I recently saw this format for a review on an American football blog during a bye week and I thought the same format would be applicable for a review of Manchester United's season thus far at the current international break. So far, the Reds have played 10 competitive matches (11 if you count the Community Shield) over three competitions -- 7 in the Premier League, 2 in the UEFA Champions League, and 1 in the Carling Cup. There are still 31 league matches remaining and hopefully many more matches in Europe and in domestic cups. However, the number of matches played thus far is enough to allow for a little reflection on we've seen so far, as well as projecting on what the future might hold. Here is Part I of a position-by-position review -- this part will cover goalkeeper, center-back, and full-back:
What We Thought: Coming into the season, there were questions on how adequately the highly-rated David De Gea could fill the gloves of recently retired Edwin van der Sar. The main concerns were over the experience of the 20-year-old and how he would adapt to the physicality of the English Premier League. He was regarded as a superb shot-stopper.
What We Got: A mixed bag so far. Much (too much?) was made of De Gea's early struggles -- most notably his perceived lack of command in the box. In addition, he also allowed a soft goal to West Bromwich Albion in the season opener and this brought into question his ability to deal with shots from long range. Since then though, the Spaniard has been very solid and has come up with numerous world-class saves while covering a leaky United defense. Perhaps not enough has been made of his terrific play as of late. He has already made 32 saves in 6 league matches -- van der Sar was forced to make 82 saves last season in 33 league matches. Anders Lindegaard has shown signs of being a capable back-up as well.
What Now? De Gea is beginning to look much more comfortable as the United No 1 and he has even passed the stiff physical test of playing against Stoke City at the Britannia. He has earned his status as the undisputed No 1 and with the numerous big matches that United will play this season, both domestically and in Europe, it will be important for both the media and fans to judge him on his total body of work at season's end -- and not be too quick to judge over a single gaffe or a single world-class save. The scouting report of him being a superb shot-stopper appears to be justified, especially on reflex saves. Just as he was versus Stoke, he needs to continue being instantly decisive on when he comes off his line or not -- his slight build could potentially lead to a few spilled balls though at this point if he is not protected by referees in England. This should be less of a concern in Europe.
What We Thought: That United had arguably the greatest center-back in the world in captain Nemanja Vidic and arguably the best partnership in the world with him and Rio Ferdinand. In addition, Chris Smalling would be a capable deputy and that Jonny Evans and Phil Jones provided terrific cover for now and potential for the future.
What We Got: Injuries. Instant injuries. So instant that both Vidic and Ferdinand went down in the season opener. Even Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans have missed time due to injury and this forced central-midfielder Michael Carrick and reserves player Ezekiel Fryers into action as the starting center-back due versus Leeds United in a Carling Cup clash. There have been bright spots though -- most notably the rise of Phil Jones and the improvement of Evans. Jones was regarded as one for the future and that certainly appears true -- but he is one for the now as well as the excitement of his surging runs from the back have complemented his brave defending. Evans has made 5 starts in league and 1 in Champions League -- he has been a rock at center-back for United thus far and shown drastic improvement in his aerial ability. Smalling has shown well when deployed in the center as well. Ferdinand has struggled in recent matches since his return from injury and there are hints that age is catching up with him -- or perhaps it is just rustiness and fitness?
What Now?: It appears that Vidic is possibly set for a return against Liverpool FC. If the skipper shows form that is anywhere near to the level of last season, he is an automatic selection at left-center-back for manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Is Rio still an automatic selection choice when healthy? Only Fergie knows. One could reasonably wonder though, if Rio continues to show the lack of form that he did versus Norwich City and FC Basel, could he be trumped by one of Jones, Smalling, and Evans? This is certain though -- everyone will play. United's congested fixture list, along with the flexibility of each of the youngsters ability to play full-back, should allow for everyone to get playing time as United battle on numerous fronts.
What We Thought: That Patrice Evra would be a steady presence at left-back and the da Silva twins would be more than capable as starters when healthy. Would Jones, Smalling, and Evans be capable cover at full-back or would John O'Shea's versatility be missed?
What We Got: Evra has been a constant presence at left-back while making 6 league starts and 2 Champions League starts. He has formed a nice understanding with Ashley Young down the left flank and their attacking ability has proved a nuisance for opposing defenses. However, Evra has been suspect in defense at times and especially against the counter-attack. Rafael has missed the entire season thus far due to shoulder surgery while his twin brother Fabio has simply failed to perform at an acceptable level. Both Evra and Fabio have got caught out at times -- do they need a holding midfielder for cover? The positives? Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. Both were regarded as natural center-backs coming into this season but each has performed well when asked to play at right-back -- so well that each made their England debuts at right-back in recent weeks. The versatility of Smalling and Jones has helped United deal with their injury issues in defense and with the departure of O'Shea. Antonio Valencia has even provided an attacking threat at right-back and interestingly has been chosen over Fabio on numerous occasions.
What Now?: The durable Evra will continue to be the automatic choice at left-back but he needs to show improvement in his defending as the season goes forward -- a return to his world-class form of a few seasons ago would be the ideal scenario. Rafael will continue to be out for some time. Who is the first-choice right-back at this point? With the return of Vida and Rio, it appears either Smalling or Jones will slide over and provide this role. Can Fabio step up to the form that earned him a start in last May's Champions League final? How much more time will Valencia spend at right-back?
Part II will cover the central midfield, wingers, strikers, and an overall review of United.