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Shallow Squad or an Injury Crisis?

The team we pick to start the first “competitive” game of the season (if you can call the Charity Shield competitive) is going to be pretty threadbare. Prospects aren’t so hot for the Newcastle game either. This has caused a lot of debate here recently about whether our squad leaves us too vulnerable to injury or whether it is an unfortunate run of injuries which we could not have foreseen or provided against.

By the way, I’m going to try out numbering and lettering my paragraphs to make commenting and debating easier. I’m going to touch on a lot of themes here, and so it may help facilitate debate if you can refer simply to paragraph 3a. It may not work, but hey.

1. The squad

First of all, I’m going to set out all the options we have in each position, so that we start this debate by looking objectively at the resources at our disposal.

GK: EVDS, Kuszczak, Foster
RB: Brown, G Neville, O’Shea, Hargreaves, R da Silva, Evans [Simpson is now out on loan, in case you missed that]
CB: Rio, Vidic, Brown, O’Shea, Evans, Silvestre
LB: Evra, Silvestre, O’Shea, Evans, F da Silva
RM / RW: Ronaldo, Nani, Park, Giggs, Hargreaves, Fletcher, Rooney
CM: Scholes, Carrick, Hargreaves, Anderson, Fletcher, Possebon, O’Shea, Giggs
LM / LW: Ronaldo, Nani, Giggs, Park, Evra, Rooney
CF: Rooney, Ronaldo, Tevez, Campbell, Giggs [Manucho is still awaiting a work permit; Welbeck has been mysteriously absent from pre-season games – anyone with info why please post it below]

In short, we have at least 5 genuine options in each position. Yes, you read it right – five. Not two, as Mourinho once advocated, five. Some better than others, but none would disgrace the shirt. Some overlapping, too, but there are thirty distinct players there, not counting Manucho, Welbeck or any other youngsters like Gibson.

2. The striker

a) Let’s also get the striker issue out of the way right here. Yes, we need another one – it is the only area where we have inadequate cover. Yes, it would have been nice to have wrapped up Berbatov already. But should we have gone out and splurged on a striker, any striker, just so we have someone for the start of the season? Definitely not. And yes, a fast start is desirable and a huge advantage, but we hardly got one last year and we coped.

b) It takes a rare combination of skill, temperament and potential to become a United signing. Being good isn’t good enough – you have to be good in the right ways for the team, just ask Seba Veron. Should we have signed Robbie Keane for £20m, just because we could probably have sewn it up by now? Dean Ashton for £17m? Peter Crouch for £12m? Or should we wait for the right guy at the right price?

c) My answers to those questions are please no, good god no, not for that price and yes, in that order. Also, just because we’re not reading stories in the press doesn’t mean that progress isn’t being made. If you’d just been reported for comments made in the media about Berbatov, you’d be pretty stupid to antagonise the selling club by continuing to make comments in the media about Berbatov. This is how we do business these days – quietly, behind the scenes, and not like Real Madrid.

d) I will admit, though, that our lack of interest in Huntelaar is surprising. But then there are a lot of top clubs on the hunt (sorry) for strikers, and none of them have put a concrete offer in for him – so what do they know that we don’t?

3. The injury list

a) Here’s the list, first up:

Ronaldo (ankle, 2 months)
Rooney (virus, first two games)
Nani (suspension, first two PL games)
Anderson (Olympics, August)
Carrick (virus, probably CS only)
Hargreaves (tendinitis, possibly fit from start)
Park (knee, possibly fit from start)
Saha (sniffly nose, the rest of his life)

That’s a pretty brutal spate of injuries – particularly so because it has focused entirely on our midfield and attack. We would happily trade, for example, Evra for Rooney and Brown for Nani, since we could easily absorb those injuries in the defence but would keep some of our attacking potency.

b) To illustrate further, this is what a comparable injury list would be for our rivals:

Chelsea: Drogba, Anelka, Joe Cole, Mikel, Deco, Essien, Malouda, Shevchenko
Liverpool: Torres, Keane, Babel, Mascherano, Alonso, Benayoun, Kuyt, Voronin
Arsenal: van Persie, Adebayor, Nasri, Rosicky, Fabregas, Diaby, Walcott, Bendtner

c) So to criticise United for not being able to absorb the injuries we have suffered without a drop in performance is to criticise the whole league, and probably every other top club in Europe (I don’t know the Barca, Real, AC Milan or Bayern squads quite well enough to do a similar comparison with them – if you do, please do so in the comments). Those teams would be lucky to put eleven players on the field who could beat Hull, let alone who have every chance of keeping us afloat for a few weeks if needed. We should instead be saying how lucky we are to have a few golden oldies and Tevez to reliably fill the void.

4. Should we have more cover?

However, to take our own squad in isolation and knowing Ronaldo was out for the first two months, would it be optimal for us to have signed more players? The answer to this remains no. There is a roadblock practical reason for this, and an objection in principle.

a) The problem is that you are trying to attract players when they know full well they have no chance of playing if the squad is anywhere near fully fit. This immediately rules out players who are really good right now or likely to become really good in the next year, leaving us with two types of player: youngsters for the future and oldies who might have an Indian summer. We already have the oldies, thanks, barring a miracle loan signing akin to Larsson. Equally, youngsters who are over a season away from being good are probably no better than what we can cobble together internally.

Therefore, the pool of players who will sign for us knowing that they will only get regular first team football if we have an horrific injury crisis and who are good enough to play for us even on a part-time basis is pretty small. The only name I came up with was Eidur Gudjohnsen, but there we go.

There is a third category of players, those who are in it for the money and a quiet life. Step forward, Carlo Cudicini (the best keeper in the Premiership when Cech was bought) and Wayne Bridge (only Evra and Clichy are better). But then is greed and lack of ambition a combination of qualities you want in a United player, even if we could afford them?

b) Whilst I’m here, I want to touch on Aaron Ramsey, who has attracted a lot of inches on this blog. A commonly-held belief is that the reason he went to Arsenal is because Fergie couldn’t be bothered to go and meet him. Whilst this doesn’t look very good (particularly set against fireside games of snooker with a young David Beckham, etc), it is wrong to say that this cost us Ramsey’s signature.

What cost us Ramsey’s signature was that we wanted to buy him and loan him back to Cardiff for a season. Arsenal, on the other hand, wanted to take him straight into the first team squad and offered him a shot at Premier League football. He (understandably, in my view), preferred the latter option. This isn’t speculation or my interpretation of things – this is what Cardiff chairman Peter Ridsdale said in an interview with the BBC.

So to use this as a stick to beat United and Fergie over the head with seems a bit silly. We didn’t need him for this season, but tried to secure him in the long term – he’s not so wonderfully amazing that he had to be signed immediately like we did with Nani and Anderson. Ramsey was thinking short term – end of.

c) The objection on principle is that I don’t want to return to the era of utility players. You all remember it – Djemba-Djemba, Kleberson, Phil Neville, Quinton Fortune, Diego Forlan all as integral members of the first team squad. Good enough to be in the squad, but not good enough for the first team. Fergie splintered our transfer budget, signing lots of bit part players rather than one big name. Would you have him spend £10-15m of our summer transfer budget on a fourth reserve player, or save it and secure the player we have identified as The One? I’ll leave that one as rhetorical.

5. I’d like to say one more thing before I throw this open for what I imagine and hope will be a fairly heated debate. I’m not a “loyalist”, I’m not supporting United for the sake of it, and I don’t believe the sun shines out of Fergie’s arse. Everything I’ve offered above is, in my opinion, closely reasoned and supported by facts. So if and when you disagree with me in the comments, please try to make your responses the same.

In summary – our team is going to be badly under strength for the first two games of the season. That does not make our squad defective and does not mean we should spend millions of pounds willy nilly on squad players to compensate.