to play 3-5-2 this season - and he's brought in Glenn Hoddle to help implement it at QPR.
United's new boss alighted on the three-at-the-back system before the World Cup and used it to devastating effect, starting off Netherlands' run to the semi-finals with an emphatic destruction of Spain. But it was almost abandoned, as Van Gaal explained: "I played this system because I believe that we are not good enough to beat Spain with our normal 4-3-3 formation,. If Van Persie wouldn't have scored the 1-1 before half-time, I would've switched back to the 4-3-3 formation.”
But history twisted another way and Van Persie did score, with Netherlands establishing 3-5-2 as the new formation of the moment. Van Gaal has continued to use it during pre-season, starting with a 7-0 rout of LA Galaxy and culminating in a run of five wins in six games. As he explains, it maximises the talent at his disposal: "When you look at the quality of your players you see Rooney, Van Persie, Hernandez, Mata, Welbeck, [Marouane] Fellaini, [Ander] Herrera – a lot of players can play this system. So with this system, two strikers can play, the number 10 can play, two midfielders can play, so the specialists become the wing-backs."
Roy Hodgson describes Luke Shaw "getting fitter in global terms". Right.
— John Brewin (@JohnBrewinESPN) August 12, 2014
The two wing-backs are possibly the key point. Very early on, Van Gaal ordered Shaw to undergo individual training to build up his fitness and take him down a peg or two, but he can be expected to play given how much United paid for him.
On the right, Rafael would seem the natural fit but it is reported he will be sold, leaving Antonio Valencia as the likely choice. However, Ashley Young has also impressed in pre-season, both on the left and the right. One thing is clear: there is no room for wide midfielders who cannot defend, such as Wilfried Zaha and Nani.
Here's how United's formation is expected to work with the current players at their disposal:
Note: In practice, Mata will play in advance of Herrera and Darren Fletcher as a No. 10, though our graphic cannot reflect this)
As Van Gaal stated, this formation enables him to use both Rooney and Van Persie in their favoured positions, as well as installing Mata in the No. 10 role which brought the best out of him at Chelsea.
Fletcher has just been named vice-captain so is likely to partner Herrera in the deep roles in midfield, though Michael Carrick will also be a contender when he returns from injury and Tom Cleverley and Marouane Fellaini are further options.
However, things are rather more stretched in defence - which given the move from a four to a three is the area of the team undergoing the most critical change. In fact, as well as having only one senior specialist left wing-back, and using a winger on the right, United also have only three senior centre-backs at the club.
Worryingly, Shaw, Evans and Valencia are all doubts for the first game of the season against Swansea on Saturday. If all three injuries persist - with Rafael also sidelined - Van Gaal will already have to dip into the youth ranks, telling MUTV: “We have a lot of injuries, but it’s also a chance for the younger boys. We have a lot of injuries and it is not good.”
Left wing-back Reece James and centre-back Tyler Blackett both impressed during pre-season and played all 90 minutes as United rounded off their pre-season preparations with a 2-1 win over Valencia at Old Trafford on Tuesday night. Van Gaal's trademark willingness to trust in youth - in evidence at Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich - could see United line up against Swansea with a most unfamiliar look:
Alan Hansen once made a fool of himself by telling the great British public that "you can't win anything with kids" after an opening-day defeat for United, but we are willing to stick our necks out and say reinforcements are drastically needed if United are to reclaim their place in the top four...
HOW COULD NEW ARRIVALS CHANGE THINGS?
United fans will hope that with just under three weeks remaining of the transfer window, vice-chairman Ed Woodward has some good news up his sleeve. Last summer was a catastrophic failure and they cannot afford to miss out on their top targets again.
The possible signing of Arturo Vidal has dragged on for weeks, Thomas Vermaelen went to Barcelona, and interest in the likes of Mats Hummels has failed to transpire into anything concrete.
— Nick Sutton (@suttonnick) August 12, 2014
However, there is hope. In the past 24 hours, multiple reports have suggested that a £16m deal for Sporting Lisbon's Marcos Rojo is close, with Argentina's World Cup defender reportedly refusing to train in order to force through a move to Old Trafford.
Still just 24, he would look to slot into the left side of the back three - the role originally earmarked for Vermaelen.
Do absolutely see the sense in Man Utd moving for Marcos Rojo: athletic, good size, mobile, intelligent, left footed, ideal for a back 3
— Tor-Kristian Karlsen (@karlsentk) August 12, 2014
Ajax star Daley Blind - who so impressed for Van Gaal's Netherlands at the World Cup finals - has also been persistently linked with United and those rumours are gathering pace. He excelled as a left wing-back in Brazil, memorably picking out Van Persie for his iconic header against Spain, but can also play as a member of a back three or as a central, holding midfielder.
If both players are signed before the close of the window, this is how United's team might look:
There is a third player whom United are reportedly pursuing vigorously at present: Real Madrid midfielder Angel Di Maria. Paris Saint-Germain's decision to withdraw from talks with the Argentina international has seemingly left the path clear for United to mop up and sign a wonderful player who looks to have been sacrificed in Real Madrid's relentless pursuit of superstar signings. If they do sign Di Maria, they will have acquired a very versatile player who excelled in a more central role for Madrid last season, but is also at home on the wing.
Links with Vidal also refuse to go away. The Juventus star has stated he is happy in Italy but United's finances make a deal possible and recruiting one of the finest midfielders in the game would finally address what has become a big problem position for United in recent seasons thanks to Sir Alex Ferguson's refusal to sign players and David Moyes' insistence on bringing in Fellaini.
Furthermore, Fiorentina winger/wing-back Juan Cuadrado is also the subject of United interest following his brilliant performances for Colombia at the World Cup finals with reports suggesting they have priced Barcelona out of the battle for his signature. Cuadrado is the perfect fit for the wide role on the right.
So, if vice-chairman Woodward by some miracle manages to sign Rojo, Blind, Cuadrado and one of Di Maria and Vidal, this is how Manchester United's line-up could look for the coming season:
A FLEXIBLE APPROACH
Van Gaal said this after United's 7-0 win over LA Galaxy: "When you want to change a system, you must start at once. We don't have time to prepare for other things. The other system they can play is 4-3-3 and they have played it for many years. I can change back if the system doesn't work. With the quality of the players we have, I can play 4-3-3 with three strikers on the bench, but I want to play with two strikers."
Though the Dutchman clearly favours 3-5-2 at present, he is a great strategist and could deploy his team in more of a conventional manner. Below is a possible line up in a 4-3-3 formation. Using this shape would also open up opportunities for Adnan Januzaj, who otherwise could find his chances rather restricted, operating as a back-up to Mata in the No. 10 position.
It is a formidable-looking XI. With another tweak, United could also play in the 4-2-3-1 formation they favoured last season, though again this would prevent them playing with two central forwards - something Van Gaal relished doing at the World Cup with the precision and craft of Van Persie and the exhilarating acceleration and control of Arjen Robben.
Both of these formations would also suit Danny Welbeck, who otherwise will expect to be first replacement should either Rooney or Van Persie sustain an injury. Shinji Kagawa is also an option, if he does not leave the club before the end of the transfer window.
Everything rests on the quality of player United manage to bring in before the transfer window closes. As things stand, they possess a rather unconvincing defence and a midfield which still needs reinforcement.
If they recruit well then a return to the top four is likely; if they do not, there is a possibility Champions League football could elude them once more. Admittedly, that does seem rather unlikely with a manager of the calibre of Van Gaal in charge, but a quick look at their possible line-up to face Swansea on Saturday tells you this is a squad which still needs plenty of work.
If the 3-5-2 formation is a success then United will need five centre-backs to service it across an entire season - at the moment they have three. Much rests on the work of Ed Woodward in the next 19 days. And the clock is ticking.
Tom Adams - @tomEurosport
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