Four matches into the new season and a pattern, to some extent, has emerged in United’s selection and formation. This will, of course, change with the Champions League starting in mid-September but perhaps most startling, despite this summer’s proclamation to the contrary, is Sir Alex Ferguson’s lack of faith in youth to date.
This is not to say Manchester United’s younger first team squad members will not play more frequently as the season wears on. After all, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes cannot compete in the Saturday-Wednesday axis indefinitely. Indeed, last season Giggs started 23 matches in all competitions, Scholes 32, Edwin van der Sar 29, and Gary Neville just 25. None is likely to top that this campaign.
Of Ferguson’s young players – for the sake of argument let’s call first team squad members under the age of 23 ‘young’ – only Fábio da Silva (Community Shield) and Javier Hernández (Fulham) have started for United this season. Neither is expected to be a fixture in the first team just yet.
Jonny Evans, 22, has played in all four matches but with three seasons in the first team its hard to classify the Irishman as a youth.
Of the others Federico Macheda, Chris Smalling, Darron Gibson, Rafael da Silva, Gabriel Obertan, Tom Cleverley and Ben Amos have appeared for a total combined two substitute appearances in the first team this season. Anderson, injured, will not play again until late in September.
Meanwhile Danny Welbeck and Mame Biram Diouf have been shipped out on loan to Sunderland and Blackburn Rovers respectively, while Bebé is not expected to feature this side of Christmas, if at all this season.
The pattern was also prevalent in pre-season, with Giggs and Scholes appearing in a surprisingly large number of fixtures in Canada, USA and Mexico as United raked in more than $2 million per match held on tour.
Indeed, the average starting age of United’s team in the four competitive fixtures to date – including the Community Shield – is 28.6, only marginally younger than Chelsea’s pensioners at 28.9.
It is also perhaps surprising, given United’s relatively sedate fixture calendar this side of the international break, that Ferguson has not blooded more of his younger players of whom he spoke so passionately during the summer.
The intensity of United’s games increases markedly in late September, with the trip to Everton preceding emotionally draining matches against Rangers and Liverpool at Old Trafford in which senior players will surely dominate selection.
The strategy, then, is likely to include some of the squad’s younger players see game time in the autumn and winter months, with Ferguson almost certain to rely on experience as the Premier and Champions League reach their dénouement in the Spring.
However, the strategy with some younger players is also confusing. Cleverley’s mooted loan – all but guaranteed as pre-season begun, then ditched as United failed to secure an additional attacking midfielder in the transfer market – is now back on again.
The midfielder today confirmed a loan move to Wigan Athletic, where he’ll certainly play but faces a season-long relegation battle. However, the transfer leaves United overly reliant on Scholes’ continued brilliance and fitness as the club’s sole central midfield playmaker.
Then there is Rafael, whose relegation to the bench in favour of the experienced but essentially limited John O’Shea, 30, is a source of regret for the more romantic of United’s supporter base. After all, it’s hard to envisage Rafael turning genuine promise into fulfilled talent of the very highest order from the seclusion of United’s reserves.
Finally, Macheda, retained despite loan interest from home and abroad, has failed to make even the bench for United’s three Premier League fixtures to date. In his third season with the first team squad, it will surely be impossible for United to retain the Italian’s services next season if he cannot secure 20 matches this campaign.
This is an observation, rather than a criticism. Ferguson, the most pragmatic of managers, is liable to pick whatever side is likely to benefit the club’s cause in only the short to season-long term.
The question is whether the Scot can fulfil United’s many ambitions this season while – as the Scot puts it – ensuring the club’s younger players do not “stagnate” and evntually leave. The fate of Giuseppe Rossi and Gerard Pique looms large.
As yet, it is not at all clear that the two strategies are not mutually exclusive.