Despite the fact that the season is still in its embryonic state, the United eleven is pretty much set in stone. The front two of Wayne Rooney and the in-form Dimitar Berbatov seems unlikely to be broken apart although Michael Owen gave Fergie a nudge with his two goals at Glanford Park last night. In central midfield Darren Fletcher’s energetic running has complimented the majestic passing of Paul Scholes.
The wingers were set to be Nani and Antonio Valencia for the foreseeable future but the latter’s run in the side was curtailed by his freak injury against Rangers. This has enabled Nani to transfer to his preferred right wing berth with Ryan Giggs bringing his guile and experience to the left side. The defence is slightly more unsettled but three positions in the back five are still nailed down with Edwin Van Der Sar, Patrice Evra and newly appointed captain Nemanja Vidic all certain starters. Vidic’s partner at the heart of the defence has been Jonny Evans although it appears likely that Rio Ferdinand will return once he gets back to full match fitness. Chris Smalling’s impressive outings against Rangers and Scunthorpe will undoubtedly put pressure on those ahead of him in the pecking order but he will probably have to settle for appearances in the cup competitions for now. Now we come to the one position which has caused the most debate already this campaign with various fans championing each of the four candidates for the right-back slot.
So far John O’Shea has started four of the five league games, with club captain Gary Neville replacing him after the international break for the trip to Goodison. For the two cup games Wes Brown has slotted in nicely with typically robust performances. That leaves one contender with zero starts in his favoured position this season, and that person is the candidate most popular amongst the fans, Rafael da Silva. Whilst twin brother Fabio had already played two matches at left back this season, last night was Rafael’s first start since the 3-1 win over Tottenham at the back end of last season and only his second since his ill-fated outing against Bayern. Even last night, with the majority of first teamers given the night off, Rafael still wasn’t at right back, having to fill in at left back for his injured brother Fabio. It begs the question whether a fit Fabio would have once again left Rafael sitting on the bench and what the future holds for the precocious Brazilian. It seems that his nightmare at the hands of Franck Ribery is still fresh in the mind of Fergie and his coaching staff, the naivety shown that night stunting his progress. Yet fans around the world still clamour for him to play, feeling that his vast talents far outweigh his occasional immaturity.
The solidity of O’Shea and Brown doesn’t excite the fans. Both are given a slightly rough ride by some fans who seem to forget past successes. After all Brown was first choice right back during the 07/08 campaign, making 52 appearances, more than any other player. He was also preferred to Glen Johnson by Fabio Capello at the beginning of his tenure as England manager before his injury curse struck again. As for O’Shea he has long been derided by fans who don’t see the benefits of his jack of all trades nature. Yet he too played right-back on the road to a Champions League final and was one of the standout performers, taming Thierry Henry for large portions of the games, on that miserable night in Rome.
Gary Neville is probably the second most selected option when favourite 11′s are published. Until March of 2007, a United side without Neville at full-back seemed unthinkable, but one Gary Speed tackle put his career in to a downward spiral. The injury seemed to cause multiple niggles to a player who had been so consistent for so long in terms of fitness, the 2002 metatrsal injury aside. He came back strongly enough in the second half of last season to earn himself a new contract though. He started six consecutive games between March and April before he was left out in favour of Rafael for the second leg against Bayern. A decision which seemed correct in the first half (needless swipe at Van Bommel aside) as he helped Antonio Valencia to tear apart Holger Badstuber as United blitzed the Germans. Yet he let himself down with an impulsive foul on Ribery to earn himself a second yellow card and tip the balance of the tie in Bayern’s favour. Many fans (my uncle included) still state that that night demonstrates that he’s not ready for the big time.
His foul on Craig Bellamy in the Carling Cup semi at Eastlands is another example of his immaturity, of the fact that he can’t control himself when a winger beats him. Whilst the other three would get themselves back into position and trust in their fellow defenders, Rafael still sees it as a personal battle. He plays the game like a winger in a positive manner but he has the mentality of a winger too. When a wideman attempts to beat his fullback and loses out, all too often they retaliate with a wild tackle and earn themselves a yellow card. Rafael is the same but in his position he can’t afford such recklessness. But fans still love him. They still long to see his mazy runs down the wing and still react to his flying tackles in the same way as they do a Scholes special, with a laugh and a joke and an audible murmur. It is his youthful exuberance which the majority love but which also fuels the fires of his detractors. One thing is certain and that is he needs to learn. And to learn, he needs games. Yet he is left out because he needs to learn. In effect it is a vicious circle which can only be broken with a run in the side. For a player who has been in both Brazil squads since the World Cup to be constantly out of the squad is beggars belief. For Rafael to become our Dani Alves he needs to play week in week out. Otherwise we’ll have Neville on the right with a bit of Brown and a bit of O’Shea. And then we’ll be stuck. Because we’ll be right back where we started.
Written by mather23