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.