A question that for years was almost rhetorical in nature has suddenly become a hot topic at the storied soccer stadium that is Old Trafford. With their worst finish in the Premier League era barely a year in the books, are Manchester United truly a threat to bounce back to the top of the domestic table?
Conventional wisdom would suggest the Red Devils are still a few players away. Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney still loom as dangerous goal-scoring threats up top for new coach Louis Van Gaal, but questions exist just about everywhere else.
Defensively, Manchester United will look a whole lot different with the departures of Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic during the transfer window. In their place stand the likes of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and newcomer Luke Shaw, three players who will be learning how to play together on the fly.
Still, the Red Devils are buoyed by the fact that goaltender David De Gea is considered a team strength in the nets. Even in times of turmoil, De Gea has been a consistent performer for Manchester United and if nothing else, he’ll keep things organized in the back.
Where Manchester United will either sink or swim will be in midfield. While Tom Cleverley has had plenty of good moments, the 25-year-old often disappears at crucial times. The same can be said of Marouane Fellaini, the towering 6-foot-4 central midfielder whose lack of pace was exposed throughout last season.
Enter Juan Mata, the forgotten man for the Spanish National Team and the unwanted man in Chelsea. If there is one player who holds the key to Manchester United’s fortunes in 2014-15, it’s Mata. A playmaker who once-upon-a-time potted 22 goals for the Blues two seasons ago, Mata could be the consistent midfield threat Van Gaal and the Red Devils so desperately need heading into the campaign.
While finishing seventh in the league standings a year ago, Manchester United often appeared confused once they crossed midfield. Attacks became bogged down with passes to nowhere and an offensive philosophy that too often searched for the next step toward creating opportunity.
Ultimately, it was this stodgy approach that got David Moyes fired and replaced by Ryan Giggs late in the season. Meanwhile, the freshly-acquired Mata was left to languish on the Manchester United bench while his teammates wandered around without direction.
Under Van Gaal, all that has changed. In helping lead the Red Devils to an undefeated preseason run, the smallish midfielder has appeared both reinvigorated and energized. Mata’s touch has been clean, his vision excellent and passes on target.
Everyone knows Rooney and Van Persie will score goals. In the back, everyone knows that De Gea will help keep things organized. The unknown is where Manchester United’s midfield creativity will come from. Early returns seem to indicate Mata is the man for the job.
If Manchester United is truly to make a run in the Premier League, other players will also need to step up. Consistency will have to reappear for the likes of Michael Carrick, Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia and Shinji Kagawa if the Red Devils are to make a significant move forward.
No player is more important than Mata, however. The difference between being a mid-table side and a championship contender often comes down to creativity. Mata appears ready to provide plenty for the Red Devils.
Are Manchester United considered favorites? Not at the moment. All that could change if Mata continues his preseason form. And you can bet Van Gaal and company are hoping he will.