James Davies

A new pre-season, a new kit and a new sponsor all hint at a revamped Manchester United heading into the 2010/11 campaign. But as Sir Alex Ferguson’s men settle into their North American summer tour, the same old questions loom large.

A 3-1 win over Celtic at Toronto’s Rogers Centre got United’s tour off to a winning start in their first game in the new home kit and kick-started the club’s partnership with new sponsors Aon. Dimitar Berbatov, Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley grabbed the goals in Friday’s opener and the 18-time English champions outclassed Celtic for stretches with crisp passing and clever movement off the ball.

However, it cannot have escaped Ferguson’s notice that the old guard continue to set the standards. Ryan Giggs, 37 in November, was the stand out player in the first half with his vision and trickery while Paul Scholes, 36 in the same month, rolled back the years with pinpoint cross-field passing. The younger players understandably look to Giggs and Scholes for inspiration and endeavour to get the ball to them whenever possible. Yet when the pair were withdrawn at half-time, the team performance fell away in the second half.

And this was part of the problem last season – the supposed big hopes for the future were not living up to their billing.

With United’s World Cup stars – including Wayne Rooney, Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic – resting on holiday, the next wave of talent will have plenty of opportunities to shine. Yet these players remain raw and inexperienced. Winger Gabriel Obertan showed flashes of his improvement in Toronto, but must work on his consistency, Mame Biram Diouf has yet to turn potential into goals and Chris Smalling, who conceded the penalty for Celtic’s goal, is still learning the game at centre back. Rafael and Fabio ooze talent, but desperately need more minutes under their belts.


Ferguson will understand that these players need time to develop and on Friday he benefited from using experienced heads Berbatov and Darren Fletcher for the full 90 minutes alongside some of his younger charges. The Bulgarian’s touch and poise wowed supporters and, after scoring with a neat left-foot finish, he also laid on the second and third goals. This season will be a huge one for Berbatov and perhaps his last chance to convince his manager that he can be a 15-20 goals-a-season striker at Old Trafford. The pedestrian pace of pre-season friendlies fits perfectly with his style of play, but it will be a wholly different tempo come mid-August when the
Premier League campaign begins.

Fletcher was his usual disciplined self and thrived in his role as captain – an interesting decision from Ferguson given that Giggs was also in the starting line-up. The midfielder has gone from zero to hero over the past few seasons and his work rate and economical passing make him the perfect compliment for Scholes, Berbatov, Rooney and company. The Scot’s transformation from midfield misfit to midfield enforcer will give Ferguson hope that Obertan, Nani, Diouf and the rest of the new crop can make similar strides. It is now impossible to consider a United side without Fletcher in the engine room.

The tour rolls on to Philadelphia, Kansas City, Houston – to face the MLS All-Stars – and then on to Mexico. These next four games present a tremendous opportunity for one or two players to make their mark.

With no major summer moves, United cannot claim to be much stronger than they were last season and so Ferguson is banking on the continued development of his star men. Add to that the signing of talented Mexican striker Javier Hernandez and the possible return of the injury-plagued Owen Hargreaves and the picture looks a little brighter. But there are familiar questions that Ferguson must confront and answer. He has promised to place faith in his youngsters, but they must in turn vindicate his stance.

It is fair to say that no English club will match United’s group of youth system products in the early 1990s for some time. Giggs, Scholes, David Beckham, the Neville brothers and Nicky Butt set the bar extremely high. But Ferguson is banking on the current crop of youngsters in the United squad to follow a similar path.

Of course, the sceptics will have plenty to say about United’s chances of regaining the Premier League and challenging in Europe against the likes of Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid and a formidable Barcelona team that now also includes David Villa. Are Ferguson’s youngsters good enough? Is there enough squad depth? Who, other than Rooney, can be relied upon for a double figure goal tally? Can Rio Ferdinand stay healthy for long stretches of the year?

Obviously, supporters will only learn the answers as the season progresses and the fixtures come thick and fast. Until then, they can follow a tour that promises to put the players of the future firmly in the spotlight.