Friday, October 03, 2008

Could United finish outside of the top four?

The very thought that Manchester United could finish outside of the Premier League's top four would, just a few weeks ago, seem totally implausible, but right now it doesn't, here's why.

Having spent £30m on a new striker in the summer, fans were hoping that Dimitar Berbatov was going to be the final piece in the United jigsaw, but at the same time some supporters were not convinced about the suitability of the Bulgarian. After a handful of games and scoring two goals in midweek against Aalborg, the doubters will have been given cause for a degree of optimism, but the jury is very much out on whether Berbatov will fit in long term.

Berbatov's arrival should have in theory strengthened United's forward line, but in the last two games the manager has had to drop Rooney and Tevez, in order to accommodate his new signing.

Then we come to the question of exactly where Rooney should be deployed. There's a school of thought which suggests that the former Everton striker isn't being used to his full potential. It was also put to me this week that Ferguson isn't getting the best out of Rooney. I do not buy into those theories, because Rooney isn't a classic centre-forward. I also do not believe in pigeon-holing players into roles or making comparisons with other players.

The minute you restrict Rooney, you take something away from his game, as he wants to be involved all of the time. Normal football logic would dictate that playing Rooney on the left or right wing would be a ludicrous thing to do, but Fergie has by and large got away with it, this is because Rooney drifts into different positions, in doing so making it hard for defenders to mark him.

If Fergie asked Rooney, at just 5'8", to stay up front for ninety minutes against the likes of John Terry et al, he'd be easy to mark, given he's not blessed with pace, which is why I for one believe that Ferguson has been getting the very best out of Rooney, when he's on top form, which he hasn't been all season to date.

For the longer term I see Rooney dropping back into an advanced central midfield role, as Fergie said recently, he'd play in goal if you asked him too. While that was said in jest, Rooney would make an excellent midfield player and importantly if Fergie decided to take this option he could accommodate Tevez, Berbatov, Ronaldo and Rooney in the same starting eleven.

IF there are question marks surrounding the forward line, there's just as many in midfield. Ferguson has talked about retiring at some point in the not too distant future, it could happen next summer and there's a feeling that he might well take Scholes and Giggs with him.

The question is should Fergie still be building around the ageing legs of Scholes? As clearly, Scholes is the central plank in his midfield. Again, with the danger of making unfair comparisons with others, Michael Carrick was brought in for his ability to pass the ball and of course both Carrick and Scholes are currently out injured.

The midfield picture has been complicated due to almost constant injuries to Owen Hargreaves - who is, the complete midfield player in the eyes of many. Then we come to Anderson, somewhat surprisingly, he was left out of the starting eleven which faced Aalborg, especially given that Fergie had stated it was his strongest team. Anderson hasn't so far cemented a regular starting place, which is concerning given his ability.

As for Ronaldo, he will be key to what happens this season. Last weekend he won a penalty and had an assist against Bolton. In midweek against Aalborg Ronaldo had another assist and should have scored and he's not yet 100% fit.

The defence will look after itself, of that I have no doubt, especially with the emerging Rafael Da Silva, who is a class act, as is his injured compatriot Possebon.

There are concerns about the consistency of Edwin van der Sar, given some recent errors, but hopefully he will come good, if he doesn't there's no obvious heir apparent.

Looking at United's squad of players, there can be no doubting that we have enough quality, but the team has to start winning and importantly gelling soon, because if we do not recapture that momentum then Chelsea will canter to the title.

To me at least anyway, Arsenal and Liverpool look like racing certainties for another top four finish and that is despite some surprisingly poor results from the Gunners. Ironically, at the season start, I was thinking Liverpool could be edged into fifth place, but they've started well and Torres is looking good after a year in England.

United have not been helped by the fixtures, but we have to get on with it. The worry is that either Aston Villa or god forbid even Man City could finish above us in the table, the latter is a real doomsday worst-case scenario.

For the record I am NOT predicting United will finish outside of the top four, but I am saying that Fergie has to solve this problem of how to get the best from his resources, because right now mainly due to injuries it has not happened.

There are too many question marks surrounding the complexion of the forward line and midfield, as a result this current United team has not gelled and our opponents are only too aware of this. Failure to win at Blackburn this weekend will be another painful body-blow and potentially very damaging regarding United's hopes of retaining the title.

The big problem is that until Fergie has a full squad to choose from, he won’t be able to consistently field what he believes is his strongest team.

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