2 starts. 4 goals. Welcome to Manchester United.
Part 1 is here -- goalkeepers, center-back, and full-backs were reviewed. Here in Part 2, I will review Manchester United's central-midfielders, wide attackers, No.10's, and strikers. Just as in Part 1, I'm going to break this up into brief position-by-position reviews and for each position, I'm going to discuss 'What We Thought' (preseason expectations), 'What We Got' (thoughts on recent performances), and 'What Now?' (future expectations).
What We Thought: For a few seasons now, United fans have been clamoring for help in the center of the park -- particularly a 'Paul Scholes replacement'. In addition, it has become increasingly obvious that the squad needs more of a physical presence in the engine room. Heading into the season, a Scholes replacement actually wasn't needed because he's still in the squad (we'll need to search for this the best we can next summer though) and he's still very influential. The squad also had other passing midfielders as well: Tom Cleverley offers quick short-passing along with mobility, Michael Carrick offers the ability to circulate the ball along with positional awareness, and Ryan Giggs -- on his day -- can provide incisiveness. What of Anderson and Darren Fletcher? Neither can be relied on because the former is simply inconsistent and the latter has a bowel condition that is difficult to manage. Nick Powell is young and likely won't get his first opportunity until domestic cup ties begin.
What We Got: The scouting report right now on United and the way to approach them is certainly to close down their central-midfielders as quickly as possible. Everton, Fulham, and Southampton did this effectively and this is a big reason why United have only played one good half of football this season. Scholes, Carrick, and Cleverley are all fine midfielders but each is undoubtedly more effective when they have someone like a healthy Fletcher screening for them when the opposition gets combative.
What Now?: Sir Alex Ferguson's midfield is prone to being bothered by physicality and without a physical presence on his own squad right now offering protection, he must find a clever solution. Even though it comes with risks, United's opponents would be smart right now to press United's midfielders rather than sitting back and allowing time on the ball for the likes of Scholes and Carrick. This is a big concern for United right now and adjustments need to be made.
What We Thought: This was expected to be a major strength in the squad with the likes of Antonio Valencia, Nani, and Ashley Young as wingers. In addition, the versatility of Wayne Rooney, Shinji Kagawa, and Danny Welbeck allow them to be options out wide as well. Furthermore, there's also the legendary left-winger Giggs who can still put in a shift on the flank. This is historically a major source of chances created for Fergie sides and he has a plethora of options and players who offer variable attributes as well.
What We Got: Quite simply, it's been disappointing so far from our wide players. Valencia has played out on the right the past two matches and while he hasn't been poor, he also hasn't been near the unplayable form of his early 2012. Nani started on the right in the opener and he was horrific. Young was poor as well when he started on the left in the opener and Welbeck has been largely ineffective the past two matches on the left.
What Now?: We should be fine going forward. However, there are a few concerns. Young might miss time in the next few weeks due to an injury so that factors into the depth as the fixture list becomes congested due to upcoming midweek European and domestic cup matches. Also, there's been some rumblings that Nani may be looking for an Old Trafford exit and he has yet to sign a new contract -- one that expires at the end of the 2013/14 season. Valencia and/or Nani finding form on the right will be key as both offer natural width out on that flank. That balances the side because the left-sided attacker -- whether that be Young, Nani, Giggs, Welbeck, Rooney, or Kagawa -- always tends to come inside in the attacking third. When Rooney returns from injury, it'll be interesting to see if Kagawa gets a shift on the left with Wazza as the No.10 and/or vice versa -- this is bound to be experimented with at some point.
What We Thought: Along with Robin van Persie, Kagawa was the other marquee signing of the summer and he made it very clear that his preferred position was as a No.10 -- a role that he excelled in the past two seasons for back-to-back Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund. This has been the preferred role of Rooney -- United's key player since Cristiano Ronaldo departed the club three summers ago -- the past season-and-a-half and many had been wondering how Fergie would deploy the two. Ashley Young has played this role for England recently even though he's only done it once for United. Giggs is an option in this role as well.
What We Got: Versus Everton, it was Kagawa as the No.10 in support of Rooney as the No.9. The Japanese international was arguably the only outfield player that had a strong game for United that night as he impressed with his movement and spatial awareness, first-touch and close-control in tight spaces, and his ability to play penetrating through-balls. Rooney was dropped for Fulham and Kagawa once again excelled as the No.10. For Southampton, Rooney's injury meant that it was a clear choice to deploy Kagawa as the No.10. However, he struggled.
What Now?: Rooney is expected to miss the next few weeks and even when he does return, regaining adequate fitness will be a priority and that will be a factor in regards to his form -- which has dipped in 2012. Kagawa is expected to resume No.10 duties and if he continues to impress, while also gaining an understanding with van Persie, Fergie will find it difficult to not use his new playmaker as first-choice in this role. When the fixture list is congested, Rooney will certainly get some games though as the No.10 and it'll be interesting to see how he does in that role. Will Young ever get a game in this role too?
What We Thought: An embarrassment of riches. RvP and Rooney -- the Premier League's top two scorers last season -- along with youngsters Welbeck and Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) reduced the brilliant Dimitar Berbatov as fifth-choice. In addition, 21-year-old Federico Macheda was lurking around as well. There's good variation in this group which undoubtedly strengthens the strike force as a whole: RvP is a complete No.9, Chicharito is a poacher's No.9 and has the knack for important goals, Rooney can play both as a No.9 and as discussed a No.10 too, while Welbeck offers the all-around game by being able to stretch the opposition's backline by making diagonal runs into the channels and also by dropping deep to link play. The main question was how might RvP and Rooney work together and what roles would they play?
What We Got: Rooney got the first game as the No.9 and he was poor. RvP started the next two and he excelled -- his four goals from those two starts is a testament to this. The Dutchman shows superb ability to bring the ball down from his chest after receiving a ball over the top in the channels or when getting on the end of a cross. In addition, he showed fantastic heading technique when scored the winner versus Southampton on a Nani corner (getting on the end of a Nani corner is a feat in itself). He's even a fantastic penalty-taker, despite his embarrassing 'Panenka' attempt at St Mary's Stadium. Chicharito did well as a substitute versus Southampton and was praised by Fergie for stretching their backline. Berba was sold to Fulham.
What Now: van Persie will continue to be first-choice over these upcoming weeks but the likes of Welbeck and Chicharito are likely to get games at striker with midweek ties being sandwiched between weekend league matches. Rooney should return by month's end as well or by early October so he'll need to be integrated as well. We already know that RvP and Kagawa are in fine form in their respective No.9 and No.10 roles. In a first-choice lineup, what will this mean for Rooney going forward -- especially if he too hits form?
Even though United have looked disjointed thus far, this side just needs games in order to gel and games they will soon get. I'm not too worried at the moment. Kagawa and van Persie have settled in well and they just need to build an understanding with another-- which the two intelligent players should do -- and with their surrounding attackers. Carrick moving back into his natural territory should solidify the midfield and whenever he features there, he helps enormously with the team's shape. Speaking of shape, Welbeck drifting so much inside and Patrice Evra bombing forward aggressively and often in order to provide width on the left is leaving United vulnerable to counterattacks in the space behind the Frenchman. A better balance needs to be found and maybe that's simply solved by having a more natural winger -- such as Nani and Young -- on the left flank.
I'm very, very curious to see what happens with Rooney going forward. Fergie has the dual challenge of finding his optimal role and also man-managing any possible disruptions if the attacker becomes unhappy at any point. There certainly are a lot of questions with this United squad going forward and that provides both worry and intrigue as we come out of this September international break.