Why the jury is still out on Manchester United

Man Utd have swept all before them so far this season. They’ve scored a truly magnificent 21 league goals, claimed the maximum 15 points on offer from their opening 5 fixtures and have already managed to open up what could transpire to be a crucial two-point lead on Man City at the top of the table. Well, perhaps I’m just trying to pick holes where there aren’t any, but I’ve been less than convinced by Man Utd’s defending at the back so far this season and feel that with better finishing, there would be a lot more talk about a rearguard desperately missing the presence of Nemanja Vidic.

Man Utd’s 3-1 victory over Chelsea last weekend was as notable for the chances missed than taken. Fernando Torres, who looked a darn sight sharper than he has done thus far in a Chelsea shirt, missed a horrific open goal with the all the hard work seemingly done. Ramires was denied by a mixtures of a fantastic save by David De Gea and a mix-up in communication with Daniel Sturridge as to who should oblige Torres’s fantastic centre with the simplest of tap ins. Torres missed a couple more chances, that at his peak, he’d have taken with aplomb.

It’s clear that Ferguson has shifted the onus this season to an open and expansive style of play in order to get the best out of the club’s embarrassment of riches up top and out wide. So far, so good in that regard. Ashley Young has excelled, Rooney is in a purple patch and others such as Nani and Welbeck have all contributed too.

However, at the back there is certainly sufficient cause for concern should despite the side conceeding just 4 league goals. The cynic in me sees something that appears to have been glossed over rather too easily so far.

Johnny Evans has had a great return to form at the heart of defence after a poor season last term. Whereas first his selection was one of necessity it is now on merit. Smalling may have been pushed out to right back simply because Evans isn’t as comfortable there, but the former Fulham man would struggle to get past Evans now in the middle.

Phil Jones is a tremendous talent, but amidst all the fawning over his potential, he appears to have gone without the close scrutiny, particularly over his positioning, that others may have gone through if they played for less successful sides. Indeed, whereas Jones may have garnered too much praise so far, Evans hasn’t been given enough.

Returning to that horrific Torres miss. Jones was woefully out of position. After intercepting a pass well and laying it off to Rooney, the smart thing to do would be to hold your position. But no, Jones rampages off, and at one point is Utd’s further player forward.

Chelsea win the ball back eventually and Ramires plays an excellent ball in the space towards Evans left where Jones should be standing. His lack of positional discipline is astounding. It should have resulted in a potentially match-changing strike, with the scores at 3-1 with sufficient time left to force an equaliser. Luckily for Jones, it didn’t.

When he drives forward and it works, as it did for the Rooney goal, then great, but what happens if he times his runs poorly and leaves himself dreadfully out of position as he did with the Torres miss. On another day, Jones is punished, and the final result could be entirely different. Such fine lines are people’s opinions of a player judged by – once an impression has been made, it’s very hard to reverse. So far, Jones has been hailed as the second-coming of John Terry; a new and improved version. When in reality, there are still a lot of flaws to his game, despite his marvellous potential.

Against Arsenal too, Utd were absolutely clinical going forward, scoring eight goals, but they also let in two shabbily defended goals of their own and with better finishing and more composure in front of goal, Arsenal could have and should have helped themselves to a few more with Van Persie missing a penalty with the score at 1-0.

The lack of cover in midfield also looks to be a problem. Tom Cleverely and Anderson are both useful players further up the pitch, but they are very similar and both make the same runs at the same time, leaving the back line exposed.

Against Chelsea it was the turn of Anderson and Darren Fletcher. The same problem persisted – a lack of protection. One instance in the first half, with the score at 3-1, Sturridge made a fabulous darting run from the flank to the egde of the Man Utd box, was allowed time to swivel and play it out wide to Mata before he forced a good save from De Gea at his near post. The ease with which Fletcher was outmanoeuvred was only matched by the absolutely atrocious lack of interest Anderson showed in closing anyone down.

The same problem persists for Utd – the lack of a recognised holding midfield player. Carrick is ponderous at best, Anderson only interested when Utd have the ball, Cleverely inexperienced and Fletcher is working his way back to fitness.

A couple of stats courtesy of the quite superb OptaJoe – ‘20 – Every visiting team to Old Trafford this season has had at least 20 shots: only 2 teams managed this in the previous 5 seasons. Theatre.’ Also, ‘35% – David de Gea has a made a PL-high 28 saves this season, already 35% of Van der Sar’s total of 81 in 2010-11. Busy.’

Man Utd have steamrollered the opposition into submission so far this term. The Chelsea result, while clinical, was far from clear cut. Chelsea managed to expose Man Utd high up the pitch time and time again, none more so than the ill-disciplined Phil Jones.

There has been a clear transition from Man Utd from the side of last term that worked the ball out wide to the wings and aimed to get balls into the box, to one that plays quick, one-touch football on the floor and through the middle so far this campaign.

The old weaknesses still require addressing though. Like any good side, they’ve punished the opposition when the opportunity has presented itself, they’ve ridden they’re luck at times and made their own at the other end (e.g Rooney’s goal against Chelsea). While I don’t want to detract too much from their astonishing start to the new season, a little perspective needs to be attached to proceedings. This current Man Utd is good, it has the potential to be very, very good, but it’s far from the finished article and still a way off the Spanish duo of Barcelona and Real Madrid (despite the mixed starts to their respctive campaigns)

The results are far from conclusive, but this Man Utd team look like the side to beat so far this season simply because of the excellence of their star-studded attack. With concerns to their back four and the cover in front of them, though, the jury’s still most definitely out.

You can follow me on Twitter @JamesMcManus1
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