With just two months and 10 games of the Premier League season remaining, the pressure on Manchester United is increasing once again. Dumped out of the FA Cup on Monday thanks to a winning goal from a former player in the form of Danny Welbeck, they are in real danger of relinquishing their top four spot, should performances on the pitch fail to improve.
A slender two point advantage over fifth-placed Liverpool has cranked up the pressure on this weekend’s crucial clash with Tottenham, at the beginning of a difficult run of fixtures for the Red Devils.
Somewhat surprisingly, it appears manager Louis van Gaal is still searching for a way to get the best of out a talented squad of players, and with the personal and formation changing on a regular basis, it’s clear he is yet to come up with the ultimate solution. The uncertainty surrounding this scenario begs the question; just what is Manchester United’s best eleven?
The one position where there can be no disputing is in goal, where David De Gea continues to impress. The fact he has been United’s star man this season, says all you need to know about the problems they have, particularly in defence. A string of world class saves continues to improve his reputations as one of the best goalkeepers in the world, but with constant links to a move to Real Madrid, United would be advised to do all they can to secure him to a long-term contract.
The back four, or five, or three as it has often been this season, is clearly where the team needs most improvement. Whether this be through the signings of new personnel, or a step up in consistency from their current defenders, something needs to change. As shown this season, a back four is the way forward for van Gaal, and is something that works best for them when they get it right.
But choosing a settled back four week in, week out has been difficult for the Dutchman, and hasn’t helped as his players struggle to settle into a consistent rhythm.
Luke Shaw appears the preferred option at left-back, with Marcos Rojo appearing the strongest option at centre back. This gives van Gaal the choice of three to partner the Argentine, where Jonny Evans could be the best bet.
With English duo Phil Jones and Chris Smalling failing to deliver the consistency of performance required, whether they have the necessary quality to hold a regular first-team place is up for debate.
Antonio Valencia has become mainstay at right-back in recent weeks, with Rafael taking a back seat. Another position where they may be looking to reinforce this summer, for now the Ecuadorian provides a solid option thanks to his work rate and attacking ability.
With a number of options in midfield, choosing the right system to accommodate his star players has proven difficult for van Gaal. In Daley Blind and Ander Herrera, they have the perfect platform for their attacking talents to flourish, with both providing good composure on the ball to help bring those further ahead of them into play.
A front three of Juan Mata, Angel Di Maria either side of Wayne Rooney on paper appears to be United’s strongest option, but the former two have struggled for consistency this season, and look to be the most notable casualties in van Gaal’s ever changing system, as Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini continue to gain preference in the team. But the sight of these three on the team sheet would cause concern for any opponents, and if the manager can start to get the best out of this pair, when alongside Rooney, they can prove an impressive attacking force.
This leaves space for just the one striker; a toss up between Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie, who have both failed to deliver on a regular basis this season. A lack of fitness and first-team opportunities looks to have hindered Falcao’s progress as he strives to hit the high standards he set prior to a career threatening knee injury last season. Van Persie would be the preferred option, but again he looks off the pace and has struggled to have his usual impact in front of goal.
On paper the above eleven looks strong enough to comfortably secure a top four place, but a lack form has raised question marks over a number of these players, as the search for United’s best team goes on.