Where Do Manchester United 2012-13 Rank Among Ferguson's Great Teams?

Dan Fitch@@DJFitchFeatured ColumnistJanuary 15, 2013

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 13:  Robin van Persie of Manchester United looks on during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Liverpool at Old Trafford on January 13, 2013 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Manchester United have shot to the top of the Premier League, accumulating a massive 55 points from 22 games.

That makes it the best start by a Manchester United team since the three-points-for-a-win system was first introduced in 1981-82. In the Premier League era, only Chelsea in 2005-06 have made a stronger start to the season.

In his programme notes, Alex Ferguson recently described his current squad as: 'A group as good as any I have had in my time at Old Trafford'.

Despite the remarkable start that United have made, it's hard to agree with Ferguson. While Robin van Persie has been in sensational form and is ably abetted in attack by Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck, other areas of the team look much weaker.

Ferguson has struggled to decide who his best goalkeeper is, with David De Gea and Anders Lindegaard having been rotated. In defence, some of United's best performers over the last few years, such as Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra are past their best, while their younger defenders have yet to hit their peaks. 

It is in midfield where the team looks weakest. There is talent on the wings and in attacking midfield positions, but there are big problems in the deeper positions. United lack a real defensive midfield presence, with Darren Ferguson yet to establish himself back in the side. Playmakers such as Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs still have the skills—but not the legs—of their youth. Doubts remain over the talents of Anderson and Tom Cleverley.

Ferguson is either being over-generous to this group of players or he is deluded. Here are four Manchester United sides from the Ferguson era that were all-round stronger propositions than his current squad.

1993-94: Won the Premier League and FA Cup 'Double'

Typical Team: (4-4-2) 

Schmeichel, Parker, Irwin, Bruce, Pallister, Ince, Keane, Kanchelskis, Giggs, Cantona, Hughes

Verdict: Having won the Premier League for the first time the season before, Manchester United won their first league and cup 'Double' in 1993-94. 

The spine of this side was particularly strong. Peter Schmeichel, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Paul Ince, Roy Keane, Eric Cantona, Mark Hughes. Tough players, with bags of ability and in Cantona the sort of flair needed for a good team to become great.

On the flanks they had pace in abundance in the form of Ryan Giggs and Andrei Kanchelskis, with the defensive reliability of Paul Parker and Denis Irwin behind them. 

1995-96: Won the Premier League and FA Cup 'Double'

Typical Team: (4-4-2)

Schmeichel, G.Neville, Irwin, Bruce, Pallister, Keane, Butt, Beckham, Giggs, Cantona, Cole

Verdict: United won their second 'Double' in 1995-96. By this time, Gary Neville had replaced Paul Parker in the back four, offering more going forward, while remaining strong in defence.

In midfield, Nicky Butt came in for Ince, allowing Keane more license to roam forward and grab the game by the scruff of the neck. The presence of David Beckham on the right gave United greater variety on the flanks, with his eerily accurate crossing ability on one side, being contrasted by the trickery of Giggs on the left.

The combination of Cantona and Andy Cole is perhaps the weakest area of the team. Cantona never combined as effectively with the poaching talents of Cole, as he had done with the muscular presence of Hughes. Individually, however, both were potential match winners.

1998-99: Won the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League 'Treble'

Typical Team: (4-4-2)

Schmeichel, G.Neville, Irwin, Stam, Johnsen, Keane, Scholes, Beckham, Giggs, Yorke, Cole

Verdict: Probably the greatest United team of them all, and not just in terms of achievement. Schmiechel, the world's greatest goalkeeper, was once again protected by Neville and the evergreen Irwin. In the centre of defence, Bruce and Pallister had given way to be replaced by the commanding Jaap Stam and the reliable Ronny Johnsen.

The midfield was one of the best quartets ever seen in English football. By this time, Paul Scholes was established in the team, perfectly complimenting the talents of Keane, Beckham and Giggs. 

In attack, Cole and Dwight Yorke were one of those strike partnerships that just instantly clicked. There was strength in depth too, with Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer always ready and waiting, as they proved so sensationally in the 1999 Champions League final.

2007-08: Won the Premier League and Champions League 'Double'

Van der Saar, Brown, Evra, Ferdinand, Vidic, Carrick, Scholes, Giggs, Tevez, Ronaldo, Rooney

Verdict: An entirely new first five from the previous teams we've looked at, but arguably every bit as good. After years of trying to find a replacement for Schmeichel, United finally found their man in Edwin van der Saar. Wes Brown was an able deputy for the ageing and injured Neville, while Patrice Evra provided attacking thrust from left-back. In central defence, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand were at their peak and a perfectly balanced pairing.

The midfield is weaker than we've seen in previous teams. Roy Keane has never been replaced, although Michael Carrick is an underrated player and it was no coincidence that United started winning titles again once he was signed.

It is in the front three where this team really came into their own. As the football world moved away from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1 and 4-3-3 formations, Ferguson proved that he could be tactically adaptable. Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo were a front three that had absolutely everything.

So what do you think? Could this current side go head-to-head with any of these teams?