Manchester United's Causes for Concern Require Back to Front Answers

Alex StampCorrespondent IOctober 31, 2009

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 25:  Wayne Rooney (L) and Michael Owen of Manchester United prepare to kick off after conceding a second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Manchester United at Anfield on October 25, 2009 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Michael Regan/Getty Images

In the ever growing world of hype and hyperbole that is the modern day Premier League, the unremitting glare of attention has shifted just slightly from Liverpool and Rafael Benitez's annus horribilis towards the Manchester United juggernaut which has slowly but surely begun to show signs of, not necessarily slowing down, but of definite mortality.


It is little under a year ago that fans and pundits alike were fawning over the finest team, and the finest squad which was allegedly ever assembled. But as ever, time in football rarely stands still, and in the wake of a defeat which was damningly deserved of a Liverpool with a manager allegedly on the brink, the questions being posed for Manchester United are beginning to find their mark.


Suddenly, questions which were dismissed as minors concerns have suddenly become real issues. All of a sudden the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez have become divisive concerns, the collective form of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic is under scrutiny like never before and the less said about Ben Foster the better.


The problems from Sunday laid bare some key issues which will have United fans worried, in particular at both ends of the pitch, in the defence and in the attack. It is worth reflecting that, even in recent history, these were considered the pillars of strength in this United team.


Last season's record breaking defensive run, and the collective might of Rooney, Ronaldo, Tevez, Berbatov et al were hailed as the cornerstones of their wonderful season which, were it not for that night in Rome, could have been one of the greatest not just in United's history, but in football history.


The question is, what has gone wrong since then?


In central defence the key issues are age and injuries. They may be a year older, and also a year wiser, but age is beginning to catch up with them. The injuries to Rio Ferdinand and Edwin Van der Sar earlier in the season have certainly disrupted a trio along with Vidic, who when in tandem appeared nigh on impregnable.


The form of Van der Sar on his return has been good and sharp, while the form of Ferdinand has been anything but that. His game has regressed back to that of his youth, where his erratic displays were frowned upon but expected.


Suddenly, the serenity which marked his finest years has disappeared, and with it has all sense of assurance at the back. The key question will be whether Ferdinand, fitness permitting, can do as the great players do, and prove himself again.


This will be a key issue, but it is one of a number. United fans will hope that familiarity, playing in a settled partnership again, can allow Vidic to regain some semblance of the form he displayed last season. But should Ferdinand and Vidic fail to regain their form, as some have speculated, the call for change could well become, if not irresistible, certainly imperative.


This is where the form of Evans will be key. Many have touted him as a first team regular for United for the last few years, yet now could be his time to step up. The challenge for him is to prove that his capability to step up can remain consistent.


Beyond that, there is little waiting in the wings. Wes Brown's qualities are well known, as are the injury problems which have cruelly claimed so much of his career. The links with Everton's Jack Rodwell were perhaps purely speculative, but were Sir Alex Ferguson looking beyond his current incumbents, he is the sort of player who Ferguson would love to procure.


Then there is the goalkeeper. The form of Van Der Sar, given his age and the length of his layoff has been remarkable, yet it is also damning on his replacement Ben Foster. Van Der Sar's cool head and remarkable agility stand in marked contrast to the jittery form which has so dogged Ben Foster's season.

While Sir Alex Ferguson may continue to believe that he can be England number one, if he is United's when Van der Sar retires is currently anyone's guess, so far has his stock fallen. This is what made United's trip to Moscow recently so intriguing, for one of the sub-plot concerned a young Russian keeper in Igor Akinfeev who will have undoubtedly impressed the men from Manchester.


Meanwhile, at the other end of the pitch, there are other causes for concern. One of the more enduring images of Sunday's win was of Dimitar Berbatov dropping deep to try to influence the play, where he did not appear remotely threatening to either Agger or Carragher.


This stands in sharp contrast to Fernando Torres, whose burst of speed past Ferdinand displayed the kind of explosive power which United fans once witnessed from their departed Portuguese.


The problem with Berbatov is that after almost 15 months at Old Trafford, few Manchester United fans could define him his role in the team. Targetman or playmaker?


Striker or supplier? While Sir Alex Ferguson continues to believe, others have lost their faith. Berbatov has never been a great scorer of goals, and he probably never will be, but in a team packed with goalscorers this wouldn't be a problem. Yet with goals, and goal threats, in short supply it becomes a huge problem.


Neither Rooney or the aforementioned Berbatov are overly prolific goalscorers, neither has twenty league goals in a season in their careers, while the faithful continue to proclaim that Michael Owen remains as sharp as ever, it would be a fool to believe that he could shoulder the responsibility of being United's main source of goals.


Elsewhere this lack of goals is laid even more bare. Valencia's class as a winger does not extend to goalscoring, Nani's inconsistencies continue to blight a potentially match-winning talent, while the over-reliance on Giggs and Scholes in midfield is a worry as they enter their mid 30's-veritably OAP status for footballers.


Goals are, alas, in short supply among their first choice attackers. Beyond their three main strikers, there are high hopes for several of the young forwards being groomed at Manchester United, yet it would be unfair to shackle these young players with the burdens of being relied upon for goals.


But in the likes of Danny Welbeck, Federico Macheda, and Joshua King, the future for United's strikers appears in good hands.


But that is for tomorrow, and it is the present day that Manchester United must focus their attentions. Sir Alex Ferguson's side have been so good for so long that they have rarely faced the sort of questions which now appear before them. But the key to United's season could lie in how they answer these questions from back to front