How does one characterise Manchester United’s season to date? After all Sir Alex Ferguson’s side lies second in the Premier League after 18 games, with only goal difference separating the Reds from cross town title rivals Manchester City. Despite an ever lengthening injury list, the American owners’ parsimonious attitude to the transfer market, and City’s sovereign wealth, United will surely head into 2012 favourites to take the Premier League title.
All rosy then except, of course, for United’s disaster in Europe, where the Reds were knocked out fair and square by FC Basel and Benfica over six games. Neither are the continent’s leading lights. If United’s benchmark for success is Europe’s premier competition then group stage exit is surely a regression from last season’s run to the final. Add to that an embarrassing Carling Cup exit to Crystal Palace and the season begins to look far less successful.
In the Premier League Ferguson’s side began the season in blistering form, scoring eight against Arsenal at Old Trafford, and brushing aside West Bromwich Albion, Tottenham Hotspur and Bolton Wanderers in the late summer. In doing so United played some of the most entertaining and attractive football of any team in Europe, including Barcelona, with Tom Cleverley and Anderson dynamic in central midfield.
Yet, that fine start to the season proved to be anything but sustainable, with the wheels truly falling off as City visited Old Trafford in October and put six past goalkeeper David de Gea. In truth a beating had been coming, with United conceding more shots on goal than any side in the division to that point. The lesson hit home in the most humiliating fashion, but Ferguson’s side responded strongly – domestically at least – by tightening up at the back, and winning a succession of games by a single goal margin.
In Europe, United’s campaign was nothing short of calamitous – performances, results and Ferguson’s management. From the beginning the Reds appeared to take the group lightly; less seriously than both the quality of opposition, and quality of Ferguson’s resources, deserved. Indeed, had the Scot not heavily rotated his team, in a group that United’s manager clearly believed was less than challenging, the Reds may well be facing a last 16 tie with Bayern Munich in February. Instead, United will meet Ajax in what promises to be a stimulating tie, if in Europe’s second division.
Elsewhere, United exited the Carling Cup at the quarter-final stage after the embarrassing loss to Palace. That would have been acceptable if the United manager had used the competition to blood younger players. Instead, England’s second cup competition became a pseudo reserve competition for United’s squad players.
Sir Alex Ferguson
It has been a mixed campaign for United’s manager. Cleverley’s injury against Bolton in September, and Anderson’s sudden and not unexpected loss of form and then injury, certainly did not help Ferguson’s planning this season, although the Scot’s strategic choice to not invest in central midfield leaves a lot to be desired. Unless, of course, Ferguson is right when he claims that the ‘Ronaldo money is there’, ‘there’s no value in the market’ and there is ‘nobody good enough for United’ in the transfer market.
Yet, the manager’s decision to rotate his team in Europe backfired hugely, for which the 69-year-old Scot is highly culpable. However, Ferguson drew a strong response out of his squad post derby humiliation – a series of results that no other manager in the league could have guaranteed. Once again the Scot will be required to create a team that is greater than the sum of its parts if United is to bring home a 20th domestic title come May 2012. 6/10
David de Gea
The 20-year-old Spaniard will undoubtedly become one of the world’s finest in the years to come. The talent at the Madridista’s disposal is genuine, and the player’s lifestyle and focus ensure that the £16 million signing will only get better with age. Yet, de Gea suffered a difficult start to the season, making a mistake for Edin Džeko’s goal at the Community Shield on debut. How could it be any other way – a youngster, moving abroad for the first time, under the brightest of media spotlights. It was always going to be a difficult start. 6/10
The Frenchman’s form is such that some supporters have questioned the 30-year-old’s place in the side. Yet, few if anyone will play more games for United this season than Evra, whose attacking contribution is not in doubt, but has on occasion become a defensive liability. Evra has plenty left to give United, but this is not the form of 2006-9. 6/10
The cult of Phil Jones has been growing by the day since the defender’s £16.5 million move from Blackburn Rovers in the summer. The 19-year-old’s multi-faceted talent, dynamic drive and obvious leadership mark Jones down as a very rare talent indeed. Jones’ best performances have come from right-back, with the player’s more obvious mistakes in the centre of defence, although a nod to recent outings in midfield is worthy. 7/10
The 33-year-old old’s place in the United side was never guaranteed this season, with Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and new signing Jones each competing for the (former) England defender’s spot. Indeed, early season injury to the former Leeds United player looked like it might precipitate Ferdinand’s demotion to the bench. Yet, in the past month Ferdinand’s performances have drawn praise. Rightly so, for he is still a fine player. 7/10
The 2010/11 season was a truly horrible for Evans, who may count himself lucky to still be a factor in Ferguson’s planning. Yet the current campaign has been something of a renaissance, with the Belfast-born player appearing in 19 matches to date. It is likely the 23-year-old will play more games for United in the current campaign than any other. Evans still has doubters, but 2011/12 is a big improvement to date. 7/10
What’s that you say, 31-year-old striker Owen is injured with a return yet to be determined? Whatsmore United are out of Owen’s favourite competition, the Carling Cup. Wasted squad space. 4/10
The Brazilian began the season in fine form, his partnership with Cleverley seemingly having rejuvenated the 23-year-old’s form. Yet, with Cleverley injured in September, Anderson’s form disappeared before the all-too-inevitable injury reared its head. Yet to convince anybody bar Sir Alex that a career at Old Trafford will extend beyond summer 2012. 4/10
Four goals in two games in late December cannot mask Berbatov’s lack of contribution this season, despite the Bulgarian’s many admirers. It is, of course, not lack of talent that is holding the 30-year-old back but the form of United’s other strikers. Berbatov still has much to contribute to United, but it will still be a surprise should the striker remain at Old Trafford beyond next summer. 5/10
United’s leading man began the season in superb form, suggesting that another 30-goal plus campaign was on the cards. Yet, with United’s form so went the striker’s in the autumn – or vice versa as the case may be. Once again Rooney’s ‘bursty’ goalscoring has come to the fore the season. He’s still the best at the club, but more consistency in front of goal would propel the striker into a different league. 8/10
Just five Premier League starts and nine in all competitions for the evergreen Welshman, who still has much to contribute to United’s cause. Giggs deserves a new contract if only for being, well, Ryan Giggs. 5/10
Moved from the centre of defence to right-back for much of the season. Smalling has demonstrated both his versatility and some weaknesses in the process. Smalling is a natural centre-back of the highest quality, and a fine right-back who sometimes looks uncomfortable. Not Ferguson’s long-term option on the right side of United’s back four, but this campaign has once again demonstrated Smalling’s value to the club. 6/10
Ji Sung Park
Another bit-part role for the Korean this season, who has started just 11 games in all competitions. It is hard to envision Park matching the 28 game, eight goal campaign of last time out, but he still retains a role to play in United’s plans. 5/10
Six goals in 11 starts for Hernández paint one picture, although two injuries this season have curtailed the Mexican’s role. In Hernández’ stead Danny Welbeck has forced his way into United’s team. Yet, the 22-year-old scored four crucial goals post derby and could yet play a pivotal role this season. 6/10
United’s best player this season before an horrific triple ligament injury ended the Serbian’s campaign. The consequences of Vidić’s injury are yet to be determined, but could yet be serious come May. Reports of the Serbian’s decline were premature, but how the 30-year-old comes back from a very serious injury is key to his future at Old Trafford. 9/10
United’s best player during November and December and that is saying something given the Geordie’s poor form over the past two years. Carrick has never lacked for guile or defensive nous, and the 30-year-old’s ability to retain and recycle possession is crucial. Yet a more dynamic Carrick has emerged over the past eight weeks. Will it last? It could mean the difference between success and failure this season. 7/10
Another fine campaign from the Portuguese who thrills and disappoints in sometimes equal measure. Nani is absolutely crucial to United’s fortunes yet will, undoubtedly, shoot when he should pass, or pass when he should shoot at a crucial point this season. The talent is unlimited; the application sometimes faulty. Twas always the way. 7/10
The £16 million former Aston Villa winger started the season, like so many of United’s forwards, in fine form. But form is temporary and class is… well, a question of quality that was always in doubt with Young. Will the 26-year-old be United’s answer to Lionel Messi? Never, but he has added to United’s attacking resources this season. 6/10
Welbeck’s year at Sunderland turned, in the striker’s own words, a boy into a man. Welbeck’s talent was in question and the Longsight-born forward’s answer has been excellent. Is Welbeck good enough to fire United to Premier League glory? That is yet to be answered, but Welbeck certainly deserves his shot at a permanent place in Ferguson’s side. 7/10
Fabio da Silva and Rafael da Silva
At least one of the Brazilian brothers is normally injured, but too often this season it has been both. Despite Rafael’s progress in 2009/10, and Fabio’s last season, neither of the brothers has contributed much this campaign. Much more to come… if either/or can stay fit for a season.4/10
Cleverley emerged from a loan spell at Wigan Athletic last season emboldened and confident. The player’s contribution to United’s excellent start cannot be overstated, and by contrast United’s form without the 22-year-old in the heart of midfield has suffered. The England international’s pass-and-move style could be crucial to United’s chances in the second part of the season – if he can regain and retain his fitness. 6/10
The Scottish midfielder’s ill health is a blow both to United and the player. Indeed, returning to Ferguson’s side this campaign has come at a serious cost to the player. Questions about Fletcher’s long-term ability to return will now be asked, as will United’s strategy of not recruiting a midfielder last summer. 5/10
The Ecuadorian began the season seemingly shorn of confidence and surpassed in Ferguson’s thinking by new recruit Young. Yet, with the former Villa player on the sidelines, and a lengthy run in the side inevitable, Valencia’s confidence has seemingly returned. The winger could well help Rooney fire United to the title. 7/10
Macheda’s disastrous loan spell at Sampdoria last season has set the Italian youngster back. Once ahead of Welbeck in the pecking order, Macheda will do well to resurrect his United career at all. 3/10
That Gibson remains at Old Trafford is something of a miracle. That the Irishman actually starts games for United is almost unthinkable. Injury to the Irishman prevented a potential move away from Old Trafford last summer, and with some irony, it is injury to others that may well keep Gibson in Manchester until summer 2012. 4/10
Mame Biram Diouf
Brief appearances in the Carling Cup aside, Diouf has offered nothing to United’s campaign. Come to think of it the Senegalese striker has offered little since a £3.5 million move to the club two years ago. 3/10
The Dane joined amid a chorus of doubts, with former United great Peter Schmeichel leading the choir. Yet, with six games played and no goals conceded there can be little doubt about Lindegaard’s impact. Solid, predictable and shorn of errors, the Dane is a fine goalkeeper. Is he potentially one of the greats? No. But probably the best back-up goalkeeper United has fielded in a decade. 7/10
Paul Pogba, Ravel Morrison, Ezikiel Fryers
Of the trio few may have predicted that Fryers would make the strongest move towards the first team this season. Yet, mature performances in both the Carling Cup and Premier League mean that the 19-year-old is effectively Evra’s understudy. 5/10
Morrison and Pogba have shown glimpses of talent, but not yet been afforded a run in the first team that so many supporters have clamoured for. In truth each is at least a year away from genuinely challenging for a place in Ferguson’s side. 4/10