So far, so good for Manchester United’s mid-term report?
Is their current position in the English Premier League a true reflection of the team’s talents and title glory merely a formality? Or are there any improvements that Sir Alex Ferguson and the squad must make to be considered the favourites to lift the trophy at the end of the season?
United are checking in to the holiday period at the top of the EPL Christmas tree. Despite defensive lapses, a perceived hole in their midfield and their cross-town rivals being defending champions, Sir Alex Ferguson has rallied his troops for yet another assault on the title.
The addition of a world-class striking talisman in Robin van Persie looks so far to be tipping the balance for United.
There have, however, been surprise defeats already in this season, leaving little room for error.
Sir Alex has also been a little more experimental with formations and starting lineups than usual, trying to find the perfect blend for success. This gradual tweaking of the squad has highlighted that, although currently sat proudly at the top of the tree, there are improvements that must be made to ensure that United can win the EPL.
When Claudio Ranieri was Chelsea manager, he was disparagingly known by the British press as the “tinkerman,” due to his constant tinkering and rotating of team lineups and formations. It was said that this hampered his team’s title chances.
Today, rotating teams game by game is much more prevalent, with large squads being utilised fully by many managers. This last couple of seasons, however, Sir Alex seems to have taken tinkering to a whole new level. Some of the decisions have been enforced, with injuries to key personnel—particularly in defence.
But the question still persists: Does Sir Alex know his best starting 11?
It is rare that Sir Alex picks the same 11 players twice in a row, mixing and matching his starting lineups according to the supposed level of opponents—no more so than in midfield.
However, in isolated key games against "top-four" teams this season, the chosen starting 11 has been the same. Other than the return of Nemanja Vidic pushing out Jonny Evans in defence, the lineup that Sir Alex trusted to face Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City must be viewed as being his best 11.
Picking the right games to utilise them and when to rest them, without impacting negatively on results, is the challenge facing Sir Alex.
In those key matches, the side picked has been one that, particularly in midfield, offered an energy and vibrancy.
The mumblings of supporters are unfortunately becoming audible at matches now when the team-sheet includes two of United’s legends in the starting lineup. This is not a slur against Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, who must rank amongst the Red Devils’ greatest servants—but more due to the realisation that United have stumbled across their chosen starting 11.
Given the performances against top-four rivals, imagine what they could do to the lesser teams in the EPL.
The presence of Scholes and Giggs now slows the pace of attack and allows opponents to regroup, as shown last weekend against Sunderland. Although United started with a similar team to the Manchester derby match (except Phil Jones in for the injured Rafael da Silva) and taking a 3-0 lead, once both veterans were on the pitch, Sunderland gained traction in the game and threatened to make a comeback.
Compare that to the matches against Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal. The same lineup for each game. Particularly against the seemingly more powerful midfield that both City and Chelsea boast, a midfield of Young-Cleverley-Carrick-Valencia seemed too open. However, with Wayne Rooney roaming between midfield and forward, providing a fifth midfielder when required, it proved to work wonderfully.
The Reds put Chelsea immediately on the back foot, taking them by surprise and building a first half lead. Whereas against City, although ceding early possession to the Blues, once United got hold of the ball the midfield sprang at great speed in to the spaces that City had left behind them. United put their rivals to the sword with clinical ease. Arsenal at Old Trafford were never even in the game.
Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, when on form, carry great threat. Michael Carrick offers composure and accurate passing, and Tom Cleverley is starting to fulfil the potential that Sir Alex Ferguson and his backroom staff feel that he possesses.
They may still have a part to play this season. But surely Scholes and Giggs must now be used much more sparingly if Manchester United are to maintain their title challenge.
The easiest deficiency to spot in this United team is its weakness in defence. Throughout the whole of the English Premier League, it appears that the art of defending has been lost.
Injuries have played a part, with Sir Alex barely able to play the same back four twice in a row. However, when the opportunity to play an almost full strength back four has presented itself, the manager has either decided to rotate the goalkeeper, or injury has struck one of them down as well.
David de Gea must now have done enough to stake his claim to be the regular goalkeeper. His reflex saves and general shot-stopping are both excellent, and the area perceived to be his "Achilles' heel" (dealing with crosses and corners) can be worked on. He is already improving in that aspect.
He needs to be able to trust the four defenders in front of him, though. And this season so far, they have looked at times like a rudderless ship, opponents able to manoeuvre between them and find spaces with ease.
The Reading game was a perfect example of these frailties, particularly at set plays. Chaos reigned with every ball in the air—so much so that Rafael was an unfortunate first-half casualty, being substituted by Sir Alex. The Brazilian had not played badly, but a taller presence was required in defence to try and prevent the match moving in to the realms of farce.
Defensive improvements must be made. There will be games where the strikers may not be so clinical. Against Manchester City, for example, United had few actual chances on goal (eight), but managed to score three. So to tighten up at the back is a necessity, just in case the goals dry up at the other end. Hopefully the leadership skills of Nemanja Vidic will assist in that area, upon his return.
Linked obviously with the previous slide, falling behind to the first goal of the game 10 times in the EPL so far is unacceptable.
True, seven times United have managed to come back and win, but on the other three occasions, against Everton, Tottenham Hotspur and Norwich City, United have dropped nine points in matches they would traditionally win (or at least draw).
The Reds must eradicate this bad habit of digging holes for themselves and relying on their strikers to get them out, a fact not lost on the players, of course.
Prior to the game against QPR, Michael Carrick pointed out in The Mirror, “We need to make things a lot easier for ourselves by scoring the first goal and play from there,”—but then, in that very match, United conceded first before ending up 3-1 winners.
Ex-assistant coach Steve McClaren once said of the great treble-winning United side, "I don't think this team ever loses, they just run out of time!" in reference to the regularity with which that particular team made miraculous comebacks in games. To save supporters from suffering heart attacks, it would be preferable for the current team not to emulate that side of their predecessor's game!
With more concentration from the outset, this talented team should be able to keep it tight at the back, then take the lead and stay out there—not go behind and then find the urgency to play.
One is reminded of Owen Hargreaves' quote "I've had to be a guinea pig for a lot of treatments," with regards to the pain-killing injections and other treatments that he endured at the hands of United's medical staff during his injury-ravaged career at the club. United strongly refuted the claims, stating that they had excellent medical staff, who were at the top of the profession.
One thing is for certain—they have a lot of patients on which to practise.
Due to various injuries, Manchester United have not been able to play their preferred back four defenders this season with any sort of regularity.
Nemanja Vidic has been out for most of the season and is only now being eased back. Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans and Rafael da Silva have all had injuries of varying gravity that have kept them out of the side, with Michael Carrick being deployed to play at centre back, such was the lack of cover at one point.
In midfield, Nani is out at the moment, Shinji Kagawa is finally back in training following a knee injury and Darren Fletcher is still feeling his way back to fitness and learning to cope with Crohn's Disease.
Anderson, however, just as he seemed to be hitting form again in a United shirt, suffered an injury against Reading, shortly after scoring United's first goal in the game.
It seems that injuries are never far away from the team, but the list does seem to be finally easing.
It is to be hoped that a mixture of good luck and careful handling will ensure that the treatment table is kept reasonably clear for the rest of the season—a must if United are to keep their position at the top of the table.
It would appear that Sir Alex is happy with the squad that he has at the moment, and a move to bring any new faces to the club in the January transfer window looks unlikely (although Wesley Sneijder's position at Inter is interesting, a move for him may provide more selection headaches).
Little tweaks here and there are required, then. A settled starting 11, phase out some players, learn to defend better and stay injury free. We could then see the title heading back to Old Trafford.
Back then to that mid-term report.
“So far, so good?” Perhaps it should read “still room for improvement.”