United young guns struggling to fire
From Ryan Giggs' injury-time winner at Carrow Road to the 4-4 draw with Everton that marked the first dropped points of Paul Scholes' second coming, there has been a focus on the experience that Manchester United have been able to call upon to get them through the business end of the season. What's remarked upon less is the unreliability of the younger players in the squad. There have been plenty of reasons to praise them, but Sir Alex Ferguson has relied on them with sufficient regularity as to expose the thinness of his squad.
Rio Ferdinand has been making more consistent appearances than his back had previously allowed. In the absence of Nemanja Vidic, it had appeared that having at least half of the famous partnership had ensured the team remained almost as solid - they've conceded less than a goal a game in the league. Jonny Evans had appeared an able replacement. Everton, though, demonstrated a vulnerability to physical approaches that had long been obvious. The alternatives in the squad illustrate that, in defence, the younger United players are not quite as assured as some believe.
At centre back, the other options were Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. Smalling had an exceptionally calm first season for Manchester United but this year has spent most games at right back, has been held back by injuries, and not shown the sheer consistency that Vidic does at centre back. Despite Vidic's injury, Smalling has played only 17 league games. It might not be fair to expect that of such a young, and notably still inexperienced, player, but that does not help the club now. Evans has stepped in, but he, as shown at Everton among other games, can be susceptible to bullying.
The other option is Phil Jones. A comedic gurner, his positional sense in the middle of the defence is often just as funny. Though he started exceptionally impressively for a young player at such a demanding club, his most memorable qualities were his rambles forward, and his imposing physique implied a stature that he is expected to grow into but as yet has not.
At full back, Rafael and Fabio have been as easy on the eye but still appear bereft of positional discipline. Fabio finished last season as the first choice of identical Brazilian DNA but this season struggled to replace the terminally declining Patrice Evra, even when his form dipped so seriously during the Suarez affair. In mitigation, it perhaps would have sent out entirely the wrong message to drop Evra at this point. Rafael, on the other hand, has maintained his attacking bent. In terms of position, though, he is so weak defensively that the benefits he offers in attack do not outweigh the bad. With Fabio, Rafael, Jones and Smalling all unable to continue their form, United meet Manchester City vulnerable in defence.
Further forward, things have been more markedly disappointing. Tom Cleverley - the man, the brand - briefly illuminated the team, but we are now in the dark over his real abilities. In August, he was playing with a Manchester United team attempting to absorb the influence of the Barcelona team that had beaten them the previous May. United then had needed either a young Pele's skills or, at the very least, the enlivening wares advertised by the contemporary Pele. Cleverley certainly gave them something but, due to injuries, there's no way of telling if his impression is one of beginner's luck or something more. Relying on Michael Carrick - genuinely and depressingly their most effective midfielder over the course of the season - and the treacle-footed Anderson has highlighted exactly why Paul Scholes had to come back. It's not Cleverley's fault, just an example of the overreliance on youth. The sudden loss of Darren Fletcher, and the sudden disappearance of Park Ji-Sung's form, does not explain why no sustainable midfield reinforcements were made.
It's up front, perhaps, that the shortcomings of young players at Manchester United have been so pronounced. Wayne Rooney, playing with the enthusiasm of a tortured dog, nonetheless remains the club's most effective and important player. Having already scored 33 goals, there was little chance anybody would keep up, but few would have anticipated such a shortfall. Dimitar Berbatov no longer has the trust of Ferguson, and the team is stunted as a result. Javier Hernandez can finish, but he is perhaps mentally incapable of imposing himself on a full game. He cannot link play or be relied on for assists. Muller-lite, suited to a place on the bench, not to complement the team for 90 minutes. Against Chelsea, he secured a comeback with just six minutes left: his trademark qualities have not deserted him. But when he has to lead the line, for example at Wigan, he is redundant.
The other young player up front, Danny Welbeck, displayed no smoking gun at Sunderland to suggest he would be relied upon at United the next year, but he has played more than 30 games. Compared to predecessors Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo, his talent is fun-sized. He has scored important goals - against Manchester City in January, for example - but is, objectively, not yet good enough to be part of a devastating attack.
It's not just in the Premier League that this has cost them. In Europe they could not overcome the energy of Basel or Athletic Bilbao when more continental nous might have given them the awareness and concentration needed to pick off such teams. Last year, this may not have mattered. Park had not yet made the move to obsolescence. Berbatov was actually allowed to play football. Vidic's knee had not failed, and Scholes was available throughout the year. It's not that the young players haven't lived up to expectations, for there have been some notable achievements. It's that their inevitable stumbles have not been countered by a more balanced squad.