United strike quartet mask problems in the heart of defence
Van Persie, Rooney, Welbeck and Hernandez may be world-beaters, but unfit Jones and Smalling leave gaps at the other end of the pitch
If there is much amusement at Old Trafford over Roberto Mancini's playing-up of Manchester United's title prospects – unlike the bookmakers, he makes them strong favourites – the City manager seemed quite genuine in stating on this first weekend of the new season that the quartet of strikers his rivals have assembled is "the best in the world".
Sir Alex Ferguson mocked his opposite number's faux humility with "We're favourites every week according to him – I don't know if he realises he's got a decent team", but he would not have minded the compliment about the attacking force he has been able to assemble by adding Robin van Persie to Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez.
Like City, United are now overloaded, as even additional commitments to the Champions' League and two domestic cups do not demand five or six strikers. Michael Owen has been released, Dimitar Berbatov needs to move on and Federico Macheda, who made only six appearances last season (one goal), must wonder about his prospects.
Welbeck will be disappointed at dropping one place down the pecking order but has hidden it well and impressed Ferguson with his acceptance of the situation and determination to learn from Van Persie. "You always learn from great players," Ferguson said, citing Eric Cantona's influence on the younger generation at Old Trafford. "He's a young boy and there's progress there."
The manager most upset by the new signing – even more than Mancini and Arsène Wenger – will be Roy Hodgson, who is having to resign himself to picking England squads in which half-a-dozen players are not appearing regularly for their clubs.
By the time he picks a party in two weeks' time for the World Cup double-header against Moldova (away) and Ukraine (home), that could apply to Welbeck, Andy Carroll, Daniel Sturridge, Jermain Defoe, Adam Johnson, Gary Cahill, Jack Rodwell and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, if not United's Tom Cleverley. From rubbing his hands at seeing his first-choice European Championship partnership starting regularly and training together at United, Hodgson must accept that a pairing of Van Persie and Rooney is much the more likely.
Ferguson admitted that the Dutchman's ability to drift into different positions and cause problems from all of them always featured in his team talks before playing Arsenal; but 37 goals in all competitions (30 of them in the League) last season emphasised where he is most dangerous. He is the perfect leader for the 4-2-3-1 formation that United often favour, in common with so many teams these days, and Rooney, as long as he does not stray too far away, is equally well suited to the role just behind him, even if it means a decrease in last season's 35 goals from him (27 in the League).
Even if Welbeck starts against Everton at Goodison tomorrow, Van Persie having hardly played in pre-season, the arrangement is expected to be temporary. Hernandez, who was finding himself squeezed out by Welbeck towards the end of the season, will also spend plenty of time on what will be a more star-studded substitutes' bench than ever. One of the reasons for breaking with recent policy and buying a 29-year-old was to add maturity to the squad as Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes continue winding down. Cleverley and Michael Carrick, together for England in midweek, are more likely to occupy the two defensive midfield roles even if doubts persist over Darren Fletcher and Anderson; it was interesting nevertheless that after his dramatic return in January the 37-year-old Scholes started as many games in half a season as Giggs, one year older, in a whole one. Shinji Kagawa and, later, Nick Powell from Crewe can also operate in the Rooney position just behind the main striker, and now that Park Ji-sung is down south at Queens Park Rangers, Nani, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young will share the wide berths. That looks a line-up to run City pretty close. Concerns in this early part of the season, when United have sometimes lost valuable ground, are defensive, as Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are both unfit and there is a shortage of cover at full-back. In the meantime the old guard of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand will take care of business; and the Manchester United way always was to worry more about the other end of the pitch, which they have certainly done in the past few days.
Everton v Manchester United is on Sky Sports 1 tomorrow, kick-off 8pm
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