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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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