Manchester United rang in their New Year with a win, but it was far from convincing, an it has unearthed some real concerns about the balance of their current squad.
United could have very easily dropped even more points away from Old Trafford against West Bromwich Albion, but, thankfully, the Reds were able to fight tooth-and-nail to remain on top of the Barclays Premier League table for another week.
However, the lack of options that Sir Alex Ferguson had for today’s match showed that there are obvious problems, which saw him changing his formation before the end of the first-half after witnessing first-hand United being completely outplayed by Albion.
No one should ever question the manager’s ability to pick his team, but it was quite clear that he was severely short of options – missing the lung-busting services of the departed Ji-Sung Park, the creativity of Nani and the steady contribution of young Rafael at both ends of the pitch.
The Gaffer said that he is not delving into his shoe-string budget to over pay for a player during the January transfer window, which opened today, but Sir Alex may have to bring someone in – and he can do it without spending a dime.
United are desperately short of wide players at the moment, and Gabriel Obertan was his only available true winger available, but he showed today that he is still not ready to make a decisive impact in the Premier League – which is why he has only featured four times in the Premier League to date.
On top of Obertan’s inexperience, Park is out on international duty with South Korea at the pointless 2011 AFC Asian Cup for the month of January, Nani is struggling with a hip injury, Ryan Giggs missed the game with the flu; and Antonio Valencia is out with his long-term injury, so Sir Alex might be forced to bring back one of his young players from their current season-long loan deal.
Don’t be surprised if Tom Cleverley is brought back from Wigan Athletic as temporary cover as the other players in the United squad have struggled to provide adequate cover on the wings.
Cleverley, who is said to be the long-term successor to Paul Scholes, who is out injured as well, offers something different than any of the other four center midfielders who were used today against the Baggies.
In Wigan’s 2-2 draw with Arsenal this week, Cleverley showed that he has the enthusiasm to play on either wing, and provide pace and a good delivery, which United was missing against West Brom, but Sir Alex does not want to harm the club’s good relationship with the Greater Manchester club.
On top of being very careless with the ball today, Anderson, Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Darron Gibson, who came on as substitute for Obertan, were all unable to show any versatility as the latter two were both asked to operate on the right wing.
Their limitations were on display for all to see, as neither Fletcher nor Gibson were able to add accurate crossing or a driving run to unlock a very weak, patched-up West Brom defense.
United has always been known for positive runs from their full-backs, which flaunted Sir Alex’s other wrong decision that he made at right-back.
The United manager stated that there were going to be changes made from the match against Birmingham, because of fatigue, so he handed Gary Neville, who has been one of the most passionate servants in the club’s dignified history, his 400th appearance for United.
However, the performance Neville put in, as well as the other two he has made this season, may signal the end of his fabulous 19-year United career, though.
Amazingly, Neville, who is hated by pretty much everyone in England, was, again, given the benefit of the doubt by the referee after he clearly fouled Graham Dorrans in the penalty area, which should have given them a penalty and the right-back an early bath.
West Brom finally got the penalty they deserved, and, even though it was Rio Ferdinand who conceded the spot kick, it was Neville who was no where to be found, and forced the center-back to come out and try to contain Jerome Thomas, which he ultimately could not do.
Neville struggled to keep up with another pacey, quick winger, but to be fair on him, his replacement, Fabio, was also given a torrid time by Thomas as well.
The twin brother of Rafael could have cost United all three points, but, thankfully, the ever-dependable Nemanja Vidic was in the right place at the right time to clear Thomas’ well-place shot off the line.
In all sincerity, Neville should really think long and hard about taking the Reserve Team Manager post that is currently vacant following Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s departure for Molde.
Wes Brown, who fell out of favor with Sir Alex following a bust up during their Tour 2010 in America this summer, is the best option when Rafael is not able to play.
However, the failing of both Neville and Fabio goes to show just how much Rafael contributes to United’s game – both securing the right-hand side of defense, but also going forward.
All in all, Manchester United did get all three points, which was obviously their objective, but the players will need to be better in their next Barclays Premier League match against Stoke in a couple of days’ time.