The season so far has had its ups and downs for the Reds. A shock defeat to Burnley certainly wasn’t in the script, as the world looks on intently to see how the reigning Premiership Champions set about life after Ronaldo and ‘that’ final in Rome, to defending their domestic crown to make it four League titles in a row and surpass the record of their long time Merseyside rivals Liverpool.
The summer saw a great deal of upheaval at United with the long and protracted saga of Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Real Madrid finally concluded, thoughts turned to the future of one Carlos Tevez who had established himself as a real fans favourite at Old Trafford during his two year stay. Life at United is never far from the back pages, but never before have the Reds had to share so many column inches with the blue team of Manchester, and in the end so it proved a controversial move to Man City was to unfold for Tevez leaving United seemingly short in the striking department.
Ferguson then proceeded to bring in Michael Owen and Valencia assuring the slightly disgruntled United faithful that youth players like Macheda and Welbeck would be given more playing time and responsibility to produce a goal return for the senior side in the coming season. Now five games in, we are in a position to take stock of the state of play at Old Trafford and assess what can and should be expected for the remainder of the campaign.
Firstly, I can see no argument to suggest that a team can improve by selling its best player. Ronaldo was just that for United and although we have seen Rooney respond fantastically to the increased responsibility of leading the team, there should be no confusing the fact that the sum of all the parts is less with Ronaldo out of the side.
However United are a different proposition now, and a team still trying to feel it’s way into a new system. For the first time in many seasons there could be a genuine debate as to what United’s best 11 is. Aside from Rooney, Vidic, Evra and Ferdinand, Alex Ferguson can and has picked a variety of different player combinations based on a number of factors, namely: form, fitness and which players have the best characteristics for beating the opposition in question. This rotation approach has the benefit of making life harder for opposing teams to predict how best to set up against United, however it should also be considered that this has not helped the continuity of the transition to the new way of playing either.
The Premier League race this year is proving to be one of the closest run in a very long time. Man City in particular are off to a flyer, and even after their loss to United at the weekend Tottenham are still considered by many as genuine contenders to crash the Top Four party.
The upcoming Manchester derby provides a mouth watering prospect of duels and battles both on and off the field with United looking to inflict City’s first defeat of the season and the Blues desperate to get one over their long time dominant local adversary. With a resurgent Arsenal and Chelsea looking as strong as ever, it may prove to be Liverpool that come the end of the season suffer the embarrassment of Champions league exile, only time will tell.
The Reds certainly still have the tools to compete for trophies on all fronts, and the squad will be looking to prove that despite the loss of the current Ballon d’or holder they were by no means a one man team. With Owen Hargreaves set to make a long awaited return from injury to bolster the midfield, along with Anderson finally breaking his scoring duck things are looking up for United.
Dimitar Berbatov continues to flatter to deceive, showing moments of brilliance and then disappearing for large parts of games. Owen is also seemingly still trying to find his feet in a team that is expected to win every match, although he has stayed clear of injury thus far which will have surprised some.
It would be foolish to suggest that United won’t be at the sharp end of things when that time of the season rolls around for the medals to be handed out. Like the rest of the contenders though, United know they are going to have to fight and earn every point in this campaign even more so than the last.
With a big part of the artillery gone from the successful team of last season, question marks still hang over United’s ability to deliver consistently when it matters. With wins over Arsenal and a high flying Tottenham since the Burnley defeat, any self doubt that may have crept into the minds of the United players will be slowly seeping away.
Perhaps the question is more will the pretenders to the thrown have enough to take the title away from United this term, because they will certainly not be surrendering it lightly.