Unusually for a club so closely associated with winning, Manchester United's current season has been as much defined by their defeats: five of them in all, including Wednesday's loss to Newcastle United, but every one quite an event in its own right.
No one is likely to forget the 6-1 home defeat to Manchester City in October, but look at the others. In November there was the Carling Cup quarter-final elimination at home to Crystal Palace, then 12th in the Championship. In December, the defeat to humble Basle in Switzerland ended United's interest in the Champions League. Then came the New Year's Eve home defeat to Blackburn Rovers, bottom of the Premier League at the time.
Set against those four, the result at St James' Park, United's first defeat there in 10 years, was arguably the least surprising of the lot. The previous four reverses might have been written off as aberrations or blips. But, if anything, it was the matter-of-fact way his team accepted their fate in Newcastle that will be most troubling to Ferguson. In a Premier League title race which has proved so volatile, it would be unwise to dismiss Manchester United on the basis of two results. The gap to Manchester City in first place is still only three points. Nevertheless, so too is United's lead over Tottenham Hotspur in third place and Spurs have a game in hand. Ferguson played down the significance of Wednesday's result, and he may yet be proved right, but some of his team's problems at Newcastle did not seem the kind to be easily dismissed.
The loss of a player as crucial as Nemanja Vidic to a season-long injury would have affected any team but United have made a virtue in the Ferguson years of being able to cope with the long-term absence of seemingly indispensable players. That Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling have also succumbed to injury and illness of late has only made it more difficult.
The centre of midfield
It is easily the weakest department in this team with Ryan Giggs, at 38, still their best option. Yes, United are missing players such as Darren Fletcher and Anderson, who returned as a substitute at Newcastle. But these are not exactly men who have a transformative power on the team anyway. It is obvious that central midfield is the position in which Ferguson most urgently needs to dip into the market to strengthen.
In the case of Tottenham's Luka Modric (right), a potential target for most top clubs, you have to wonder if United have the patience to enter into another summer of negotiations with Daniel Levy. In that case they will have to take a chance on picking out the next great prospect, something every other big club in Europe is trying to do. And whoever it is, the chances are that his acquisition will take money and time.
Rooney and the strikers
Until the decision to drop him against Blackburn for an unauthorised night out, Rooney was in form – and for a player who is prone to highs and lows, that can be a dangerous thing to meddle with. He scored four goals in the three of the four wins that followed the defeat to Basle and was especially accomplished in the 5-0 demolition of Fulham at Craven Cottage. On Wednesday he had two key chances in either half and failed to take either.
Rooney's subsequent substitution felt like a further chastisement from Ferguson. The problem for United is that while Rooney tends to attract most of the criticism and praise, and is regarded as a barometer for the team's form, a successful season for United will also require a significant contribution from other strikers.
Javier Hernandez has not scored since November, another case of a good young player struggling with that difficult second season in the Premier League. Equally Danny Welbeck has scored two goals since the start of October. With six goals in the previous three games, Dimitar Berbatov had been the shining light but he went missing against Newcastle. Michael Owen is injured. Mame Biram Diouf wants to go out on loan again, which Federico Macheda has already done, to Queen's Park Rangers.
Before the defeat to Newcastle it felt like the burning issue, with David de Gea dropped for the game and replaced by Anders Lindegaard. Despite conceding three goals, Lindegaard did not have a catastrophic game – but then neither was it the kind of performance that will have convinced Ferguson that the Dane is indisputably his first choice for now.
If he leaves De Gea out of the FA Cup third-round game at City on Sunday then Ferguson is acknowledging that Lindegaard is now his No 1 choice. If he reverses the decision and De Gea plays then there will be enormous pressure on the younger goalkeeper.
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