Here is Part II of our position-by-position review at the October international break. Part I covered goalkeeper, center-back, and full-back. This will cover central-midfield, wingers, strikers, and overall review of where Manchester United stands in all competitions.
What We Thought: Coming into the season, most pointed to United's engine room as the weak area of the squad. Much was made last season of how the Reds lacked "fantasy" and many pointed to the center of the park as the culprit. However, Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick proved to be a successful partnership for last season's run-in and each were expected to play big roles again this season. Darren Fletcher missed the club's United States' preseason tour due to the same mysterious virus that forced him to miss much of the latter portion of last season -- there were doubts to how much he could contribute this season. Anderson's consistency was once again in question and while Tom Cleverley was a promising prospect, many wondered what sort of impact he could have for the upcoming season. Darron Gibson appeared to be out the door and most wondered if Wesley Sneijder coming in as the "Scholes replacement?"
What We Got: We got sick of the constant Sneijder rumors as the summer transfer window was coming to a close. During that time, Anderson and Cleverley surprisingly were first-choice and each took full advantage of their opportunity. Each helped spark United during their 2nd half comeback in the Community Shield versus Manchester City -- this propelled the dynamic duo to an impressive start for their first four matches in league until Cleverley was sidelined with an injury. The ageless Giggs grew into the season and has contributed with goals in both the Carling Cup and UEFA Champions League. Fletcher has returned to full-health and has began to see regular time for both club and country. Carrick has contributed as a squad player as well but not quite to the fine form that he was in during the past Spring. Park Ji-sung has seen minutes here as well and starlet Paul Pogba made his senior side debut versus Leeds United in the Carling Cup with a substitute appearance. Overall, the duo of Anderson/Cleverley provided a spark while the rest have merely been mostly adequate as a whole.
What Now?: Anderson appears to be clear first-choice at the moment although his form slightly dipped after Cleverley's injury. Cleverley appears ready for a return in the near future. Can the youngster rediscover his form from the summer and even improve on that? Manager Sir Alex Ferguson hinted earlier this season that the early portion of the season would be an opportunity for some of the younger players on the squad and that the more experienced players would grow into the season. With United's congested fixture list -- a battle on four fronts -- all of the mentioned players figure to get plenty of playing time as the season progresses. Who will end up being first-choice for the run-in? Will the Sneijder rumors heat back up during the January transfer window?
What We Thought: That we had both quality and depth here. Antonio Valencia and Park Ji-sung were terrific last Spring during the run-in but the former was recovering from an injury suffered during Copa America this past summer while on national team duty for Ecuador. Nani was expected to fight for a first-choice spot on either flank. Ashley Young was the most accomplished summer signing made by Fergie and he was expected to be deployed mostly on the left flank as he acclimated himself to the club. Giggs was mostly seen as a central-midfielder now but he was expected to contribute at times on the left flank still.
What We Got: Fantastic play from both Nani and Young. Each, along with Wayne Rooney, have been the main creative forces in attack for United. Young has averaged 2.7 key passes per game (defense splitting passes in attack) while Nani has averaged 2.6 -- these lofty averages are the sort figures typically seen from players that reside in the middle like "number tens" or "trequartistas." Nani has also terrorized left-sided defenders with 3.3 successful dribbles per game (where he takes on defenders). In terms of simple goals and assists -- Young has 2 league goals with 5 assists while Nani has 3 goals and 3 assists. Valencia recovered from injury and been used sparingly as a right-winger -- he's spent much time filling in at right-back for an injury depleted defense. Park has made a few starts as well and has been a useful squad player in the early-going of the season.
What Now?: Young is clearly the first-choice left-winger right now while Nani is clearly the first-choice right-winger. Park and Valencia figure to get plenty of playing time going forward as well and each often are selected for European ties. All but Valencia, who is only plays on the right, are capable of functioning on either flank.
What We Thought: That Wayne Rooney was the talisman and he would be well complemented again by the two 20-goalscorers from last season -- Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) and Dimitar Berbatov. Michael Owen was expected to provide adequate depth while youngsters Danny Welbeck and Federico Macheda were not expected to go out on loan again so that they could fight for a place in the squad. Just like the wingers, there was expected to be plenty of quality and depth.
What We Got: A sensational start by Rooney -- 9 goals and 2 assists in 6 league matches. Chicharito sat out in the early portion of the season due to a concussion suffered in training during the summer. It was Welbeck that emerged, instead of the expected Berbatov, as a partner for Rooney up front and he broke out with 3 league goals in 3 league starts (2 substitute appearances as well). Welbeck -- along with Rooney, Young, and Nani -- provided a fast, fluid, and interchangeable attack as they helped United accumulate 13 league goals in their first 3 matches. Chicharito then returned and formed the same dynamic partnership with Rooney as last season -- one where Chicharito stretches the defense by using the threat of his pace while sitting on the shoulder of the opposition's last defender while Rooney provides the incisive creativity in the space created underneath. Berbatov and Owen played sparingly and were essentially the 4th and 5th choice at striker -- the latter bagged a brace versus Leeds United.
What Now?: Rooney is obviously the talisman and the current question will be whether Welbeck or Chicharito emerge as Wazza's preferred partner. Both will certainly play quite a bit as the season goes forward. Welbeck, with his link play and intelligent movement, appears to be a good match with Young and Nani by being interchangeable and fluid in attack. Chicharito, with his particular dynamic with Rooney and clinical finishing near goal, appears to be a good fit with Valencia for this direct style of play. Will Berbatov be sold in the January transfer window? It has been a rapid fall in the pecking order for last season's co-Golden Boot winner in the Premier League. Owen will likely continue to contribute as cover and with the occasional start in domestic cups. Will Macheda move up in the pecking order or will he be sent out on loan again in January?
What We Thought: That the team was favorites to win the Premier League once again but they could they overcome Barcelona? Would the central-midfield be a hindrance in their quest to conquer Europe?
What We Got: Only two points dropped in league and home victories over Chelsea FC, Arsenal FC, and Tottenham Hotspur were included in this impressive start. A convincing Carling Cup victory over old rival Leeds United was a satisfying result as well. However, United only earned two points in their first two Champions League group-stage ties -- a 3-3 draw with FC Basel at Old Trafford was a shocking game on many levels. United's attack looks potent but will the return of Nemanja Vidic help fortify a leaky defense?
What Now?: When United return from their international break on Saturday, they immediately face stern league tests with ties at Anfield versus Liverpool FC and one at Old Trafford against Manchester City. In the following week, an important midweek Champions League away match with Otelul Galati is sandwiched in between. If United can earn an away draw in the North West derby with Liverpool and earn the full three points versus City in the Manchester derby, they will position themselves very nicely in the early stages of the Premier League title chase. Anything less than the full three points in Bucharest will be very worrisome. Battling on multiple fronts creates fluid situations -- one moment all is well at the top and in the next, it feels like you're sliding down the mountain. Luckily, Sir Alex Ferguson and his players are quite experienced in this regard. It should prove to be a fun, but stressful ride.