Manchester United: Picking Sir Alex Ferguson's Strongest XI This Season
Football can be a cruel game that can turn in an instant. One minute, you're flying high and on top of the world. The next, you're dropping points against Stoke and FC Basel, and those players you thought were heroes were anything but.
Still, despite negative press starting to creep in around Manchester United, it still holds that the Red Devils have one of the strongest sides in Europe when healthy.
The problem, of course, is that one condition: "when healthy."
Sir Alex Ferguson hasn't been able to start his first choice side since captain Nemanja Vidic went down in the first game of the season. Since then, a rash of injuries has hit the side, claiming such notable names as Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney, and Javier Hernandez.
Still, United has made do with what they have, and what they have is unparalleled squad depth.
Here, then, is the strongest starting XI of the 2011-2012 season so far.
In choosing the squad, I'm taking into account cumulative performances across all competitions. I'm also taking into consideration playing time, especially when it comes to the injured players. As such, someone like Wayne Rooney (currently injured) will be included, whereas Nemanja Vidic (only played less than one half) will not.
Goalkeeper: David De Gea
I think it's safe to say that, at this point, De Gea is the best choice for goalkeeper on evidence shown. Ben Amos and Anders Lindegaard have each only had one start, although both did well. Almost by default, due to sheer amount of playing time, De Gea nabs the number one spot here.
And although he has had the odd clanker here and there and has shown an alarming knack for flapping at crosses, the wiry Spaniard has also shown enough skill to justify his selection. He's already displayed good reflexes and shot-stopping instincts. In fact, as of the game against Stoke, he had the most saves in the entire Premier League.
In addition to his shot-stopping, he's also demonstrated a knack for the telling pass, a vision for distribution similar to what Edwin van der Sar brought to the team. Given that he's only 20 years old and he still has some growing to do, I think it's safe to say that the United goal is in safe hands.
Right-Back: Chris Smalling
An argument could be made for Phil Jones to take this spot, but I'm giving it to the man who owned the role at the start of the season.
Primarily a center-back, Smalling was a surprise success at right. Indeed, he was so successful in the role that even Fabio Capello took notice, and he gave the youngster a start at right on the national team.
Center-Back: Phil Jones
Since coming in from Blackburn in the offseason, Phil Jones has been a revelation. Needing no "settling in" period, the youngster stormed his way into the first team through sheer bulldog-like force and determination, deputizing effectively for Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.
True, he's coming off a rather shambolic performance against FC Basel in the Champion's League, but the kid has given us reason to believe that this was more of a bump in the road rather than a sign of things to come. If anything, I believe that we're looking at the long term successor for Nemanja Vidic at the heart of our defence.
Center-Back: Jonny Evans
Jonny Evans endured a difficult year last season, so much so that many United fans thought that the Irishman was on his way out. But injuries have given him start after start this year, and he's repaid the manager's faith with a string of decent performances.
It can be argued that a fit-again Rio Ferdinand should have this spot, but in the games since his return, the former England captain has not shown enough at this point to merit a start over Evans.
There's a renewed vigor and confidence to Evans' game, and if he can keep consistent, we may have to get used to seeing him in the starting lineup until Vidic gets healthy.
Left-Back: Patrice Evra
Patrice Evra has worn the captain's armband more than any other player this season, and he fully deserves it. A consistent presence on the pitch, Evra brings dynamism to the left side of the field, both going forward and tracking back.
With all the youth in the side this year, veteran leadership is essential, and Evra has stepped up to provide it.
Is this man the next Cristiano Ronaldo?
After being snubbed for a starting role in last year's Champion's League final, Nani could have sulked off into the shadows, especially with Ashley Young's arrival. Instead, the Portuguese international turned in a string of stunning displays on the right flank. He's got electric pace, he scores thunderbolts at will, and he's a silky dribbler to boot.
But here's one thing Nani does better than his Portuguese compatriot: assists. Nani, at 100 premiership appearances, has twice as many assists as Ronaldo did while having similar goal tallies.
Nani has recently come out and said that he wants to become the best player in the world. In a game that has Lionel Messi, Ronaldo, and Wayne Rooney, that's a big ask. But I wouldn't bet against the United No. 17.
The Brazilian has had a decidedly uneven career with the Red Devils. Since he arrived, he's been both praised and vilified over the years. Sometimes he showed the samba flair that led Sir Alex to sign him; other times, fans called for his head.
This year was, in the eyes of many, his breakout year. Starting alongside the returning Tom Cleverley, Anderson surprised many by displaying that he has the ability to boss the midfield and act as the fulcrum through which the United attack flows. When he is on his game patrolling the midfield, it allows Nani, Rooney, and Young the creative freedom to work their magic, which is when United is unstoppable.
Anderson's form has dipped in recent games, but I believe that this is because of his midfield partnership... something I will address in the next slide.
Center-Midfield: Tom Cleverley
Tom Cleverley hasn't played in a while and he has been sorely missed.
Although the young Englishman is no Xavi, Iniesta, or Wesley Sneijder, he plays a pivotal role for United: he is the perfect foil for Anderson.
Indeed, the two of them, Cleverley and Anderson, bring out the best in each other. When both are on the pitch, they bring enough energy and just enough skill to play as classic box-to-box midfielders. They cover for each other, they support the wingers and strikers, and they have the legs and the verve to track back and help defend.
When Cleverley plays, Anderson's game is raised and the two form the best midfield unit United can field. With Cleverley gone, Anderson has had to make up for whatever weaknesses reside in Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher's games. Doing so makes Anderson a lesser player, and weakens United's midfield.
It remains to be seen if Cleverley will be as effective when he comes back from injury, but on the strength of his early season performances, he nabs a spot on this list.
Left-Midfield: Ashley Young
For years, United fans have been wondering who could ever succeed Ryan Giggs on the left wing.
Ashley Young, with his pace, trickery, and eye for goal, may have just answered that question. Arguably United's best signing in the offseason, Young has brought an extra touch of magic to the side. More importantly, he's formed an understanding with Wayne Rooney, and the two Englishmen seem to feed off each other more the longer they play.
If that understanding holds when Rooney gets back, the future looks bright for both United and England.
Forward: Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez
Fans will be debating as to who should be the second choice striker: Chicharito or Danny Welbeck.
Although Welbeck has many good qualities, in my mind Chicharito has the edge here. A born goalscorer with an unerring eye for goal, he is a poacher in the vein of Ruud van Nistelrooy and a young Michael Owen.
He has lighting pace, he plays just off the shoulder of the defense's last man, and he always seems to come up with a goal when you need it. Although he has suffered some injuries this year, he's not exactly fragile as those injuries were purely accidental.
Welbeck, still young, may yet grow into the better striker. But on the balance of current play, and considering each lad's style of play with relation to Wayne Rooney, I'll take the Mexican for now.
Forward: Wayne Rooney
With a renewed drive to go along with his renewed hairline, Wayne Rooney is romping through the Premier League.
Injured or not, he is arguably the best player in the league and is certainly in contention for World Player of the Year. He is as automatic a selection as they come.
So there you have it. It is a testament to United's squad depth that so many of the choices in this list could have gone any number of ways.
But on the balance of the season, these are my picks for Manchester United's strongest starting XI thus far.
Agree? Disagree? Strike back below, and thanks for reading!