After a turbulent year last year with United losing the title to City on the last day of the season and the return of Paul Scholes to United’s midfield after a short retirement, the reds this season had to improve, and so we have. Like last year, we have very rarely had a fully fit squad but what makes this year different is the strength in depth we have in each position. In all sectors of the pitch, we have sufficient cover. Players that can adapt to numerous positions if needed so with the likes of Phil Jones and Wayne Rooney playing in no less that three positions so far this season. I’m going to be talking about how United have made their team stronger all over the pitch with not just summer signings, but the growth of some of our young players alongside it.
The goalkeeper position has always been one of United’s stronger points with the likes of Peter Schmeichel and most recently Edwin Van Der Sar starring for the red devils in between the posts. But with Van Der Sar announcing his retirement at the end of the 2010-2011 season, United had to find a suitable replacement. They signed Danish stopper Anders Lindegaard in January 2011 but he was only seen as a potential number two to whoever would be signed in the summer. Then on the 19th June 2011, United confirmed the acquisition of young Spanish goalkeeper David De Gea who signed in a £17M move from Atletico Madrid.
Since then, both goalkeepers have gone through rough patches and both have had a stint as being Sir Alex Ferguson’s number one. The competition has certainly improved both players on and off the pitch but with United’s defence needing stability; Ferguson has now more or less decided that De Gea is his number one choice. After outstanding performances against Tottenham Hotspur and Real Madrid, De Gea has no doubt justified Sir Alex’s choice. But what makes this situation better is that De Gea knows he must be consistent or else he’d be dropped. Likewise with Lindegaard if he got another opportunity. When Van Der Sar and Schmeichel were our number one’s, our second choice keeper knew they were never really in with a shot of becoming number one as Van Der Sar and Schmeichel were both established keepers. With both keepers still plenty off years off their peak, the competition for that number one shirt is a welcomed competition which does nothing but make both De Gea and Lindegaard work harder each day.
Like the goalkeeper position, United have mainly had an established right back with former captain Gary Neville being the most notable right back of recent times. But with injuries overshadowing Neville’s last two seasons at Old Trafford which made him a spectator for most games, he decided to hang up his boots in 2011. United struggled to find another consistent player in that position with John O’Shea and Wes Brown filling in. But with calls for Fergie to sign an established right back becoming increasingly louder; a young Brazilian youth team player suddenly came out of the shadows. Signed in 2008 along with his twin brother Fabio, Rafael Da Silva emerged as the man to replace Neville.
Aged just 19, Rafael started to get his opportunities ahead of O’Shea and Brown respectively. He was far from the finished item though with frequent bookings and his Brazilian flair often leaving him exposed at the back, Rafael had a lot to learn. But over the past two seasons, he’s established himself as Sir Alex’s first choice right back. He’s built up a good understanding with Antonio Valencia down the right hand side although he does sometimes seem vulnerable when United get countered upon. With welcomed interventions from Phil Jones and Chris Smalling to make sure Rafa knows his starting XI spot isn’t guaranteed, he’s grown into the type of right back Manchester United have always cherished. And at the age of just 22, who knows what this young man could achieve.
The centre back position has been one of United’s most comfortable positions over the past few years with the dominance of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. But with both players ageing slowly and both players picking up injuries here and there, it has been left down to Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones to cover either of the two. Evans especially has improved massive amounts after been given a good run of games alongside Ferdinand in the 2011-2012 season due to a long term injury to Vidic. But with many fans labeling Evans as a ‘potential future captain’ after his new lease of life, United cannot forget the two young centre back’s that they have slowly started to nurture.
The reds signed Chris Smalling in 2010 and swopped for fellow England under 21 international Phil Jones a year later. With the two forming a partnership at Under 21 level, its safe to say United have two of the best young centre back’s in the country after a cameo performance together against West Ham. The future is bright for United’s defence whether that’s a Jones Smalling Partnership or Smalling Evans partnership with Jones as a holding midfielder, who knows, only time will tell.
Despite a diabolical debut for United in 2006 against arch rivals Manchester City which resulted in him being substituted at half time, Patrica Evra has established himself as one of the finest left back’s the Old Trafford faithful have seen since the likes of Denis Irwin and Arthur Albiston. With Evra playing 50 games a season for United over the past 3 seasons and the likes of Fabio going out on loan and the sale of Zeki Fryers to Standard Liege, now of Tottenham Hotspur, yes your right it sounds dodgy, United have had no real cover for Evra.
But in the summer of 2012, United swooped for the relatively unknown Dutch left back Alexander Buttner. He made his league debut for United in a 4-0 home win against Wigan, a game in which he made an assist and scored a goal of his own. With Evra getting off to a poor start to the season, the competition for a starting place at left back was suddenly wide open. But since then, Evra has upped his game massively in a season which has seen him score four goals. Evra knows that a run of bad games could see him dropped to the bench. This is a new situation for Patrice, but a situation which most United fans are glad exists.
After a glorious season last season which saw him claim numerous awards, Antonio Valencia has had a relatively subdued six months so far on the right wing. With injuries to fellow wingers Nani and Ashley Young, Valencia hasn’t really had much competition down the right. This has seen Sir Alex sometimes play without any wingers and play more of a Christmas tree formation. Danny Welbeck has been used out on the right along with new signing Shinji Kagawa and Wayne Rooney.
With Nani being injured for most of the season so far along with speculation that he will be leaving in the summer, it has often been left down to a very isolated Ashley Young to manage the left wing, despite numerous injuries. Although, the re-emergence of the granddad of the team Ryan Giggs has been a welcome distraction with Giggsy putting in a superb run of performances which has seen him singlehandedly make right back’s half his age look silly.
The wing department has probably been United’s weakest area on the pitch so far this season but with the likes of Wilfred Zaha arriving at Old Trafford in the summer, competition for places next season will be of the highest quality.
The centre of the field has been probably United’s high point of the season so far. With Michael Carrick proving why he’s one of the most talked about midfielders in England and Phil Jones adapting well to the role as a holding midfielder, down the middle, United have been extremely strong. Tom Cleverley has added more aspects to his game which has seen him become an England regular and Ryan Giggs’s versatility has only got better and better, the competition for a starting spot in the middle of the park is the type of competition which United have been missing for a few years.
We were linked heavily to Celtic midfielder Victor Wanyama in January but why? We have a strong enough midfield to cope with any team in Europe so why waste money, if anything, give the younger players like Nick Powell and Ryan Tunnicliffe a shot in the FA Cup. Our midfield will only get better and better over the coming years, so unless we sell, there’s no need to buy.
Well, what can I say? We’ve got four world class strikers in our team. That’s enough for me. The signing of Robin Van Persie clearly boosted the front line and it has seen Wayne Rooney battle for his spot for probably the first time in his United career. It has also seen both Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck improve their game. Hernandez’s goal tally has been superb whereas Welbeck’s work rate has been the asset that he has thrived off most over the past few months.
His lack of confidence infront of goal has however hopefully changed due to his superb header in the Santiago Bernabeu which saw United claim that elusive away goal so its only a matter of time until we know whether or not his luck has changed. With speculation linking us with Borussia Dortmund’s Polish goal machine Robert Lewandowski, all four strikers will be looking to make themselves ‘undroppable’ for United’s title run in.