I'd like to talk a little bit about the evolution of Manchester United's midfield over the past year or so. Whilst I don't support United, I support Birmingham City, I do feel a sense of connection to that club and I do tend find myself routing for them in the title race. I've got a friend who supports them as you would expect, from France, and I took him to see them play City away in the FA Cup last season and I've taken to them since, I also prefer their general system of bringing through young players rather than Man City and Chelsea's more careless, splash-the-cash approach. Manchester United and Arsenal seem to be the only teams who can compete at the top level without spending two billion pounds a year. The way things are going, I'm unsure whether they'll be able to do so for much longer. I get a feeling in fifteen or so years time, without Ferguson, United could become the equivalent of where Liverpool are now. It will be interesting to see.
For the moment though, given another top quality centre-half signed in January for extra pace and defensive cover, I think Man United have a squad that is capable of winning the title. This is because I think Alex Ferguson is coming close to getting his midfield right. At the start of last season, pre-Scholes-return, he gambled on picking a longer-term partnership of Anderson and Cleverley, who I'd desribe as 'energy' midfielders. The idea behind it being that Anderson uses his bullish work rate and tenacity to chase the ball, always be where the action is and operate as a box-to-box midfielder, Cleverley to be involved in link-up play, set the tempo and keep the ball moving. This combination allowed United to keep the tempo up, put the opposition under pressure and create chances. They would also never be out-run in the middle of the park.
The downside with that system was that both players were relatively inexperienced and maybe lacked that positional sense to help keep the shape of the team. Whenever Man U attacked, both Anderson and Cleverley would be quite far forward, thus making them very vulnerable to counter attacks and it put significant pressure on their defence because there wasn't that holding midfielder who would always keep his position, sit in front of the back four, alway be in space and have time on the ball and keep things ticking.
I think Ferguson recognised that and so called back Paul Scholes for his experience and towards the end of last season, implemented Michael Carrick into the team. I feel that changing the midfield partnership from 'energy' midfielders, Anderson and Cleverley to a partnership of 'passers' in Carrick and Scholes was too great a change. The change did allow them to always control the games against the weaker teams because you could guarentee Scholes and Carrick would often be on the ball, it would mean they could really control the games and dictate tempo- it also meant that they were rarely caught out of position, I think Carrick has been doing a good job as a holding midfielder, he did offer that man in space for anyone to pass to.
However, with experience comes a lack of pace. In recent matches, most notably their 3-2 defeat at home to Tottenham, Scholes and Carrick were completely outrun in the centre of the park by a very energetic Tottenham team who just ran rings around them. I would suggest that a combination of two 'passers' with a lot of experience doesn't always work as well against the bigger teams, because you can't guarentee that Scholes and Carrick will get as much time on the ball- the bigger teams won't give them as much space.
My solution to the dilemma would be to pair one 'passer' (i.e. Scholes or Carrick who has the experience to keep position, and spray accurate passes to the flanks but lacks the stamina to close teams down all game), with one 'energy' midfielder (i.e. Cleverley or Anderson who has stamina and aggression to close teams down and be involved in play but is liable to being caught out of position and isn't as good a passer as Paul Scholes). I think, with that combination, United could have the best of both worlds and would really dominate the midfield areas.
What you've also got to add to the equation, is the reinvention of Rooney. I think his new role suits him and the arrival of Robin van Persie has meant that he's had to drop deeper to make way for the dutchman, as well as Hernandez and Welbeck. Rooney's work rate will allow him to drop deep and link-up play in midfield, as well as get forward and score goals- it means he can operate very well in the channel areas between the oppositon's defence and midfield, pick the ball up in midfield, spread the play wide and get into the box for a shot. He's such an allround player I think he'll be great at doing that.
With the quality in that midfield, if Ferguson can get the balance right combined with Rooney dropping deep, add to that the support options they have out wide in the likes of Kagawa, Young, Valencia and Nani, given a bit of strengthening of the defence in January and throw in van Persie's goals- I think Man United have got a squad that is more than capable of winning the league. Let's not forget Chelsea, who currently hold a 4pt lead, have got some tricky games coming up including playing Man U at Stamford Bridge in two weeks time. With Man City starting to come into form, I'd be prepared to bet Chelsea won't run away with it, and the next few games in the season could give us a clearer picture of the direction this title race is beginning to take.