United have conceded five goals from their opening three matches -- three on set-pieces and two on headers from open-play.
Three matches isn't much to go on for any sort of detailed assessment of Manchester United's season thus far. This is especially so when you consider that a dire injury situation with the central defenders and the acclimation of a few new key players in attack may have contributed heavily to a disjointed start by the team. Nonetheless, an international break is already here and I might as well start a discussion of what we've seen in the season's beginning. Sir Alex Ferguson's side have only played one half of good football (out of a possible six) but they've managed to pick up six points from three matches -- two of which have been away. We're only a point behind Manchester City as well so the results haven't been disastrous by any means, even if the actual performances have been disappointing.
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). This will also be divided up into two write-ups: Part I (this piece) will cover goalkeepers, center-backs, and full-backs. Part II will cover central-midfield, wide attackers, No.10s, and strikers.
What We Thought: Despite a difficult start to his United career last season, we thought we had a budding star in the 21-year-old David de Gea. He had been tremendous since January and his shot-stopping ability and ability on the ball with his feet are outstanding. He lacked full command of his box but he has shown improvement. Anders Lindegaard is considered to be one of the better backup goalkeepers in the Premier League and he's arguably starter quality as well.
What We Got: de Gea was outstanding versus Everton and put in a world-class type of performance. He made some good saves versus Fulham as well but a mishap between himself and Nemanja Vidic on a cross resulted in him being dropped last weekend versus Southampton -- perhaps a rather harsh punishment. Lindegaard commanded his box decently well and he wasn't at fault for either goal he conceded. However, he's not nearly as comfortable with the ball at his feet in comparison de Gea and a few hurried and sloppy clearances simply resulted in pressure being brought back on United.
What Now?: I personally don't have many worries about de Gea and I believe he will soon emerge into a world-class goalkeeper -- that if he's properly developed and managed. I'd expect Lindegaard to get a few games here and there but I hope Fergie isn't quick to change his No.1 if de Gea makes another mistake in the near future. I suppose though I'll defer to the great manager and his legendary man-management skills in handling this manner.
What We Thought: Despite having five fine choices in central-defense, there was were some clear concerns. Vidic hadn't made a start in nine months and many were curious to see what kind of form he might be in. Despite a fine 2011/12 season from Rio Ferdinand, and one that saw him fit for the entirety of it's second-half, there were still concerns about how reliable his availability would be. Younger center-backs Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, and Phil Jones were all expected to miss significant time as well due to injury. As a whole, the situation was so dire at the season's beginning that Vidic was the only available central-defender for the season opener at Goodison Park.
What We Got: Despite respectable enough performances by Vidic, especially when considering the severity of his knee injury and how recently he returned to full-time training, he was a bit rusty and not the world-class center-back he was a year ago. Midfielder Michael Carrick was forced to partner Vida and he struggled immensely -- although no blame was aimed his way due to the understanding of this emergency situation. Even when Rio returned last weekend, his partnership with Vida wasn't even close to the best-in-the-world level they achieved for much of the past half-decade or so.
What Now?: Hopefully with more games, Vida and Rio regain both fitness and form. However, it would be silly to expect them to be the same formidable partnership they were from about 2007-10 -- the peak of their dominance. Evans also needs to regain fitness, and likely form, after his off-season surgery. If he can regain his outstanding form from last season, then United will be well off. Smalling and Jones need to return as well and simply get games. The right partnerships need to be found and hopefully everybody has multiple people they feel comfortable enough in partnering with because rotation will be needed and continual fitness concerns are likely. If all five central-defenders are healthy later on in the season, it'll be interesting to see who is selected for big games.
What We Thought: There was concern that we would be light on adequate cover with Fabio going on loan to Queens Park Rangers and with the injuries to Smalling and Jones -- the latter two being cover at right-back. Rafael was actively involved this summer as well for Brazil in the Olympics and right-winger Antonio Valencia spent much of the pre-season tour getting time at right-back. It was anybody's guess as to who Patrice Evra's back-up might be at left-back.
What We Got: Evra, which was obviously predictable, has started every match. He had a very good game versus Fulham but he was poor versus Southampton. The Frenchman has enormous attacking responsibilities as he's continually asked to go forward and overlap when United's left-sided attacker cuts inside. This leaves the space in behind him exposed for counterattacks and the left-back looks to have lost a bit of pace -- something hugely important for recovering. Dutch left-back Alexander Buttner was bought in late August and he will be Evra's deputy this season.
Valencia started the first-game at right-back, a position where he's never embarrassed himself but nor has he looked comfortable there. Rafael started the next two and like Evra, he was generally good versus Fulham but he was a liability versus Southampton. The Brazilian is tremendous going forward and his ability to run into the channel between the opposition full-back and center-back when Valencia hugs the touchline is a nice balance. He even has a high motor and a willingness to get stuck in. However, he often gets caught out and his basic lack of understanding of when and when not to bomb forward is probably the reason why he hasn't made right-back completely his... yet.
What Now?: If Evra hasn't been dropped after increasingly underwhelming performances the past two seasons, it's hard to see him being knocked off by the newly-acquired Buttner. Look for the Frenchman to start most matches but hopefully he's spelled a bit more often this season in comparison to past ones by Buttner. It could be quite interesting to see what happens if Evra does struggle and Buttner impresses when he gets opportunities. By some accounts, United's pursuit of Leighton Baines this summer was real and that possibly hints at Fergie's recognition of his left-back issue.
Nearly every observer of United is probably waiting for Rafa to make right-back his own. If he improves his football IQ and finds the right attacking and defending balance, and if he can stay healthy for the majority of the season, his No.2 shirt will be fitting. However, although not naturally right-backs, the likes of Smalling, Jones, and Valencia are all there as possibilities to play right-back if Rafa is inconsistent.
The defense is a concern at the moment because our once world-class center-backs are fighting to regain fitness and form. The ages of Rio and Vida, and what their injuries have possibly done to them, also makes pace a worry from both because our center-backs are often forced to defend in space on counterattacks when the full-backs are caught out. However, if Rio can regain his form from last season, everyone will be happy. There's nothing conclusive to suggest that Vida can't regain world-class status again after a long run of games.
Evans is the most established out of the younger players and he simply needs to match his performances from last season, when he was one of the finer central-defenders in the Premier League, to satisfy the masses (well, some will still complain about Jonny). Smalling has shown enormous potential, and he's done well in hugely important matches during the 2010/11 season, so he simply needs to get games so that he can further his development. Many still feel he's a future stalwart in the United defense. Jones' optimal position has yet to be determined but he's clearly thought to be a key part of the future.
Perhaps as a whole, United's defense will begin to look better when everybody regains sharpness (hopefully) after getting games. In addition, it's very possible that some of the full-back concerns will be masked -- or perhaps better balance will be established is a more appropriate way of putting it -- by having Carrick as the foundation of the midfield. The midfielder has fantastic positional awareness and he's a terrific collector of the ball from the back four. The once again England international can also provide cover against counterattacks when the full-backs surge forward.
Another worry is the nature of the five goals United have conceded so far -- three are from set-pieces and two are from headers in open-play. United have been vulnerable on set-pieces recently, especially after Vidic went down last season, but this is something that shouldn't be as big of a concern when we can field two actual center-backs on the pitch. Fergie mentioned that his side worked on defending against crosses sent to the back-post prior to the Southampton game. However, the Saints' centre-forward Rickie Lambert still found himself isolated on Rafael for the game's opening goal. This is likely something teams will continually look to exploit when Rafa and Evra are on the pitch -- it needs to be sorted out.