Tag Mid season report

Tag Mid season report

Mid-season report 2015/16

December 24, 2015 Tags: Opinion 17 comments
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It was meant to be a season of progress. The year in which Manchester United returned to the top table of European football and made a fist of a genuine Premier League title challenge. This, after all, is the minimum yardstick by which any United team is to be judged. It was to be a season in which the “process” yielded genuine progress and just a modicum of dignity after the messy clean-up following the failed the David Moyes era. How hopes have been dashed. Read More

Mid-season report 2014/15

December 29, 2014 Tags: Opinion 22 comments
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Well it really couldn’t get any worse at Manchester United after David Moyes’ disastrous freshman – and only – year at the club. In the context Louis van Gaal could hardly fail during his opening six months at Old Trafford, although there have been times that the pressure on the Dutchman has steadily creeped north. Not least after United recorded the worst opening 10 league games since the mid-1980s.

That pressure mounted in no small part because of the club’s about-face in the transfer market last summer – spending £150 million on Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera, Daley Blind, Radamel Falcao and, mostly extravagantly, Angel Di Maria. This high quality was in stark contrast to the final years under Sir Alex Ferguson and Moyes’ wasteful outlay on Marouane Fellaini.

Yet, in recording a nine-match unbeaten run through late autumn and winter, including seven victories, Van Gaal has increasingly won hearts and minds. The narrative has evolved: Van Gaal’s United, no longer in crisis, is a club on the rise once again.

It was always essential that the Dutchman stamp his authority on the squad in a manner that Moyes never managed and then establish that much-vaunted ‘philosophy’. The Dutchman has undoubtedly achieved the former, although the latter has proven more troublesome. Indeed, it has been a half-season of, well, two halves, with United far more Moysian than many fans would care to admit through the late summer and autumn despite the outlandish squad refresh.

Lost amid the drama of Van Gaal’s arrival and United’s lavish spending has been the rank inconsistency over the past five months – in results, performances, tactical approach and strategy employed. So little of it has been the ‘United way’ let alone the Van Gaal way. The Dutchman has changed systems almost by the week, while giving so little indication as to his end-game. Is Van Gaal’s United destined to play possession-based football in the Dutch mould? To counter-attack? Or is Van Gaal’s 2014 vintage purely pragmatic – the result of more than 40 separate injuries to his squad? To date the only consistent indication of the future is Van Gaal’s past.

Yet the turnaround in performances and results since the early winter has been stark. Van Gaal’s side has touched new heights almost by the game from early November onwards. Performances have varied – the Reds were excellent against Hull City, Liverpool and Newcastle United, less so at Arsenal, Southampton and Aston Villa – but results have been better than almost anybody expected.

In this there is hope that results in the second half of the season will exceed those in the first. There is no little intrigue too. Will United finally discover Van Gaal’s ‘philosophy’ and will it live up to expectations? 7/10

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Louis van Gaal
If personality is the answer then United’s post-Moyes predicament was undoubtedly English football’s most pressing question. Van Gaal has it and then some, quickly establishing his authority at Old Trafford and a sense of aura the insipid Moyes always lacked. It took very little time for the Dutchman to revolutionise his squad, by shipping out deadwood, not just acquiring new talent. Then he set about establishing the kind of meritocratic pattern to his team selection – an area where Moyes always fell short. Van Gaal is open, to a point at least, direct and has left few in doubt about the scale of his ambition. The Dutchman has brought in a world-class coaching team and, in retaining Ryan Giggs, harboured some link with the past. And in doing so Van Gaal has steadily squeezed more out of players who offered little in recent years, especially Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia and Fellaini. Yet, he is also in crisis mode: the idiosyncratic use of tactics and systems, often changing week-to-week, has been positively Fergusonian. In the context Van Gaal has done well, but there is more to come. 7/10

Louis van Gaal

David de Gea
United’s outstanding performer last season is also the club’s best player this term. The Spaniard’s contract situation is steadily creeping into the conversation with just 18 months left on the deal. Will United seriously risk losing a stopper yet to reach his peak after demonstrating so much patience over the past four years? On the the pitch De Gea has been faultless; his performances against Arsenal, Everton and Liverpool secured United nine-points that may well be the difference between Champions League football next season and otherwise. 9/10

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Rafael da Silva
Whatever the merit of the young Brazilian’s growing maturity there little value in the full-back when he spends so much time in the treatment room. Rafael offers much, but too often this is limited to the realms of theory. Yet more injury problems this season have restricted Rafael to just six Premier League starts and forced a tactical switch to a three-man defence. He simply must stay fit or his time at Old Trafford will surely come to an end next summer. 6/10

Luke Shaw
It says something for Shaw’s talent that United paid almost £30 million for the teenager last summer. There is little doubt that the former Southampton player has all the tools to become a full-back of world repute – pace, a modern attacking instinct and sound defensive qualities. Fitness concerns and then injury have blighted Shaw’s season to date, but the youngster remains central to Van Gaal’s long-term planning – and a flat-back four! 6/10

Jonny Evans
In keeping with Rafael – and for that matter Phil Jones and Chris Smalling – Evans spends far too much time on the injury list and not in the first team. Just seven league games this season points to another campaign blighted by injury. Bad luck, poor training, a lack of professionalism? The answer is unclear, but as in so many campaigns Evans cannot progress when his game time is so limited. Unfortunately time on the pitch has also come with a clutch of mediocre performances this season. 5/10

Chris Smalling
Another player whose season has been ruined by injury. Still, Smalling has enjoyed some creditable performances in central defence when fit. His distribution has improved and those defensive instincts come to the fore without the restrictions placed on the former Fulham player when he is deployed at right-back. That ‘brain-dead’ moment against Manchester City was unfortunate, but an exception and not the rule. 6/10

Phil Jones
Alongisde Marcos Rojo, Jones is United’s best defender this season, although injury has limited the 22-year-old to just eight games. There is no limit to the Lancastrian’s ability and with a settled position in central defence now established Jones needs only to stay fit to become a mainstay of United’s defence for the next decade. It has been a decent half-season to date, but there is better to come. 7/10

Marcos Rojo
United’s best defender this season in his first campaign in England. This is some testament to how quickly Rojo has adapted to the challenge of a big-money transfer to a new club. Aggressive yet cultured on the ball, Rojo needs only to learn the art of positioning to become a top-class central defender. Unfortunately a dislocated shoulder and a thigh injury have limited Rojo to 10 appearances. Fitness permitting the Argentinean will be a fixture in Van Gaal’s side for the rest of the campaign. 8/10

Marcos Rojo

 

Tyler Blackett
It was almost Blackett’s breakthrough year, but in the end the Mancunian’s six Premier League appearances firmly place the 20-year-old in the ‘promising’ category. Composed in central defence, Blackett has seemingly suffered for Van Gaal’s switch to a back-three in recent weeks and has rarely been selected since seeing red against Leicester in late September. Out of contract next summer – a situation the club should resolve. 6/10

Patrick McNair
It is no contradiction to state that McNair is both composed and nervous in a United shirt. The Irishman’s defensive instincts are sound enough yet big game nerves obviously affected the youngster at Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur. Experience should polish those rough edges, but has Van Gaal discover a new diamond or not? The jury remains out, but the early signs are hugely positive. Also out of contract next summer. 6/10

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Antonio Valencia
Valencia has enjoyed the campaign to date in a wing-back role that benefits from his athleticism. At full-back Valencia is too often caught in the wrong position, although he has performed creditably in the new role this season. Valencia’s ability to beat his man and deliver a cross has long since disappeared, although there was that one moment against Newcastle United! Van Gaal has plenty of room for upgrade here. 6/10

Ashley Young
Young’s turnaround is remarkable. So often the butt of supporters’ ire, Young’s persistent mediocrity has been replaced this season by a player reborn at wing-back. Part of this is expectation of course; supporters realise that Young has a dual attacking and defensive role and expect less from each. But the former Aston Villa player has also delivered in both roles and saved his United career in the process. 7/10

Ander Herrera
It has been an unfortunate season for the Basque midfielder. Injury has limited the 24-year-old’s appearances just as the £28 million acquisition looked to be settling in to the team. Neat on the ball, technically sound and a dynamic addition to United’s squad, Herrera offers so much more to the team than, for example, Fellaini. Yet, the Herrera is often left on the bench when Fellaini is selected – and should ask himself why it is that Van Gaal appears to trust the Belgian more? 5/10

Angel Di Maria
Another player for whom injury has affected the campaign, although the Argentinian has demonstrated enough in 12 games for the club to show just why United paid Real Madrid almost £60 million last August. Di Maria’s drive from a central midfield position is absolutely essential in an otherwise ponderous attacking line-up. Fitness permitting Di Maria should prove he is United’s best player in the months to come. 8/10

Angel Di Maria

Daley Blind
Ladies’ favourite Blind settled into a defensive midfield role in Michael Carrick’s absence during the early months of the campaign. Blind’s distribution is sound, if less penetrative than Carrick’s, although the Dutchman enjoys a strong range of defensive skills. Still, there remains something just a touch of incisiveness lacking in the former Ajax midfielder’s game for the very top level. Can he find it before the end of the campaign? 6/10

Marouanne Fellaini
That word expectation is relevant once again. Fellaini’s debut season for United was little short of a £27 million disaster. A player without pace, technique or semblance of a sound passing game is of so little use at the very highest level. Yet, some of the Belgian’s performances this season have drawn praise from his manager and supporters alike. The latter expected little and gained more, but the midfielder will surely never become a key part of United’s team. 6/10

Michael Carrick
How Van Gaal missed Carrick through the late summer. The Geordie’s ability to both create and defend is essential to United’s cause and has remained so for almost nine seasons. It is often said that to misunderstand Carrick is a failure to understand football itself. Yet, Van Gaal has no misconception and through the early winter the 33-year-old has done enough to earn a new contract at Old Trafford. An outstanding campaign to date. 8/10

Juan Mata
United’s most creative player has, unfortunately, developed a reputation for performing at home yet missing his mark away from Old Trafford. That is not always a fair assessment, although it is true that the Spaniard struggles to influence the game on the road. In part Mata suffers for Van Gaal’s 3-5-2 system away from home where the former Chelsea player is deployed in a deeper role. Still, rumours persist that United’s manager is prepared to offload the £37 million player. It would be a genuine mistake. 7/10

Adnan Januzaj
What next for the ‘boy who can do anything?’ Certainly, the campaign has marked a regression in Januzaj’s standing at United. In part the Januzaj has suffered from United’s deployment of wing-backs this eason, but also because of Di Maria’s acquisition. Yet, the teenager is far too good to be released on loan. Can his manager find a role when the team inevitably switches back to a four man defence in the coming weeks? 5/10

Darren Fletcher
Fletch lives, but only just. Out of contract next summer, the campaign to date has demonstrated Fletcher’s enduring combative qualities, but also his permanent physical limitation. No longer able to influence a game for the full 90 minutes, Fletcher is now restricted to a role as a defensive substitute. Likely to leave Old Trafford next year. 5/10

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Robin van Persie
This has not been van Persie’s finest campaign. The Dutchman has rarely touched the level of his freshman year with United; in truth he has been mediocre for much of the past 18 months. Yet, there are signs in recent weeks that the former Arsenal forward’s hunger has returned – a sharpness together with eight goals in the campaign to date. But for injuries elsewhere Van Persie might have already lost his place in the team. 6/10

Radamel Falcao
United’s ‘shock and awe’ deadline day signing is world class in every department save for his actual performances in a Red shirt. Rumour has it that United will hold off making a final decision on Falcao’s permanent transfer until April. This is sound logic based on the opening five months of the campaign. There is more to come from the Colombian; for the moment injury and a lack of fitness have blunted one of the world’s premier strikers. 5/10

Radamel Falcao

Wayne Rooney
Another strange campaign from Rooney, whose burst of goals in the late autumn brought hope that the Scouser may return to his glorious peak of yesteryear. Yet, in the opening weeks Rooney was poor, starved both of goals and his first touch. Still, the former Evertonian is now rapidly learning a new role as an attacking midfielder. He is no Paul Scholes, but then so few are and Van Gaal was right to ask for a more attacking approach to his game from a deeper role. 7/10

James Wilson
The youngster is United’s long-term striking future, with no guarantee that either Van Persie or Falcao will be at the club beyond next summer. Wilson’s pace is at the top end and so is his finishing, at least a youth and reserve level. He is yet to score this season, but Van Gaal appears to have much faith in the teenager after starting the kid against Liverpool. It was a significant statement. 5/10

Mid-season report 2013/14

December 27, 2013 Tags: Opinion 6 comments
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The post-Sir Alex Ferguson era. Even six months after the dawn of a new époque in Manchester United’s history the words sound strange. The king is dead, long live the king. But Moyes will live long – a six-year contract handing the Scot security of tenure that seems anathema in modern football. This is a clear message to those on the terraces and the fourth estate doubting Moyes’ suitability for the United job. Like it or not, Moyes is United’s present and future.

Yet, doubts there have been, starting with the former Everton manager’s dubious credentials for one of the top jobs in world football. After all Moyes had won nothing – nada, rien, zilch – in more than a decade on Merseyside. Then there is the perception of caution, both in the transfer market and on the pitch, and the paranoid counter-productive approach to media relations. That’s without mentioning an agricultural brand of football Everton often adopted under Moyes. His is not a CV all would have chosen for Old Trafford.

Some of this preconception has played out; it is not simply a projection of supporters’ prejudice. The summer transfer market was a disaster of unmitigated propositions, with United paying perhaps double Marouanne Fellaini’s true value while missing out on five identified targets with an embarrassingly slapstick approach to the market. United might have been prepared to spend on Cesc Fabregas, Ander Herrara, Thiago Alcantara, Leighton Baines and Gareth Bale, but the club did not come close to securing any of the quintet. Not all of this was Ed Woodward’s fault.

Then there has been United’s on-the-pitch performances, which have been laboured bordering on ugly, with the percentage game all too often at the fore. After all, the Reds’ performances against Swansea City, West Ham United and Leverkusen have proven to be an exception. Rarely has United come anything close to the rich history of attacking, creative and exciting football that so many supporters have feasted on over the decades. Yes, this is a period of transition – from a great manager, to his hand chosen successor – but the jury remains out on whether it has been a success. The foreman is not set to return a full verdict inside the next 18 months. 5/10

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David Moyes
So much of the judgement passed on United’s season is wrapped in an assessment of the new manager. Moyes wasn’t everybody’s choice for the United post and in that context has taken on an operose challenge at which he may never succeed. Certainly, Moyes could have helped himself – the omnishambles of a summer, Moyes’ negative tactics, United’s functional football, and tendency towards foot-in-mouth public relations has been at least partly of Moyes’ making. However, there are growing signs that United’s players are finally fighting for Moyes’ cause, if not performing at their peak. 5/10
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David de Gea
It is a marker of de Gea’s status in world football that there are now so few goalkeepers on the continent that come close to the young Spaniard’s standard. True, the Guardian’s list of the top 100 players in world football omits United’s number one in favour of Manuel Neuer, Gigi Buffon, Thibaut Courtois, Hugo Lloris, Petr Cech, Victor Valdes, Federico Marchetti, Samir Handanovič, and Asmir Begovic. But whatever that jury was smoking it seems best to steer clear. None of the above, with the exception of Neuer, have performed better than de Gea in 2013. 8/10

Anders Lindegaard
It is only a year since Lindegaard harboured genuine hopes of becoming United’s senior stopper permanently. That desire destroyed, the Dane faces a clear choice: remain at Old Trafford in a purely reserve capacity or move on in search of full-time football. Lindegaard remains a reasonable back-up, but little more than that. 4/10

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Patrice Evra
Moyes aggressive search for a new left-back in the summer appeared to signal the end of Potty Paddy’s Old Trafford tenure – and what a period it has been. For a time Evra was the world’s finest left-back and the first half of the campaign has offered a few glimpses of Evra’s peak. Yet, defensively Evra presents a problem in Moyes’ preferred tactical system, although there can be little doubt about the Frenchman’s enduring quality – not least in the dressing room where the 32-year-old is a genuine leader. 7/10

Rafael da Silva
This has been a frustrating campaign for da Silva, whose outstanding performance last season has regressed under Moyes. Injury and a suspicion that the Scot under-rates the young Brazilian abound – Rafael may just have to prove himself all over again. Yet, the former Fluminese player adds real balance to both United’s defence and attack. Rafael is a crucial component of Moyes squad, but does the Scot realise it? 6/10

Rio Ferdinand
In Gary Neville’s case West Bromwich Albion brought the curtain down on a fine career; the full-back’s performance so abject that he retired shortly after a 2–1 United victory at The Hawthorns. Perhaps the cruelest assessment of Ferdinand’s season is that his ‘West Brom moment’ has seemingly come in repetition. That Rio did not even make United’s squad for the Red’s victory over Hull City says much – his time is up, retirement probably overdue. His has been an outstanding career. 4/10

Jonny Evans
The northern Irishman has many commendable facets, not least a growing maturity that befits the 25-year-old. After all, Evans is reaching a prime – a period in his career when the best performances should come. For the most part Evans remains United’s most consistent and reliable central defender. Yet, the suspicion endures that there is always a mistake waiting to happen; too many for an élite player. It is a difference between Evans and the very best in his position. 7/10

Phil Jones
Progress has come through an injury-free period and a more consistent starting berth in which Jones has impressed in both central midfield and defensive positions. Fans have come to expect the bombastic – it is maturity that is now the watchword for Jones. Can the Englishman develop into the world-class central defender many believe resides within? And can that happen if he is consistently deployed in a central midfield role that does not always suit? 7/10

Alexander Büttner
Büttner is little more than squad filler. In truth, this has been the Dutchman’s role from the moment he signed for United – to protect Evra’s legs and to serve the greater good. Strange then that Büttner should claim he was promised up to 20 games a season by Ferguson and a long-term transition away from Evra to the Dutchman. It will never happen. n/a

Nemanja Vidić
This is surely the downslope in Vidić’s United career. Still the club’s most natural defender, Vidić has suffered both for injury and inconsistency this season. There is the suspicion that the Serbian’s legs have finally gone – a lack of pace that when deployed in certain combinations dramatically affects United’s tactical approach. Vidić is a fine defender, but he may no longer be the right defender at Old Trafford. 5/10

Chris Smalling
There is so much more to come from the former Fulham defender, but how long can Moyes wait for the finished product to shine through? Smalling has all the physical assets and many of the technical ones to make it at United. Consistency, fitness and a permanent spot in central defence and not at right-back is surely the key. Yet, Smalling is too often found out in possession – he should love the ball far more than he does. 6/10

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Antonio Valencia
There have been times this season when Valencia’s old confidence returned. Such as a pity that these moments have been sporadic, not the norm. True, Valencia has always been a one club hitter, but when it is effective, Valencia’s hug-the-touchline approach is very effective. Yet, the winger’s tendency is now to check his natural instincts; to cut inside rather than beat his man; to hold back and not attack. It is a serious and suspiciously permanent failing. 6/10

Nani
United offered Nani a contract extension this summer simply to retain the winger’s transfer value – it is the obvious conclusion five months hence. After all, Nani’s position in Moyes’ squad is little different to that in Ferguson’s, where the veteran Scot had not only marginalised the Portuguese international but sought to offload him to Zenit St. Petersburg last winter. 4/10

Ashley Young
Young has become the poster child for the more disaffected among United’s support. The former Aston Villa winger has done little, bar the irregular goal, to justify his acquisition more than two years ago. The goals, such as those against Stoke City and West Ham United, mask what has largely been a series of mediocre performances. United desperately need an upgrade. 5/10

Ryan Giggs
The Welshman plays on and sporadically provides a reminder of his enduring quality. Giggs’ performance in Leverkusen, for example, could have come at any point over the last 20 years. Too often the veteran is wasteful in possession and a liability in defence. Understandable criticisms given the 40-year-old’s lengthy tenure in the United first team. Remains a key voice in the dressing room. 5/10

Marouanne Fellaini
It is not the Belgian’s fault that United so grossly over-paid, but this is the context in which Fellaini’s performances are judged. The £27 million United laid out should have provided a significant upgrade to the side’s ailing midfield. It has not. After all, for a little more United might have, by way of example, acquired Arturo Vidal or İlkay Gündoğan. Indeed, Fellaini creates little, is a defensively suspect, seemingly muscled off the ball at will, and has proven to be embarrassingly slow. Strange player, stranger acquisition. 3/10

Tom Cleverley
It is disappointing, but a truism that Cleverley has progressed little over the past two years. It is at least a partial explanation why there has been such a negative supporter reaction to ‘brand Cleverley’. Here is a young man whose football should come first; performances taking primacy over promotions. It doesn’t always feel that way, especially in a campaign where Cleverley’s contribution has been so mixed. 6/10

Michael Carrick
Sir Alex has oft asserted that Carrick starts each campaign slowly, coming into his prime only after the autumn has passed. It’s a claim only partly true, although the Geordie has certainly been blow-par this year. In a campaign where United’s midfield has again struggled to match the mediocre, let alone the best, Moyes needs more from his senior midfielder. 6/10

Shinji Kagawa
The Japanese player’s quality during two years at Borussia Dortmund earned a move to Manchester. His performances in the following 18 months have brought only conjecture. Consigned to the bench, then to the left of midfield, Kagawa’s cause appeared lost during August and September. Yet, injury to Robin van Persie in the autumn afforded Kagawa an opportunity in his favoured role at number 10. Success has been only been partial. There is more to come from Kagawa, but it is not certain that it will be at Old Trafford. 6/10

Adnan Januzaj
Januzaj’s rise from academy, to reserves, and then Moyes’ first team has been rapid, but boy has the Kosovan-Belgian taken his opportunity. There is more than a suspicion of future world star status in the teenager’s performances, which have combined a rare maturity with quality in abundance. Januzaj will surely be a huge factor in the second half of United’s campaign. 7/10

Darren Fletcher
It is more than sentimentality that has brought such warmth with Fletcher’s return to the United team – the Reds need him too. It is probably impossible for the Scot to reach former heights, but for the moment another warm body is truly welcome. n/a

Anderson
The Brazilian is still at Old Trafford, and no this isn’t an April Fools joke. So rarely has a player so expensive contributed so little to United’s cause. It is no different this season where Anderson is little more than red ink on an accountant’s balance sheet. n/a

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Robin van Persie
This has largely been a campaign of frustration for the Dutchman, who has scored 10 goals in all competitions at a fair rate, but has spent too long on the treatment table. Has van Persie’s poor record with injury made an untimely return; is Moyes’ training regime simply too tough on the 30-year-old striker? Either way, United needs the Dutchman fit, in form and scoring goals if silverware is to be secured come the season’s end. 7/10

Wayne Rooney
The narrative surrounding Rooney’s campaign masks some truths. Rooney is not the player he once was, although a sound work ethic has replaced some of the star-quality. That said, Rooney’s happiness under Moyes, who is prepared to push obsequious sycophancy to its nauseating limit, is a significant bonus for United. Nine goals and as many assists also represents solid numbers at the half-way point of the campaign. 8/10

Javier Hernández
Ask those in the know and it is clear that Hernández is increasingly frustrated with life on United’s bench. The occasional outspoken comment – or in this case, tweet – offers a glimpse into the Mexican’s state of mind. Hernández is on course to break his nation’s goalscoring record at international level yet is destined to forever be a United reserve. It will surprise few if the 25-year-old leaves in the summer. 5/10

Danny Welbeck
There is so much to admire in the Longsight-born striker, whose all-round game is maturing rapidly. Yet, strikers are always judged on goals and Welbeck’s six in all competitions is light, if an improvement on last season. His manager’s recent assertion that Welbeck should dedicate more time to practice is telling; Welbeck’s casual dismissal of the idea a real concern. Good, but could be so much better. 7/10

* ratings given to players who have made 10 appearances or more in all competitions

Mid-season report 2012/13

December 27, 2012 Tags: Opinion 41 comments

It is one of the stranger seasons in Manchester United’s recent history. Sir Alex Ferguson’s reaction to Manchester City’s Premier League title victory on goal difference was to bolster his attack, while largely ignoring obvious problems in other areas. Ferguson spent more than £40 million on Robin van Persie, Shinji Kagawa and Nick Powell last summer – attackers all – in search of more goals and greater penetration. Never again, said the septuagenarian, would his team lose a title on goal difference.

Yet that equation has always been a balanced one; goal difference is, after all, the sum of those scored and conceded. Indeed, Ferguson’s decision to concentrate on improving his attacking resources last summer is mirrored in United’s tactical approach through the season – the Reds have largely been open and fluid. The approach has left Ferguson’s back four vulnerable and a certainly sense of inevitability that United would concede freely this season.

There is much to play for in the second half of the season, with the Reds top mid way through the Premier League campaign and looking forward to a Champions League Round of 16 tie with Real Madrid. Yet, history says that teams of United’s open nature rarely win the biggest trophies. While Ferguson’s team has scored plenty, the side has also lost five in all competitions. The suspicion is that United will have to tighten up at some point. The question is whether the team truly can. 7/10

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Sir Alex Ferguson
The 70-year-old Scot now has a stand and a statue at Old Trafford – cynics might suggest that United’s directors are sending a less-than-subtle word Ferguson’s way. Yet, Sir Alex is driving forward with a rare determination, seemingly invigorated by City’s Premier League victory last season. Still, there are plenty of question marks this season: the summer rebuilding programme, tactical approach, and his faith with a tranche of players clearly past their best. This side is certainly not one of the Scot’s finest, but it will challenge on most fronts come May. 7/10

– – –

David de Gea
Generally labelled as a goalkeeper with significant weaknesses, it is only in November and December that the Spaniard has secured a consistent run in the first team. Still, there have been fewer mistakes and more confident handling to go with the outstanding reflexes. It is hard to find major fault with a young stopper still growing into the art. Yet, Ferguson’s insistence on rotating his keepers, or indeed dropping one or other seemingly without fault, is the source of much frustration among supporters. Presumably for the Spaniard as well. 7/10

Anders Lindegaard
Almost in contrast to De Gea, the Dane is billed as solid and dependable. Yet, there was little steadfast in goals conceded against Gareth Bale, Clint Dempsey, David Luíz, and Daniel Sturridge among others. The suspicion, little changed from Lindegaard’s début at United, is that the former Aalesund ;player is good, but not good enough to be United’s first choice. It is seemingly an observation with which Sir Alex has only recently concurred. 6/10

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Patrice Evra
If Alexander Büttner’s acquisition was meant to put pressure on the Frenchman then it has certainly worked in a positive way. Seemingly in the doldrums for more than two years there is a new spring in Evra’s step this season, marked with four goals already. True, Evra has been either directly or indirectly culpable for goals conceded – then who hasn’t in United’s back four and central midfield? Moreover, a tactical system that emphasises attack and not defence has left the 31-year-old exposed far too often. Still among the very best, if no longer at his peak. 7/10

Rafael da Silva
It is surely a landmark season for the Brazilian youngster who has demonstrated a new maturity together with far more consistency this season. An injury-free run until the Christmas programme has certainly helped, as – conversely – has the long spell on the sideline suffered by both Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. On his way to become the classy full-back Ferguson always believed Rafael would become. Bravo! 8/10

Rio Ferdinand
Another solid campaign from United’s veteran campaigner who has overcome a series of back problems to feature heavily once again this season. Culpable for goals conceded at times, with the defender’s waning pace brutally exposed by Gareth Bale in Tottenham Hotspur’s victory at Old Trafford, but still as classy as ever on the ball. Will surely be offered another year at the club, especially with doubts surrounding captain Nemanja Vidić’s long-term fitness. 7/10

Jonny Evans
When Jonny goes marching down the wing he scores, he scores! Four goals from the Northern Irishman together with a string of solid displays mark another step forward in Evans’ career. The suspicion that there is a mistake – whether overt or more subtle – remains though and there have times when the 24-year-old has been caught out of position this season. But the days of Evans shirking a physical challenge are very much over. 7/10

Phil Jones
Long-term injury has restricted the former Blackburn Rovers defender to just seven games this season – three from the bench. There’s much more to come from the youngster, although no obvious place waiting for him in Ferguson’s team. n/a*

Alexander Büttner
Just a handful of games for the former Vitesse Arnham full-back who has confirmed suspicions that the 23-year-old was acquired for his price and not ability. Has sparked some life into Evra at least, but will never become an Old Trafford regular. n/a

Nemanja Vidić
Long-term injury followed an even lengthier layoff for the giant Serbian who began the season in rusty fashion following a six month break. There are still questions about Vidić’s fitness of course, which will be answered over the season half of the season. n/a

Chris Smalling
A frustrating campaign for Smalling who has spent much of the past five months in the Carrington treatment room. But Ferdinand’s age and Vidić’s fitness may provide more opportunities as the campaign progresses. n/a

– – –

Antonio Valencia
There were few players as influential as the Ecuadorian during the closing weeks of the 2011/12 season. Valencia’s power, pace and consistency drove United forward and was a key factor in Wayne Rooney’s goalscoring run. The contrast couldn’t be more stark, with Valencia seemingly robbed of so much confidence that the winger rarely takes on a full-back these days. There is more to come from Valencia; the question is when? ;4/10

Nani
There have been few performances more abject in modern times than that of the Portuguese winger’s at Goodison Park on the opening day of the season. It has proven to be a barometer for the season. Not only has Nani rarely performed on the few occasions proffered by his manager, but Ferguson has lost all confidence in the player. Was it not for United’s shortage of wide players then Nani would surely be sold this winter. 4/10

Ashley Young
Injury has restricted the former Aston Villa winger’s appearances to little more than a dozen in all competitions this season – and there has been little consistency to date. Fine performances against City and Sunderland followed plentiful mediocrity in the preceding matches. Young will never become a star at United, but still offers an attacking option from the left. 5/10

Ryan Giggs
Stirring performances during United’s Christmas fixtures against Swansea City and Newcastle United brought memories of distant past. In truth, however, this has been a campaign that has served to highlight only the Welsh great’s decline. Giggs, says his manager, can play for another two years. He shouldn’t – not on this evidence. 5/10

Paul Scholes
Still among the very finest in Europe on the ball, but suffering physically this season. It is, of course, a hard observation to make about one of the finest players ever to grace Old Trafford, but Scholes influence is waning. Worse, in a midfield two Scholes has too often become a liability, opening up United and inviting pressure on a shaky back-four. 6/10

Tom Cleverley
It should be Cleverley’s breakthrough year. After all, at 23 and a full international, the Basingstoke-born midfielder is no longer the callow youth of old. Yet, the player has rarely enjoyed a long run in the United side. Still, there have been energetic performances in a deeper role than the midfielder enjoyed for Great Britain at the London Olympics. Could still become a key part of United’s central midfield. 6/10

Michael Carrick
The Geordie’s commanding performance last year were not replicated in the early weeks of the campaign. Carrick, it seemed, had regressed into his passive shell. Yet, aligned with Sir Alex’ view of the 31-year-old, Carrick has become stronger in the winter, once again demonstrating that he is the principal deep-lying creative force in United’s midfield. Consistently out-passes all, but could benefit from a more physical midfield partner when deployed in a central two. 8/10

Darren Fletcher
There are few players for whom there is such a groundswell of goodwill. The 28-year-old Scot’s illness has again restricted Fletcher’s role in Ferguson’s team, with just a handful of appearances, predominantly in cup competitions. 5/10

Anderson
Another frustrating campaign for the Brazilian, who has started just three Premier League matches in the campaign to date. Once again there have been flashes of the brilliance that prompted Sir Alex to pay €30 million for the player more than five years ago. They are far too infrequent. And then, once again, came injury as Anderson picked up a hamstring injury against Reading in early December. A career? An absurdest performance of Waiting for Godot. 5/10

Shinji Kagawa
With Kagawa came much hope. Creativity, touch, no little panache, and goals. Lots of goals in German football with Borussia Dortmund. Early season performances solidified the impression, until form dipped and injury struck. There is much more to come. n/a

Nick Powell
There is a feeling that Ferguson has bought a gem in the former Crewe Alexandra youngster, who so easily floats in between midfield and attack. There have been few opportunities to date, but already Powell looks at ease in higher company. n/a

– – –

Robin van Persie
It comes to something when a £24 million 29-year-old injury-prone striker becomes a ‘bargain’, but can the Dutchman be described any other way? Ferguson’s comparison to Eric Cantona is fatuous – the Frenchman influenced a generation – but van Persie’s impact on the pitch is certainly no less to date. It is not only the striker’s goals – 16 – that have been so impressive, but the Dutchman’s all-round game. Class on and off the field. 9/10

Wayne Rooney
The Englishman is still United’s most important player, despite moving into a deeper role this season. Indeed, the former Evertonian has become the Reds creative hub 15 yards in van Persie’s shadow. True, there have been fewer goals, and at times flat performances – see Swansea for evidence – but fans need only witness Rooney’s star turn in the derby for evidence of his enduring class. Central to all United’s hopes and dreams in the second half of the season. 7/10

Javier Hernández
It was always going to be a frustrating season for the livewire Mexican after van Persie’s arrival. Not least because Hernández is alone among Ferguson’s strikers in being inflexible. Yet, 10 goals in all competitions have come, including and important burst during the autumn. Hernández will score important goals for the club this season – and 20 in all competitions is a reasonable ask – but will the player always be happy coming off the bench? 6/10

Danny Welbeck
Frustration abounds for Welbeck, who has become the principal victim of van Persie’s arrival at Old Trafford. The Longsight-born youngster had struck up a fine partnership with Rooney last season, only to see his importance to Ferguson’s team usurped. Welbeck will contribute this season, but it may not always be in his favoured central striking role – not while van Perise is fit. Still, time is on the player’s side and there will be a key contribution or more from the Englishman in the months ahead. 5/10

* ratings given to players who have made 10 appearances or more in all competitions

Mid season report 2011/12

December 28, 2011 Tags: Opinion 20 comments

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

Patrice Evra
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

Phil Jones
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

Rio Ferdinand
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

Jonny Evans
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

Michael Owen
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

Anderson
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

Dimitar Berbatov
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

Wayne Rooney
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

Ryan Giggs
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

Chris Smalling
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

Javier Hernández
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

Nemanja Vidić
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

Michael Carrick
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

Nani
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

Ashley Young
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

Danny Welbeck
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

Tom Cleverley
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

Darren Fletcher
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

Antonio Valencia
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

Federico Macheda
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

Darron Gibson
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

Anders Lindegaard
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

Mid-season report 2010/11

January 2, 2011 Tags: Opinion 48 comments

Manchester United turn the year leading the Premier League, comfortably qualified for the Champions League knock-out stages and unbeaten – at least in the competitions that matter. On the surface Sir Alex Ferguson’s side reaches the mid-point of the season in prime place to challenge on three fronts come the spring.

But United’s story is just a little more nuanced than that of course.

The Reds’ single defeat this season, in the Carling Cup quarter-final to West Ham United last month, was no disaster; seven draws in the Premier League could have been. Fortunately United’s domestic inconsistency, especially away from home, is matched elsewhere, with Chelsea blowing a five point lead six weeks ago, Arsenal brittle and Manchester City far too conservative.

Tougher tests will follow though, with United yet to visit Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool or Tottenham Hotspur in the league and the fragile nature of United’s midfield still potentially exposed.

In Europe, United drew arguably the easiest of first round groups, with Rangers and Bursaspor two of the weakest teams in the competition and Valencia a shadow of the side that almost threatened Real Madrid and Barcelona’s domestic hegemony. Certainly Marseille, whom beat Chelsea in the group stages, will offer a stern although not insurmountable challenge in the first knockout round. The Spanish giants are palpably better than United though and a quarter-final date with either will surely spell United’s demise.

Aside from an annoying habit of shipping late goals, the side’s real problem – the one identified by almost every fan, pundit and media outlet at the season’s start – is the lack of creativity at the heart of central midfield. Call it Glazernomics, call it lack of value in the market, call it poor planning but the decision not to strengthen may well come back to bite come the season’s end. 7/10

Sir Alex Ferguson
Entering his 70th year, with more than 24 years at United’s helm, Ferguson still has the strength of will and desire to drive the club forward even in times of economic uncertainty. Arguably, the Scot has the weakest squad at his disposal in the past five years – off-the-field distractions and injuries to key players have hardly helped either. But Ferguson has consistently generated more than the sum of this squad’s parts and proven a tactical innovator. This is no vintage United side but it is hard to beat. 7/10

Edwin van der Sar
The great Dutchman just keeps on going despite passing 40 years of age. Retirement may well come in June, although there seems little physical impeding van der Sar from continuing should he choose to do so. Mistakes have crept into his game at times, although very rarely as catastrophic as the one which gifted West Bromwich Albion at goal at Old Trafford in October. 6/10

Tomasz Kuszczak
The Pole in Goal will surely move on, if not this January, then in the summer following Anders Lindegaard’s acquisition. Rarely a disaster but very obviously not of United quality either. Kuszczak’s five appearances this season have offered little more than van der Sar some rest. 5/10

Rafael da Silva
Inconsistency and injury dogged the Brazilian youngster’s first two seasons at the club, with the disastrous red card against Bayern Munich last season almost certainly costing United a place in the Champions League semi-final. But the 20-year-old’s game has rapidly progressed during the autumn months to the extent that Rafael is now Ferguson’s first choice at right-back. Now one for the present not just the future. 7/10

Gary Neville
Nothing will take away Neville’s 600-plus games for United but there is little more depressing in sport than seeing a former great clearly beyond his best. Neville’s legs are shot and retirement is surely just months away. Cruel it may be but Neville’s four appearances this season are probably a quartet too many. 3/10

Rio Ferdinand
The England captain has seemingly overcome the persistent back and groin injuries that threatened the 32-year-old’s career at Old Trafford. United is much the better for Ferdinand’s involvement, whose performances have been consistent and calming. Ferdinand remains absolutely central to United’s success or failure this season. 7/10

Nemanja Vidic
With a new contract signed, fitness assured and the Serbian installed as team captain Vidic has produced the series of outstanding performances that place the 29-year-old among the very best central defenders in the world. Vidic’s form and especially his fitness will be essential to United’s progress at home and abroad. For now, Vidic has been outstanding. 9/10

Chris Smalling
The former Fulham defender has made a solid, if unspectacular start to his United career after the £10 million summer transfer. Appearances in both the Champions League and Carling Cup have shown the promise of a player who has plenty of pace, a strong touch and potentially outstanding passing skills. 5/10

Jonny Evans
What the Northern Irishman would do for a decent performance, perhaps even a partially incompetent one, such has been the defender’s form. Repeatedly out-muscled and often targeted, Evans has suffered the worst season in his short career with United. All is not lost but for now Evans might even benefit from a loan spell away from Old Trafford. 4/10

Patrice Evra
Such are the defender’s impeccably high standards that Evra fell some way short in the early weeks of the season. Put it down to a World Cup hangover, or fatigue after a 55 game season and a summer in South Africa, but Evra is finally rediscovering the form that placed the left-back among the very best in his position. 6/10

John O’Shea
Many is the time that supporters have wondered what the point of John O’Shea is. Not in some notional sense but in a very real, tangible, waste-of-oxygen kind of way. The Irishman has done little to change that feeling in another average campaign. Yet, Ferguson trusts the 29-year-old implicitly, proffering O’Shea with 14 outings this season and a rumoured £80,000 per week contract offer. 5/10

Antonio Valencia
It is hard to feel anything but sympathy for the Ecuadorian winger who broke his ankle so traumatically early in the season. Valencia will return in the spring and could offer United vital creativity as the season draws to a close. n/a

Nani
The Portuguese winger has come out of Cristiano Ronaldo’s shadow to produce a consistent, sometimes outstanding season. Frequently United’s primary creative outlet, Nani cannot emulate his compatriot for sheer destructive power but has become a vital cog in Ferguson’s machine. Getting better by the match, adding both more assists and more goals this season. 8/10

Paul Scholes
Outstanding in early season fixtures but found out when the opposition targets the 36-year-old for special treatment. Scholes still possesses all the skills of old but is a liability against more physical opposition. Still United’s most creative midfielder though and a vital part of the squad until injury struck in November. 6/10

Michael Carrick
Briefly, for about seven or eight games during the late autumn, Carrick emerged from an 18-month rut that marked the Geordie down for an Old Trafford exit. The former Spurs midfielder’s ability to recycle or retain possession is potentially central to United’s cause. Yet there is still the nagging feeling that Carrick is a long way short of his best. 5/10

Anderson
The Brazilian is perhaps, just perhaps, coming into his own more than three years into his Old Trafford career. Recent performances have demonstrated what Anderson can be – powerful, aggressive, with a burst of pace that can change games. Yet, Anderson is still wasteful in possession – giving away a quarter of attempted passes – and offers far too little end product in terms of assists or goals. 6/10

Darren Fletcher
After two years of outstanding displays Fletcher’s performances have been far more muted this season, to the extend that the Scot is not always an automatic first team pick. Yet, Fletcher will certainly be chosen for the biggest games and against Arsenal proved just why the 26-year-old has gone from Old Trafford pariah to Ferguson’s most important midfielder. 6/10

Darron Gibson
The Derry Dynamo is neither dynamic nor making any progress at Old Trafford. Now 23-years-old, Gibson possesses an outstanding long-range shot but little else that marks the Irishman out as a potential United star. Wasteful in possession, with a poor first touch and s l o w, why is Gibson still at the club? 4/10

Ryan Giggs
More than 800 games into his United career and the Welshman is still a valuable part of United’s squad. Injury aside, Giggs will play perhaps one in three United games. It might well be enough to earn the 37-year-old a final season at Old Trafford in 2011/12. 5/10

Gabriel Obertan
Now 18 months into a spell at Old Trafford and fans know little more than the day Obertan joined the club. The Frenchman has decent feet but seemingly little understanding of the game. Rarely used and 22-years-old in February, now is the time for Obertan to break through or move on. 4/10

Park Ji-Sung
Such is the South Korean’s enigma that a string of poor passes and lost possession is invariably followed by a crucial goal. Objectively Park simply doesn’t have enough talent to make it at United. Nearly 200 games for the club and six goals this season might say otherwise. Certainly Park offers more from a central position than wide. The problem is that he’s invariably wide left – the coward’s winger. 6/10

Bébé
The Portuguese forward is far from ready for regular first team action and a long way off justifying the £8.3 million it cost United to bring him to the club. But Bébé has shown glimpses of talent – pace, strength and finishing skills, although his best position is still to be determined. Remains the strangest transfer of the Ferguson era. 4/10

Wayne Rooney
The former Evertonian described 2010 as a “nightmare” – if only that were true. Sadly, Rooney’s terrible form is very real; the worst year of his career to date. Moreover, the striker’s off-the-field behaviour – drinking, smoking, hookers and contract ‘negotiations’ – have left a very sour taste in many supporters mouths. Needs a big 2011 to go along with the massive contract. 3/10

Dimitar Berbatov
How fickle is the nature of form. Berbatov would almost certainly have left in the summer had a suitable buyer been found. Today, United’s season rests on the Bulgarian striker’s goals, with 14 plundered to date. Yet, after a burst of seven goals in as many games at the season’s start, Berbatov went more than 10 without a goal. Eight have followed in the last four games. Consistency is now the key to the striker’s season. 8/10

Javier Hernández
The Mexican’s eight goals in all competitions do not tell the story. Hernández’ start to his United career and supporters’ reaction have both been positive. The question now is whether the 22-year-old can step up to the next level and cement a place in Ferguson’s starting XI. 6/10

Federico Macheda
The Italian teenager certainly has talent and a penchant for a brilliant finish – supporters have just seen too little of him. There’s little doubt Macheda has the raw ingredients to make a fine number nine. Now a spell away from Old Trafford could make or break his United career. 4/10

Michael Owen
Still living off that goal against Manchester City last season. In truth Owen has offered very little to United save for the odd Carling Cup goal and a rash of medical bills. Almost certain to depart when his contract runs out in June. 4/10

Poll: what will United win this season?

December 22, 2009 Tags: , Polls 4 comments

Manchester United has suffered six defeats in all competitions this season and the worst injury crisis of Sir Alex Ferguson’s managerial career. But his side lies just four points adrift of Chelsea in the Premier League, faces AC Milan in the Champions League round of 16, takes on Manchester City in the Carling Cup semi-final and will play Leeds in the FA Cup Third Round.

What do you think United will win this season – choose as many as you like…

What trophies will United win this season?

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Mid-season report 2009/10

December 22, 2009 Tags: Opinion 4 comments

Manchester United’s loss to Fulham at the weekend marked the midway point of the Premier League season and – in terms of defeats – United’s worst position at Christmas since 2001, when the club finished the campaign in third. But Sir Alex Ferguson’s side is just a point worse off than at the same time last season, having scored plenty of goals in the process.

Since the Premier League’s inception in 1992 United has lost more games in the first half of the season only once, in the aforementioned 2001 season. On the face of it the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez in the summer, together with Ferguson’s decision not to invest heavily in the transfer market, has affected on the team’s performance.

In the biggest Premier League matches, for example, United has struggled. Fixtures against other members of the so-called ‘big four’ – Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea – have been significant. While United beat Arsenal, Ferguson’s side lost to Chelsea and Liverpool. In truth, the Scot’s team were highly fortunate to get a result against – on the day – a superior Arsenal side.

In Europe United eased through a surprisingly weak Champions League Group B, although the number of goals conceded at home is a worry. Milan in February and March will provide a far sterner test of United’s credentials.

Tactically, Ferguson has flitted between a rigid 4-4-2, with Antonio Valencia proving a major success on the right-wing, and 4-5-1 typically deployed in the ‘biggest’ matches and away from home in Europe. But the Scot’s frustrating devotion to the lone striker has so often left Rooney isolated and frustrated.

Yet, Ferguson’s team has taken to the task of replacing Ronaldo’s goals with gusto. With 37 scored in the Premier League alone, United is well ahead of comparable feats last season even if there is some lethargy about the team’s displays at times.

Comparisons with the previous campaign are moot though. At this stage last season Ferguson’s men had already played each of the eight rivals that finished directly below United in the Premier League. It was a fixture list that Ferguson bemoaned.

This time around, United’s fixture list is much more balanced and the 37 point return to date will need hefty improvement in the second half of the season if United is to realistically challenge for the title. 85 points will probably win the title in a highly competitive season.

It’s a challenge that Ferguson’s sides have often met in the past. The question is, will the 2009-10 vintage be good enough to do it?

  • Edwin van der Sar: United’s great Dutchman has played just five times in the league following finger and knee injuries. Whether it’s age or bad luck, United has missed both van der Sar’s composure and talents. 5/10.
  • Tomasz Kuszczak: PIG has really come into his own in recent matches producing stand-out performances in matches against Portsmouth, West Ham United and Fulham. 7/10.
  • Ben Foster: Billed as Foster’s breakthrough season, with van der Sar starting the campaign in the treatment room. Instead, Foster’s patchy form has relegated the former-Stoke ‘keeper to third choice at Old Trafford and probably out of England’s World Cup squad. 4/10.
  • Gary Neville: Two years on the sidelines means that Neville is little more than a back-up player these days. If he can stay fit long enough to do the role, which at the moment he can’t! 4/10.
  • Rio Ferdinand: The England defender’s fitness and form have deserted him this campaign in what has been his worst season in years. There is genuine concern about long-term decline, which will only be answered if the former Leeds United defender can return fit and healthy. 5/10.
  • Nemanja Vidic: The giant Serbian started the season injured and is finishing the year in the same predicament, which has hardly helped his form. 6/10.
  • Patrice Evra: United’s best defender by miles, Evra continues to entertain on and off the pitch. Officially the world’s finest left-back – something United fans have known for a while. 9/10.
  • John O’Shea: The Irishman finished the previous campaign as United’s first choice right-back and his current absence is being felt.  Solid and dependable as ever. 7/10.
  • Wes Brown: The Mancunian has missed more games than he has played, although this is hardly a new phenomenon. As always Brown excels when fit. 7/10.
  • Jonny Evans: The Northern Irishman has performance admirably when called upon and looks every inch a centre half of the highest quality. An ankle injury has hampered his season. 7/10.
  • Rafael da Silva & Fabio da Silva: The Brazilian brothers have hardly played because of injury. Each has talent in abundance but a propensity for injury will hamper their progress. 5/10.
  • Antonio Valencia: The former Wigan Athletic wide player is one of the real bonuses of United’s season. The Ecuadorian has grown in confidence and influence as the season has progressed. 8/10.
  • Nani: The Portuguese winger has been as bad as Valencia has been good. Undeniably talented but frustrating in equal measure. Looks as if his time at the club is up. 3/10.
  • Park Ji-Sung: Injury has restricted the South Korean to a handful of appearances and the winger’s performance against Aston Villa one of his worst ever in a United shirt. 4/10.
  • Gabriel Obertan: The Frenchman looks a real gem of a find by Ferguson and his scouting staff. The challenge for Obertan is to transfer promise into performances against the best opposition. 7/10.
  • Paul Scholes: The Ginger Princes’ performances have been inconsistent this season as age increasingly plays a part in the United legend’s game. Brilliant against Tottenham Hotspur, woeful against Fulham. 6/10.
  • Michael Carrick: The Geordie started the season on the sidelines but has grown in influence over the campaign. His emergency stint at centre half was impressive until a dreadfully inept display against Fulham. 6/10.
  • Darren Fletcher: The Scot was United’s best midfielder until forced into an emergency role as defender during the recent injury crisis. The sooner Fletcher is back in the centre of the park, the better. 9/10.
  • Anderson: The Brazilian began the season out-of-favour with Ferguson demanding more from the former-Porto player. But Anderson’s performances have steadily improved and recent matches suggest the midfielder is ready to take a step up. 7/10.
  • Darron Gibson: The Derry-born midfielder has forced his way into the side during the recent injury crisis, scoring against Spurs and West Ham. But as the cliché goes, the jury is still out on whether the midfielder has the talent to take a permanent place in the side. 6/10.
  • Ryan Giggs: PFA Player’s Player of the Year, BBC Sports Personality of the Year, United’s Player of the Year, soon to be Sir Ryan Giggs, all round nice bloke and probably the next Pope. 8/10.
  • Dimitar Berbatov: Some brilliant performances not supported by the weight of goals expected of a £30 million player. World class but four goals in 20 games is not enough. 7/10.
  • Wayne Rooney: Moments of brilliance only tarnished by the Scouser’s desire to do it all himself, especially when deployed as a lone striker. 13 goals in all competitions suggests that the former Evertonian can break the 25 goal barrier this season. 8/10.
  • Michael Owen: The free transfer is doing exactly what Ferguson expected of him – better than a goal every other game (in terms of minutes on the pitch that is). Very little impact – Wolfsburg aside – when starting matches. 7/10.
  • Danny Welbeck and Federico Macheda: Neither of United’s young strikers has played as many games as expected this season. A loan move will be beneficial for the Italian while Welbeck spearheads United’s Carling Cup campaign. 6/10 and 5/10.