Manchester United’s impeccable form this season, currently leaves them on track to amass a record number of points in a single Premier League season.
But despite their astounding attacking consistency, there are still obvious defensive frailties in Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad.
Most of the time, these wobbles have been cancelled out by United’s offensive opulence, but the fact that the Red Devils have conceded the opening goal in 12 encounters so far this season is surely enough to concern their manager.
Ferguson has often known the precise moment to get rid of defenders who have passed their use-by date, a fact that Messrs Pallister, Bruce and Irwin can each attest to. However he has sometimes prematurely asked players to leave that have since gone on to flourish at pastures new, *cough* Jaap Stam.
Are Manchester United about to go through another defensive revamp? And if they are, who should stay and who should go?
12 months ago Patrice Evra looked certain to be ushered out of Old Trafford in favor of a younger, more consistent player.
But this season, the Frenchman has improved dramatically, and his defensive frailties have been eradicated and replaced with a goal-scoring dexterity that was previously unfathomable.
At 31 though, Evra is no spring chicken. So what other options do United have at left back?
Alexander Buttner was signed this summer from Vitesse Arnhem to provide competition for United's No. 3, and on his debut against Wigan he scored a spectacular solo goal and picked up the man of the match award to instantly win over the Old Trafford faithful.
However, his displays against Braga and West Ham have each been suspect. Ferguson obviously doesn’t have the utmost confidence in his ability, as he hasn’t handed him another Premier League start since his exuberance against the Latics.
Time will tell whether he can grow in stature to truly flourish at the Theatre of Dreams.
Meanwhile, Fabio da Silva’s loan spell at Queens Park Rangers has been a disaster, and if a crisis hits Ferguson could always resort to shipping Jonny Evans out port side.
However that might only end up disrupting the tremendous progress he has made at centre-back over the last 12 months, more of which you can read about in just a few pages' time. I bet you can't wait.
Conclusion: Evra for now, but Leighton Baines or Marcel Schmelzer’s signature might be needed in the next 18 months to replace Patrice.
Rafael da Silva has cemented his place as United’s first choice at right-back this season, popping up with important strikes against Fulham and Liverpool as well as an assist against Everton to help ease initial worries from fans about his inconsistencies.
His ultimate test in the position came in the Bernabeu last week, where he battled his former teammate, Cristiano Ronaldo. After a nervy first half, which included a silly yellow-card, the Brazilian soon settled and helped to restrict Real Madrid to half-chances.
A bigger challenge awaits in the return leg though, where the Spanish side’s devastating counter-attacking ability might leave him exposed.
Other options at right-back include Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, but injuries to both players have disrupted the progress they made during the opening matches of the 2011/12 season.
Smalling’s gangly frame juxtaposes his touch and elegance on the ball, whilst Jones’ frivolous attacking spirit is more suited to this position and isn’t as likely to be punished. Chances are Ferguson will be rotating this trio for several years to come.
Conclusion: Rafael, Jones and Smalling are all young and should be able to ease any qualms that Ferguson has over this position for the time being.
Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic will go down as Manchester United legends.
At times, they worked in tandem so beautifully that an opera akin to Swan Lake could have been written to honor their prowess.
Unfortunately though, the duo are now coming to the end of their United careers.
At the moment, both players are fit, and remain agile enough to start United’s biggest matches. But injuries and age are catching up with the pair, and Ferguson looks set to turn to a certain Northern-Irishman to lead the defensive line in the future…
Johnny Evans has, at times, infuriated United supporters, but he is now an integral member of the team's back line, and under the experienced guidance of Ferdinand and Vidic can continue to prosper for several more seasons.
Chris Smalling and Phil Jones can deputise for either player too, but currently lack Evans’ calmness and deft touch to dispatch Rio or Nemanja. The Northern-Irishman, Jones and Smalling are already recognised internationals and are the defensive future for the Red Devils.
Errors might continue to rear their ugly heads this season, but once each player has become accustomed to their role, expect United’s centre-backs to link up efficiently for years to come.
Conclusion: Ferdinand and Vidic will slowly be eased out in favour of Evans over the next 12 months, whilst Smalling or Jones will be waiting in the wings for their own opportunity to establish themselves.
Phil Jones’ £16.5 million move to Old Trafford saw him instantly compared to the likes of Duncan Edwards, Bryan Robson and Roy Keane; a daunting task for any player, let alone one with such a big forehead.
Since then though, Jones has been installed as a centre-back, a right-back, a box-to-box midfielder and a defensive midfielder. Unfortunately, this sporadic changing of position has only negated his influence on the team, whilst injuries have also helped to hamper his progress.
Now United don’t appear to know which position to settle Jones into. He is currently too temperamental to play in the centre of defence, where his cavalier and eager runs are often punished. That leaves just the right-back, which Rafael is thriving in, and the holding midfield positions for him to slot into.
Jones will struggle to flourish in the latter as his technical ability is still being refined. Plus, he only has two professional goals in his career.
The former Blackburn Rovers man has proved his worth as a tough tackling ball-winner against Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur, but Ferguson would obviously prefer to deploy a more creative player who can link up with his front-men in the role.
Conclusion: Jones has four options. A) To restrict his attacking urges and adapt into a centre-half. B) Battle Rafael for the right-back berth. C) Improve his passing, shooting, and positional nous and become a central midfielder. Or D) Continue to be rotated and turn into a £16.5 million version of John O’Shea.