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Premier League 2010-11 Preview: Manchester United, Your Preseason Favorites

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Manchester United has dominated the Premier League-era, but with a squad that has again failed to reinforce in the transfer market, can Alex Ferguson finally lead United to a nineteenth title? SB Nation Soccer editor Richard Farley looks at the Red Devils' chances.

It was a down year for Manchester United.  They didn't win the league, something that only happens ever-so-often around English football.  In its 18 iterations, United's won 11 of them, using the highfalutin era of EPL football to pull even with Liverpool for most first division championships.  As a handful of Manchester United supporters will remind you, were it not for a couple of ill-timed whistles last year, the Red Devils would already be on 19 titles.  It's oh so bad football doesn't work that way.

The Seven For Eightteen

Manchester United is one of seven clubs to appear in every Premier League season. No coincidence, all seven clubs, the Premier League's aristocracy, are expected to compete for spots in Europe.

Here are those seven clubs in terms of points-per-season along with their all-time, points-per-season EPL rank:

Club Avg. Pts Rank
Manchester United 83 1st
Arsenal 72.8 2nd
Chelsea 70.4 3rd
Liverpool 68 4th
Aston Villa 55.7 8th
Tottenham Hotspur 53 10th
Everton 51.33 11th

5th: Leeds United; 6th: Newcastle United; 7th: Blackburn Rovers; 9th: Queens Park Rangers

But there is something instructive about their reminder.  As close as the final table looked last season (with only one point separating Chelsea from Manchester United), the point totals exaggerated the distance between the league's two top clubs.  For what was supposed to be a rebuilding year post-Cristiano Ronaldo, Manchester United had a surprisingly strong season.

Unfortunately for United-supporters, 2009-10 looks less like rebuilding than the new way of the Red Devil world.  The financial boon of Real Madrid's Ronaldo money seems to have been put toward staving-off financial swoon.  The club's huge debt has been serviced but the squad has not.  Where three summers ago United rolled blissfully into the extravagant (and disappointing) signing of Dimitar Berbatov, the biggest acquisitions since have been Antonio Valencia and Javier Hernández, with Carlos Tévez allowed to leave. That's not rebuilding. That's restructuring.

Those rueful of United's transition can take solace in three things.  First, the club's built-up a beguiling amount of depth over the last three years.  Second, neither Chelsea nor Arsenal are bringing-in players who will decisively tilt the league in their favor.  And then there's this third, minor detail: United still almost won the league.

That combined with Chelsea's age has to make Manchester United the slight favorites this season, but there's reason for doubt. Chelsea may not regress. Arsenal may make a leap. The injuries United suffered last year may prove more harbinger than aberration. World Cup Wayne Rooney could replace goal-per-match Wazza. Or, the era defined by Alex Ferguson, Paul Scholes and Ryan Gigges may be in its dénouement.

My methods have United as the clear favorite to win number nineteen, but as discussed below, there are reasons to give credence to the doubts.

The Cast

Major Comings: Javier Hernández is United's first major foray into the Mexican Primera, moving after a near goal-per-game rate in the Bicentenario.  Chris Smalling moves from Fulham but will be an ancillary part.  Owen Hargreaves may return at some point but is unlikely to be featured in the Premier League until after winter break.

Significant Goings: Ben Foster's departure may not seem significant (hey, that's an England international you're talking about there, buddy), but given his struggles last season and the margins that defined the title, having his nine games taken by Edwin van der Sar and Tomasz Kuszczak is a boost.

Still There: Everybody?  Rooney up-top, sometimes helped by Berbatov, Owen, Hernández and Federico Macheda. Nani, Valencia, Park Ji-Sung, Obertan on the wings, with Giggs going wide at times.  In central midfield, Scholes, Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher, Darron Gibson, and Giggs. Perhaps Hargreaves and Anderson come back at some point.  At the back, Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, John O'Shea, Gary Neville (typing this out is becoming a pain), Rafael and Fabio da Silva, Smalling, Wes Brown, Jonny Evans. Van der Sar and Kuszcak in net.  I really should have thought this format out better.

Prognosis

Rk Club Avg W D L GF GA 1st Top 4 Top 7 Relegated Best Worst Range*
1 Manchester United 1.7 24.6 7.4 6.0 79.0 23.5 57.7% 98.1% 100.0% 0.0% 1 7 1-4

Why: Wayne Rooney experiences major regression offset by improved health in defense (specifically, Vidic and O'Shea), continued improvement from younger players (Nani, to pick one), and better goalkeeping (partly because of health considerations).  The big reason the program picks United, though, is their depth.  Because Manchester United has less of a drop-off in talent as you move down their depth chart, the program (and the aggregation of 10,000 seasons) likes their ability to deal with all-conceivable scenarios.  But seasons usually feature a subset of all-conceivables, and while these numbers (the goals for and against) represent something close to United's likely performance, they're susceptible to being passed by a club with a higher "if it all comes together" factor.

Best Case Scenario: Rooney is still a near goal-per-match man.  Scholes and Giggs mature, not age.  Nani and Valencia are as scary as they were in early spring.  Ferdinand, Vidic, O'Shea and van der Sar are all healthy.  Michael Carrick returns to his usual self.  At least one of the non-Rooney forwards proves potent.  The team competes for all trophies.

Nightmare:  Rooney's 2009-10 is unsustainable. United's not healthy, and their veterans age  For all their depth, they lack the high-end, difference-makers capable to making one point into three.  hey never find a second source of goals and are pushed out of Champions League thanks to a season that looks a lot like Manchester City's tie-laden 2009-10.

Most Likely: United wins number nineteen.