Where’s it all going wrong?

Obvious problems
1. Defence

Our first choice goalkeeper, Edwin Van der Sar, has played in just 5 of the 18 league games we’ve played in this season, meaning we’ve been playing our second/third choice keeper for 72% of the season.

Our first choice centre half, Rio Ferdinand, has played in just 5 of the 18 league games.

Ferdinand’s first choice partner, Nemanja Vidic, has done much better on the injury front, missing just six and a half games due to injury, meaning he has played 64% of our league games this season.

Jonny Evans was the cover for both these players and filled in superbly. But then he picked up an injury in November and has missed our last 6 games and won’t return until 2010.

The right back position was Wes Brown’s, but after playing for three games in August, he missed all of September and pretty much all of October, returning for the last game of the month. He came back as a regular in November and the start of December, but then got injured and as so far missed two games this month.

John O’Shea took Brown’s place in the team when he was injured, but picked up an injury in the first week of November, and has missed our last 6 games.

Gary Neville has continued the traditions of the past season or two by picking one injury up after another. He was not first choice but hasn’t even been available as cover for most of the season, and last played at the beginning of December, before hobbling off with half an hour played.

Rafael and Fabio have been injured more often than they’ve been fit. Rafael has played in just one league game this season and is apparently supposed to be fit for the last game of the year. Fabio has played in just two games this season, coming on for the last half an hour against Fulham on Saturday.

2. Players out of position
Darren Fletcher had arguably been our most important player this season, breaking up play in the centre of the park and protecting our defenders. The injuries at the back have meant he has been pulled away from the middle of the action and shoved in at right back. He’s done a good enough job there but has been caught out a few times with crosses in to the box. But the real problem is he isn’t in the thick of the action anymore.

Michael Carrick has done surprisingly well in the centre of defence in my opinion. Not famed for his tough tackling when playing in midfield, he’s done a pretty good job of sticking to his opponent and sticking the boot in. But his lack of experience in this position can be telling, like when he went AWOL for Fulham’s second.

3. Disorganisation
Van der Sar has played in 5 games this season, Foster in 8 and Kuszczak in 5. Even without all the changes across the back four, the changing of the goalkeeper brings all sorts of untold disorganisation and confusion to the back. Van der Sar is so commanding, whilst Foster and Kuszczak are still finding their feet. Different keepers do things in different ways, claim different balls, punch when others would catch etc. The defenders don’t know whether they’re coming or going and that insecurity leads to panic and mistakes.

More worrying problems
1. Wayne Rooney
If Rooney plays well, we play well. If Rooney doesn’t play well, we can struggle. He’s currently the third highest scorer in the league and as dedicated to the cause as ever. But his form is hit and miss and that is not what you want from a player you’re relying on to score the bulk of your goals.

As a team, we are not playing as well, and that can have a bad effect on Wayne. He tries to absorb the pressure, coming deeper and deeper, getting more and more frustrated, and leads to mistakes in his own game.

2. Lack of fight
Against Aston Villa and Fulham, we seemed to resign ourselves to the fact we weren’t going to get anything out of the game. There was no desperation, there was no extra effort on the 50-50 balls, there was no hassling and harrying the opposition when we weren’t in possession. As a team, we need to work harder.

3. Struggling with creativity
Not enough chances are being created of late. Teams know how to play against us, sitting deep, and we’re struggling to get behind them. With Carrick and Fletcher taken out of midfield, we’re having difficulty playing down the centre, which puts the pressure on the wings. Antonio Valencia has incredible speed and enjoys taking his opponents on, but his crossing is poor. Park Ji-Sung is returning from a lengthy injury but crossing has never been one of his strong points. Nani is capable of delivering a deadly ball but his judgement isn’t great and he’s certainly fallen out of favour (irreparably?) with the manager. Ryan Giggs has played some great killer balls this season (9 of which have finished in goals, an assist record only Cesc Fabregas can better so far this season) which gives him an advantage over other players, however he doesn’t have the pace. Gabriel Obertan seems to be shaping up nicely, with great speed and the ability to put a good ball in (as Michael Owen benefited from last week), but his experience and decision making holds him back.

In conclusion, the only problem isn’t the fact our defence is a shambles due to injury, but this has enough knock on effects to account for the majority of the problems. With our rivals not having the greatest of seasons either, there’s no doubt we’d be keeping up nicely if not for the missing players and the effect their absence has on everything else. We wouldn’t be flying, but we wouldn’t need to be. The difference could go to six points today, but when considering how poor things have been at United of late, it outlines Chelsea’s failings in not being miles ahead of us.

So, we’re just going to have to sit tight, hope that Ferguson puts Fletcher back in midfield and puts anyone else at right back, and that the defenders return sooner rather than later. It’s not going to be pretty at times, and the past couple of weeks have been anything but pretty, but we’re still second in the league, in all competitions, and we have the greatest manager that has ever lived. Let’s count our blessings and hope for a better time in 2010!