Last season, United played more or less our first XI for the majority of the season. Whilst both Gary Neville and Nemanja Vidic spent lengthy periods on the sidelines, for most of the season our team was VDS – Neville – Rio – Vidic – Evra – Ronaldo – Scholes – Carrick – Giggs – Rooney – Saha.
This season, we’ve added the quality of Carlos Tevez, Nani, Owen Hargreaves and Anderson to the mix, giving us the strongest squad we’ve ever seen at our club. Whilst Chelsea’s bench was one to envy a couple of seasons ago, it’s now United’s that leaves the mouth watering. At the start of the season, if permitted a fully fit squad, United would have to pick between Ben Foster, Wes Brown, Nani, Louis Saha, John O’Shea, Darren Fletcher, with two players out of Hargreaves, Scholes, Anderson and Carrick warming a spot on the bench.
However, is it this strength in depth that has been costing us results of late?
The debate over our best central midfield pairing has gone on throughout the season. Scholes’ three month injury saw Anderson moved in to the starting XI, and impressing the Old Trafford faithful immensely, particularly following his away displays against Liverpool and Arsenal. Carrick had a slow start to the season, seemingly buckling under the pressure of new competition, whilst Hargreaves battled with injury. However, Hargreaves has stayed fit for some time and Carrick has hit his form of the season. So who do we pick?
Ferguson, trying to get in practice for Europe, has opted for a 4-3-3 in the league on several occasions, meaning he gets to pick three out of the five central midfielders we have on offer to start. Against Chelsea on Saturday, those three were Fletcher, Carrick and Anderson. Against Arsenal a fortnight before, the three he picked were Scholes, Hargreaves and Carrick.
Switching from 4-4-3 to 4-4-2, which occurs a couple of times a month, means that not only the players being picked changes, but the position they are asked to play in. Against Barcelona last week, Ronaldo was the furthest forward player, with Tevez and Rooney supporting him. Against Blackburn a few days previously, Ronaldo played on the wing in a 4-4-2. Rooney is shifted from the only striker on the field, as it was against Arsenal, to playing up front on the left, as he was against Barca.
Our left wing position has shifted half as much as we would like, with Ryan Giggs holding down the position more often than he’s deserved. But our other midfielders and forwards have been chopped and changed match by match.
Chelsea: Fletcher Carrick Anderson Nani Rooney Giggs
4 changes in 6 positions
Barcelona: Park Carrick Ronaldo Tevez Rooney Scholes
1 change in 6 positions
Blackburn: Giggs Carrick Ronaldo Tevez Rooney Scholes
2 changes in 6 positions
Arsenal: Hargreaves Carrick Ronaldo Park Rooney Scholes
3 changes in 6 positions
Roma: Hargreaves Carrick Giggs Park Tevez Anderson
3 changes in 6 positions
Boro: Ronaldo Carrick Giggs Rooney Tevez Scholes
Despite our incredible goalscoring record this season, with three of our players featuring in the top 11 scorers in the league, it has been our defence that has been hailed as our rock. In 36 of the league games we’ve played this season, we’ve picked up 20 clean sheets, and have conceded the fewest amount of league goals, with 21. However, in our last 6 games, we’ve conceded 6 goals. And again we can look at the discontinuity in our starting players.
At the start of the month, it was O’Shea – Rio – Brown – Evra who started against Boro. Brown – Pique – Rio – Silvestre in the next match against Roma. Brown – Ferdinand – Pique – Evra against Arsenal, then Brown – Ferdinand – Vidic – Evra against Blackburn. Hargreaves – Rio – Brown – Evra started against Barca, then Brown – Ferdinand – Vidic – Silvestre against Chelsea, before Vidic was forced off the field with less than quarter of an hour to go, Hargreaves replacing Brown at right back, who replaced Vidic in the centre. So in our past six matches, in which we’ve won 2, drawn 3 and lost 1, we haven’t once had the same defence on the field.
Easily this is the best squad we’ve had and it comes as both a blessing and a curse. Last season, you could name our first XI in a heartbeat, and the same can be said of all the glory years in the past. However this year, it’s far more difficult to decide on. Our back five is sorted, particularly without the reoccurring injury to Vidic. Neville’s place is yet to be decided on. However, is our best XI part of a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2? Are we best off having both Rooney and Tevez from the start, or should Rooney play up front alongside two wingers? Should those wingers be Ronaldo and Nani? Giggs and Ronaldo? Where does Park fit in? Should we rely on the Scholes-Carrick partnership of last season? Should Hargreaves just be called upon when we needed bulking up in the midfield? How often should Anderson be given the opportunity to impress?
These questions should be easier to answer next season, although I’m not willing to make any predictions yet. However, trying to find out best XI, resting players, attempting to pick the best formations for the appropriate games, has certainly been costing us results in recent weeks.
But with just three certain games, potentially four depending on our result this evening, we have to hope that Fergie finds out best team sharpish, and sticks with it!