Manchester United's loss to Liverpool over the weekend had the consensus opinion being that United lost the battle in midfield where Lucas Leiva and Javier Mascherano were out-muscled and out-run by Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes.
United lost the battle in midfield and ultimately the match with echoes of their Champions League performance where United failed to stamp their authority on the match. So the question is, do United fail to perform in the big matches when they come up against the better midfields?
A brief look at their matches against Liverpool, Arsenal, and Chelsea in the Premier League does lead you to believe their issues are real.
United 0-1 Arsenal Cristiano Ronaldo, John O'shea, Scholes, Darren Fletcher
United 2-0 Liverpool Fletcher, Carrick, Scholes, Ryan Giggs
United 1-1 Chelsea Ronaldo, Carrick, Scholes, Giggs
Arsenal 2-1 United Carrick, Scholes, Giggs, Ronaldo
Liverpool 0-1 United Ronaldo, Scholes, Carrick, Giggs
Chelsea 0-0 United Eagles, Fletcher, Richardson, Smith (already won the title)
eight points from 18=1.33 points per match
United 2-0 Chelsea Carrick Ronaldo Scholes Giggs
Arsenal 2-2 United Hargreaves Anderson Ronaldo Giggs
Liverpool 0-1 Liverpool Ronaldo Anderson Giggs Hargreaves
United 3-0 Liverpool Ronaldo Carrick Scholes Anderson Giggs (4-5-1)
United 2-1 Arsenal Ronaldo, Scholes, Carrick, Hargreaves, Park (4-5-1)
Chelsea 2-1 United Carrick, Fletcher, Anderson, Nani, Giggs (4-5-1)
13 points from 18=2.17 points per match
Liverpool 2-1 United Carrick Anderson Scholes Rooney (Rooney started on the wing)
Chelsea 1-1 United Hargreaves Fletcher Scholes Park
Arsenal 2-1 United Carrick Ronaldo Anderson Park
United 3-0 Chelsea Fletcher Giggs Park (4-3-3)
United 1-4 Liverpool Carrick Anderson Park Ronaldo
United 0-0 Arsenal Carrick Fletcher Ronaldo Giggs
five points from 18=0.83 points per match
United 2-1 Arsenal Carrick Fletcher Valencia Nani Giggs
Liverpool 2-0 United Valencia Carrick Scholes Giggs
three points from 6.=1.5 points per match
1) In '06/'07, all seven points that were won, United played with Scholes/Carrick.
2) In '07/'08, in every match Ronaldo started against the top four, United did not lose.
3) In '07/'08, Hargreaves and Carrick started in three of the five matches against the top four in which United won points.
There was no denying Hargreaves' influence in the key matches during the 2007/2008 season. Fletcher was only on the losing side once last season and that was against Fulham after Scholes had got himself sent off early in the match.
Ferguson's dilemma is this: To take control of the midfield against the better sides with the players at his current disposal he opts to play 4-5-1, but then he lacks the centre forward to play the role of lone front man. If United play two up front this leaves their central midfield very exposed.
1) United has a weak central midfield if Fletcher is not playing as there are no other ball winners. To combat this, Ferguson deploys a 4-5-1 formation but this isolates Rooney up front.
2) Currently, United lack a centre forward who can play the lone front man role like Fernando Torres or Drogba. Whenever Wayne Rooney plays this role he becomes isolated and frustrated. Last season, Ferguson deployed Ronaldo in the role of front man to great success, indicating that neither Dimitar Berbatov nor Rooney are suited to this role.
3) Last season, Berbatov was benched and Rooney shunted to the left of a 4-5-1 against the better sides in the Champions League or when away from home as Ferguson was wary of the midfield being overrun.
4) Against Liverpool United midfield was overrun and both Rooney and Berbatov received little supply as United played 4-4-2, which is when they are most vulnerable to strong midfields.
5) Both Berbatov and Rooney are best suited to the role of second striker, so ideally they would prefer to partner someone like Owen up front. However, if United play 4-4-2 they lack control in midfield.
It's no coincidence that when United play 4-5-1 they end up with lots of possession but with little creativity as they lack a) the striker to play the role of a single front man and b) a goal scoring midfielder to provide support. When United play 4-4-2, the front two can get isolated as they do not receive enough of the ball from the midfield.
So Ferguson's dilemma is play 4-5-1 and most likely not lose and not score or play 4-4-2 and likely score but also more likely lose.