Much has been written about the close-season Manchester United have endured thus far – and generally with a somewhat negative slant, most notably regarding their failure so far to bolster their first-team squad and the slow, but seemingly inevitable, inching of Wayne Rooney towards the Old Trafford exit door and, probably, into the arms of a likely title rival.
Less discussed, though, has been how such factors will affect the actual football that waits to be played once the new season kicks off. Actual football, though, is something United fans should start to take note of: it may have passed by largely unnoticed, but David Moyes and his men could be embroiled in a grim game of catch-up before September is even over.
If that seems like hyperbole, then consider that Manchester United’s first six fixtures read as follows: Swansea away, Chelsea at home, Liverpool away, Crystal Palace at home, Manchester City away, and West Bromwich Albion at home.
Discounting the not-insignificant facts that Swansea took two points off United in the same fixture last term and the last thing United saw of West Brom was when they urinated freely upon Alex Ferguson’s final-day parade by sticking five goals past the champions in May, the reality is that the Red Devils arguably play three of their toughest six or seven fixtures all within a month of each other and all before the new season has barely had the chance to splutter into life.
After their treacherous trip to the Liberty Stadium to face a cup-winning Swansea side that have – unlike United – spent the summer procuring reinforcements, Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea are likely to prove far harder to overcome than the club’s previous, more chaotic incarnation of last term. On top of this, the west Londoners could well arrive at Old Trafford on August 26 with a certain new employee spearheading an attacking quartet that boasts the ludicrous creativity of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar, a trio that last season fashioned over two-thirds the number of chances managed by entire squads of four separate Premier League clubs.
With or without Rooney, Chelsea will almost certainly provide stern opposition for Moyes’ side, and the fact that their weakest spot - central midfield - is also United’s, means that it is unlikely to be too heavily exploited by their hosts. And should Rooney depart, Moyes will not have the luxury of calling upon the diligent forward as an emergency body in this area of the pitch, which was a tactic utilised often by his predecessor last time out.
Straight off the back of that fixture is Liverpool. The Reds may not be the domestic force of yesteryear but a seething and expectant Kop remains a formidable prospect for a visiting Manchester United side. And this is not just a judgement based on oft-repeated intangibles of ‘atmosphere’, ‘occasion’ and the like: United have come away from Anfield with three points only once in the past half-decade.
And, on September 22, to the Etihad. United returned from the sky blue side of town victorious last term, but did so only by the width of a knife-edge and with the aid of a less-than-committed wall-comprising one Samir Nasri. The oil-rich cross-town neighbours underwhelmed last term but have since invigorated their set-up not just with a flurry of attackers of genuine pedigree but also with Manuel Pellegrini, a more tactically proactive presence in the dugout – the opposite, some would argue, of David Moyes. His Malaga side looked to monopolise possession last season, attempting the divison's fourth-highest number of passes, and were mere seconds away from the Champions League semi-finals.
Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko, both established nemeses of the United backline, could well wreak havoc in their own distinctive ways, while new signings Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic add the strength, mobility and know-how to test the creaking joints of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand as well as any junior and unseasoned stand-ins such as Chris Smalling or Jonny Evans.
Of course, Manchester United being Manchester United – that is, a club stocked with many of the country’s finest footballers, and one fully trained from top to bottom in the process of winning – Moyes could come out of his first six games not just unscathed but fighting fit. There are benefits to an apparently unfriendly fixture calendar, and the primary one is that United could have a number of troublesome fixtures out of the way early on, and, come October, be free and able to concentrate on seeing off the minnows while their immediate rivals go about taking points off each other.
It is not, though, the initiation that Moyes would have wished for. A fiery baptism of local derbies and clashes of Premier League titans will certainly prepare him for life at the top end of club football but the Glaswegian might have preferred the transition to be rather more gentle.
Of course, this run of games is not a simple case of ‘make or break’ for Moyes, and there is little point in painting it as such. By its very nature, his appointment was one made with the long-term firmly in mind. But that's not to say that good start would not do a great deal to quash the post-Ferguson anxiety amongst the Stretford End faithful – an anxiety that will need minimal prompting to make the transition to media-led hysteria. In short, a tough job has been made yet tougher, and quite where manager and club will stand come October 1st is unusually difficult to predict.
One thing is certain – a genuinely fascinating couple of months lie ahead.