As we approach the January transfer window, for various reasons some players will have to shape up or ship out of Manchester United.
While Sir Alex Ferguson has shown his soft underbelly with his sentimental inclusion of Scholes and Giggs too often this season, recent weeks will have given him a sharp wake-up call.
The attack has been firing on all cylinders with the most goals scored in years at this early stage. They've had to bail the team out as the defence has been letting in water at the other end.
When we analyse the reasons why, there are some plausible explanations.
Yet another injury crisis in defence has meant not only the absence of up to four key centre-backs, but also an enforced player rotation that has seen no fewer than 10 different centre-back combinations.
But what is unacceptable is the high proportion of set-piece goals scored against United, being the highest by any team in the division.
Mind you, even that stat is open to interpretation. A high proportion of set-piece goals also means a low ratio of goals scored in open play—which in absolute terms might be interpreted as good news if the number conceded wasn't so high.
Still, it puts the lie to suggestions that the main reason is that United's midfield gets overrun. However, attack is the best form of defence and United have started too slowly in too many matches—which brings us full circle to the point about Scholes and Giggs.
These two are among the greatest footballers who ever lived. It's not just their longevity. Scholes is one of the greatest passers of a ball. Giggs would have walked into any team on the planet, and if he played in Messi's role for Barcelona now might be almost as successful.
"To everything there is a season" as the song goes and it's sadly time to turn over a new leaf in United's midfield and move to a new paradigm.
There is absolutely no reason why the two maestros shouldn't be kept in reserve to cover injury crises or to play alongside young rising stars in the FA Cup. No doubt after they retire, they will both be coaching and mentoring such players anyhow.
The other reason to move on is that United have other first-team squad players who haven't been given a fair crack of the whip, including those same young academy graduates.
Time for the next generation to step up
Some of them have not exactly blossomed in the meanwhile. Whether it's through demotivation, lack of match sharpness or whatever, this has left question marks over the future careers of a few.
In the few weeks leading up to the transfer window, they must grab any chance they get at any level to impress on Sir Alex and reserves manager Warren Joyce that they are true investments for the future. Otherwise they might be sold or released even before they decide to leave the club of their own volition.
Premier League football is big business financially. Even ordinary players get ridiculous amounts of money for not even playing on a Saturday. There really is no time for sentiment.
Harry Redknapp will have no reservations about moving on some of the massive amount of deadwood at QPR. While Sir Alex doesn't have the same problem, he has even more players registered on United's books.
Leaving aside the obvious need to make up a team for United's commitments in the Under-21 competitions, there are still players who will frankly not make it.
That problem will compound itself massively unless addressed soon, because only three over-21 players are allowed to be registered by any Premier League team for the U21s. That in itself will cause a dispassionate review of who should go.
At present United have no fewer than 11 players registered for the U21s this year who will be overage next season. That is the harsh reality that will lead to a thorough audit and weeding out over the next six months, starting in January.
Those players are:
Bebe, Macheda, Wootton, Vermijl, Veseli, Reese Brown, Brady, Petrucci, Tunnicliffe, Lingard and King.
So the first thing we shall do is review those players to determine who might have to go.
Federico Macheda will be praying he is here next season but frankly he hasn't much hope. The bright young 17-year-old who burst onto the scene with his goal against Aston Villa in 2009 has frankly gone downhill.
Watching him in the Under 21s (he was 21 in August) on Monday, he makes you despair. Yes, he scored a goal, but should have had more; that is true every time he plays at what should be comfortably below his level of excellence.
And maybe that's the problem for many of these 11. They see other players coming in and they aren't getting chances in the first team. Nick Powell is only 18 but he already looks like being a first-team regular next season.
Meanwhile, Henriquez has been signed and Will Keane was promised a place in the first-team squad this season before he was injured.
Sir Alex has previously lost Ryan Shawcross, Giuseppe Rossi and Gerard Pique because they couldn't see the way forward. All of these are now internationals. Paul Pogba is featuring regularly in the Juventus first team. He left because Scholes and Giggs were denying him the chances his talent deserved.
So no more time for sentiment please, Sir Alex.
Which means some others of the "marzipan layer" (the 11 or more players too old for the U21s who aren't yet established in the first team) will be getting more nervous as each transfer window approaches.
There are two ways to keep them. First, United can register as many home grown players and as many Under 21s in their first-team squad as they want.
The trouble is, what is the point of having 30, 40 or 50 players registered if only half of that number actually plays during the season. Last season only 23 players had more than one start for United in the Premier League and only 27 in all competitions in total.
So again, the only other reason for having so many players in the first team is so that you can have 11-a-side training matches! And then there is the salary cost...
The other way to keep them is by always having a number out on loan. But how many can you keep this way and what do they do when they return if collectively the total pool is growing?
So the problem of the "marzipan layer" compounds itself year by year. Even without any new recruits into that age bracket, a further 10 will be added to the total the season after next. Maybe they also should be thinking about their futures right now. Or maybe Sir Alex and Warren Joyce should?
Who needs to shape up quickly?
So, as well as Macheda, the following would seem to be vulnerable:
Bebe has been attempted to be offloaded by United. He went to Besiktas on loan, with a view to them buying him, but got injured and blotted his copybook on the disciplinary side. He has played six times for the Portuguese U21s, so surely somebody will take him off United's hands? He might be encouraged by the success Manucho has had since he left.
Frederic Veseli only joined United in the last January transfer window from City. He is a versatile defender or midfield player who has impressed a couple of times, including on tour. He will probably be given another year to prove himself, but he has Marnick Vermijl, Scott Wootton and Michael Keane already ahead of him.
Reece Brown is Wes' young brother. He looked pretty impressive as an academy trainee and has since been on loan to Doncaster, Oldham and Coventry City, where he now is. He has had nine appearances for the Sky Blues this season. If they offer him a permanent contract, he should take it.
Robert Brady has four full caps for Ireland and has made 46 appearances for Hull City in the last two seasons. He has been tried wide left and at left-back for the United first team, mainly on the preseason tour and has so far been unconvincing. Sadly he looks like another Darron Gibson.
Davide Petrucci is a talented Italian midfielder who is the U21 captain but so far has had no competitive appearances for United, even as a sub. While injuries have seriously disrupted his playing career, this is nevertheless worrying. He should be given another year but must make a major push for promotion.
Jesse Lingard has gone backward since last season, when he looked the natural successor to Ryan Giggs and Sir Alex spoke warmly of him several times. He was told to bulk up but for some reason has become less effective. He went on loan for a month to Leicester to get playing time. He will probably be given another year.
Joshua King is a full Norwegian international who is currently at his fourth loan club. It is hard to understand why Sir Alex has bought Powell and Henriquez and promised Will Keane a first-team role if Josh has a long-term future. It is also puzzling that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer hasn't come in for him. He craves first-team football but currently seems to be at least sixth-choice striker. He may be used as a makeweight in the January or summer windows. He is currently on loan at Blackburn, for whom he has already scored, so there may be offers for him next month.
Anders Lindegaard looked pretty solid on his first few appearances for United and, but for injury, might have kept David de Gea out of the team for most of last season.
This year, as de Gea has stepped up to the challenges thrown at him, Anders has slipped back. He was poor against Reading, looking uncharacteristically nervous and ironically failing to dominate his goal area.
When Ben Amos returns from his seasonlong loan, Sir Alex will have a decision to make. He could of course send Sam Johnstone out on loan to the Championship for a year, but Amos was agitating for regular first-team football last season. One of them may have to move on in the summer.
In this respect, Lindegaard features amongst the worst players of the season on a number of different sets of ratings.
For example, on whoscored.com he is in the bottom six of the whole squad, barely rating above Ryan Giggs, who is worst of all those players who have made at least three starts this season.
The other four are, in order from worst to better: Vidic, Nani, Scholes and Anderson.
Surprisingly, Evra rates much higher, probably because of his attacking play rather than defensive diligence.
On skysports.com the bottom eight are:
Cleverley and Nani 6.1
Anderson and Lindegaard 6.0
Giggs 5.7 and
Our remaining selection who need to step up therefore, apart from Lindegaard is Nani, Anderson, Vidic, Welbeck and Evra.
Nani is a hugely talented player and the club's Player of the Year in 2010/11 who seems full of his own self-importance.
He is a bit like Kevin Pietersen for the England cricket team. He will always have his dressing room supporters as long as he's producing the goods, but you wouldn't expect to count Wayne Rooney among them, based on the mixed service he's had from the winger in the last couple of seasons.
Nani can be a match-winner, but he has been intensely frustrating for Sir Alex in the last few months. Especially since he started to demand a significant hike in his wages. Ever since then, with the odd exception, he's managed to prove why he doesn't deserve it.
So there is an impasse. United won't give him an increase and Nani won't sign an extended contract until they do. The result is that he now seems to have developed the paranoid belief that United don't want him.
This might well become a self-fulfilling prophesy the way things are going.
At present he seems to be out of action with a hamstring injury. This may be a smokescreen for Sir Alex Ferguson being unwilling to play him. After all, fully fit he has a better market value.
There is no smoke without fire and there wouldn't be room on this website to print all the articles in recent months that have concluded, implied or mentioned that Nani is on the way out.
If nobody buys him or the right price can't be negotiated, he has five months to transform himself and become a more humble and unselfish player who fits the team ethic. If he had Chicharito's values and personality, he would be on the way to what he once proclaimed he would be: the best player in the world.
Mind you, Mario Balotelli already thinks he deserves that accolade. What price delusion?
Nemanja Vidic on December 4, 2012
This was Nemanja Vidic in full training more than a week ago. If Sunderland had visited last weekend, he probably would have played.
We are not suggesting that Vidic needs to step up in any other sense than to prove his injury nightmare is behind him. It is now a year since he was first injured. United have missed him badly.
After the first false start, Sir Alex has taken no chances with his captain, even though he has been stretched for cover in central defence.
While there may be genuine interest from Anzhi in buying him, if he can show running up to Christmas that he is back to his best, Sir Alex will be reluctant to sell him. Along with Robin van Persie's sparkling form, Vidic's return could be the catalyst for a convincing title win and a strong Champions League run.
If he shows he has lost form and fitness, he may spend the last few years of his career in colder climes.
Anderson looked back to his very best against Reading...and then got injured again.
Sir Alex has been very loyal to a player who has made only 92 appearances in the five years he has been on United's books.
He has suffered from one injury after another, together with weight and other problems.
At the start of the 2011/12 season, it looked like he and Cleverley were the midfield combination for the future. Since then both have had injury challenges.
Both have looked back to their best in their appearances this season and in the last couple of games he played, Anderson showed that he can fill the gap that Lucas Moura would have filled.
So he has to step up in two ways:
- He must get his fitness absolutely sorted
- He must give consistent performances at the level he's shown this year.
The trouble is that time may not be on his side. He is injured again and may not return before the transfer window opens. If Sir Alex signs another midfielder, then Anderson could find himself surplus to requirements.
In any case, there was a suggestion in some quarters that he was available for transfer last summer. He could, for example, also be the makeweight in a deal for James Rodriguez or Nicolas Gaitan.
If he can get himself fit he may well be given until the summer to finally prove his worth (unless someone comes in with a handsome offer from Italy, for example).
No player has played more games than Patrice Evra in the years since he arrived at Old Trafford. He has been a great servant of the club. Sir Alex rates him highly enough to have made him vice captain last season and this. As a result he has led the team during Vidic's absence.
He also leads by example in the way he attacks and has formed potent combinations with Nani or Young.
The trouble is that he is increasingly found wanting as a defender.
In the modern age of the wing-back, the whole team defends. They are key players, overlapping a wide player or filling the gap either side of a diamond, for example. They have to be superfit and the remainder of the defence has to ratchet across when they are caught upfield.
One of the changes Sir Alex has made to improve the defensive effectiveness is exactly that. Last season, especially in the home derby against City, Evra was caught upfield for five of the six goals United conceded.
There were even occasions this year when both wing-backs were forward. That has now been remedied. Only one is allowed to advance at a time and the defence slides across toward that side to cover as necessary.
For Evra, however, this still isn't quite working. Whether his legs are going or his stamina, who knows? So we have increasingly seen the likes of Young, Cleverley and even Rooney covering as Evra wanders back into position.
While he has been better in some recent matches, his tackling and positioning in defence are still suspect. For example, he left Balotelli completely free on Sunday when luckily the enigmatic City striker ballooned the ball over.
So while nobody is taking anything away from Evra's skill, sooner or later the legs and stamina will find him out because wing back is such an energetic, pacy role.
If Evra stays he must get back to the top of his game, otherwise Buttner will deserve a run in the team. Whether that happens or Baines comes in, the Frenchman could soon find himself number two.
In that case he should seriously consider an offer from the likes of PSG if it came in. For the time being he told the Mirror he's going nowhere.
He'll have to step up to keep the young pretenders at bay when Fabio returns.
Of course many people would have Rio Ferdinand in this article rather than Danny Welbeck. But actually Rio has responded well to Sir Alex's comments earlier in the season.
Yes, he has lost a yard of pace, but he seems to have sorted his back problems. He is a class defender who, like Michael Carrick, is intelligent and reads the game exceptionally well, which can compensate for his aging legs.
In this respect he is also like his boyhood idol, Sir Bobby Moore. The English captain from the 1966 triumph was never blessed with pace but was always first to the tackle because of his reading of the game.
The doubters may be pleasantly reassured once Vidic is restored alongside Ferdinand. They have been arguably the best and meanest centre-back combination in the world at times in the last few seasons.
So back to Danny Welbeck and why he is here.
Well we're not just going to go on his poor ratings, but actually Danny definitely needs to step up.
He is the striker of the future for England as well as Manchester United. He has everything: pace, height, skill, a shot in both feet and excellent heading ability. He is also intelligent.
But he seems to be sliding away since he signed a new long-term contract. Where Chicharito has been battering the door down for a first team start, Danny has been largely unimpressive when he has come on.
Some may point to him being played out of position on the wing while the wide players have been injured. But that's actually how he got his chances in the first place when he broke into the first team.
He is desperate to play and will gladly do what the boss asks. But now is the time to show his real value. United will have a fixture pile-up if they get a run in the Champions League and FA Cup.
Danny must grab those opportunities with both hands as the spectre of Robert Lewandowski looms next summer.
He has scored five times from five chances for England and nobody denies his potential. That's what he needs to do for United to make Sir Alex's job even harder.