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Seriously, What Happened to Manchester United?

The crisis.

The sports phenomenon where a team loses a game or two and all of a sudden the sky is falling, left is right and everything is wrong with the world. It's certainly not something exclusive to European club soccer, the New York Yankees deal with 100s of reporters at EVERY game with the fans ready to punch somebody on the Seven Train after one bad loss. NFL and college football teams (the big ones) face the lots of questions on a weekly basis.

Our beloved ESPN "Sportscenter" tries to drum up controversy at all corners with its inane, panel-based segments where a couple ex-jocks debate Team X's current status with the vim and vigor that should probably be reserved for important stuff like global warming or campaign finance reform.

Still, it seems like our American news-mongers somewhat pale in comparison to what happens in England or the rest of Europe where it's almost as if the tabloid journalists lay in wait for a team to screw up like a TMZ photographer outside a Hollywood nightclub.

Is this due in part to the much more restricted access journalists in Europe receive? Do people in Europe love scandal as much as they love techno disco dancing, tight Levis and unfiltered cigarettes? (How's that for some out-dated, "Euro-Trip"-style stereotypes!?!)

The latest team engulfed in "crisis mode" is mighty Manchester United following a span of eight days that saw the Red Devils knocked out of the Carling Cup by Crystal Palace and them unceremoniously dumped from the Champions League in the group stage following a stunning defeat to FC Basel.

Naturally the way this works, every either sharpens up a knife (mainly people who can't stand Sir Alex Ferguson who relish the rare instances he screws up) or we all come to a knee jerk reaction to the situation.

United, however, have more problems and these loses -- maybe not predictable -- could be seen coming. For all the talk of Arsenal's impending doom, mainly on the heels of Manchester United's critical beatdown of the Gunners back at the end of August, it looks more like the Red Devils are the club adrift -- despite being second place in the Premier League. The irony here, is that at that time everyone and everybody wrote about how this young, revitalized United team was on its way to being Ferguson's next great side. (It still could be, naturally, because what team doesn't experience the dreaded, "growing pains?)

Let's look at some of the issues, shall we?

* Injuries: Nemanja Vidic tore up his knee vs. Basel, so the snarling Serb is out for the year. This means extended playing time for Jonny Evans, which is bad enough. Now Ferguson doesn't have the luxury of playing either Chris Smalling or Phil Jones at right back when he feels like it. It also means Jones probably has to curtail is marauding runs forward without Vidic covering his back, because we know Rio Ferdinand isn't capable of covering that much ground anymore. Look at it this way, when Manchester United played Barcelona in May in the Champions League final at Wembley Stadium it had Vidic, Ferdinand and Edwin van der Saar in goal. Now it's going forward this season with Ferdinand (when he's healthy to play), Smalling/Evans/Jones and David de Gea.

Dios mio.

Let's not forget, too, that Chicharito got hurt over the weekend and without the Mexican's predatory instincts in front of goal, United's attack is very limp. Danny Welbeck is going to be counted on to show more than the occasional one or two game flash. (Kiko Macheda, Mame Biram Diouf? Um, not the answer.)

* Goalie: This was THE issue plaguing United at the start of the year. Is it still an issue? Maybe. De Gea's long-range impact isn't going to be determined by his first few months. So instead we get to those old sportswriting cliches about "leadership" and "presence." De Gea has been a little shaky, but this will probably short itself out over time and is the least of United's concerns.

* Underachievers: My Christmas present to Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young and Nani is a set of old Bart Simpson t-shirts I've been saving to put on eBay once 90s nostalgia kicks into full gear. These guys are underachievers, but not sure if they're proud of it. Last year Nani was great and arguably the team's best performer across the year, this year he pops up here in there with a moment of magic but tends to drift from matches. Young started like hot fire coming over from Aston Villa, but seemed to have faded a bit.

Rooney is back to playing like he did at this time last year when he tried to sulk his way to Manchester City. Rooney hasn't scored a Premier League goal since September. As United's one remaining super-duper-all-galaxy star, he's got to be better.

As he's gotten older Rooney has thrived as a player dropping further away from goal and basically playing a free role. To be fair there have been some chances Rooney has created teammates haven't finished, still he's not producing when Manchester United needs him.

* Midfield morass: No sense piling on here, since everybody with a keyboard has basically thrown Michael Carrick, Anderson, Darren Fletcher and Tom Cleverly into the garbage can. It's one thing to be run off the field by FC Barcelona, another FC Basel.

However you slice it, Ferguson probably needed to make a move in the summer for a player but couldn't find the guy he wanted or was hamstrung by the Glazer's pocketbook.

Given that, expect United to sign one of the hot stars to emerge from Euro 2012 in June or for the Red Devils to go the Manchester United/Chelsea route and pluck a permanently half-bearded playmaker from La Liga to be their orchestrator like David Silva or Juna Mata.

To wrap this up, everybody has diagnosed United with the same problems. You have to wonder with a suddenly ragged looking defense and a limp offense, can United keep its place in the Premier League and not swirl down the table based on muscle memory alone. United probably have to play better eventually because after the last week it can't play much worse.

One Other Quick Thing:

If you haven't read this yet, this piece, about the Fox Soccer Report is essential and sheds some light onto why the best sports show in North America broadcasts from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Please FOX corporate, don't ruin this, too.


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