x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

United's early form ominous for rivals

While the goals have continued to fly in with bemusing regularity around the Premier League, there is at least one familiar sight. Manchester United, once again, are top of the table.

While the goals have continued to fly in with bemusing regularity around the Premier League, there is at least one familiar sight. Manchester United, once again, are top of the table. Sir Alex Ferguson's side spent so long there in the division's 18-year history that it can feel like their natural place, with anyone else adopting the role of illegal squatters before United reclaim their territory.

Now, aided by Chelsea's defeat at Wigan, they have done that. Wins over Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester City and Stoke amount to as impressive a quartet of consecutive results as the fixture list will permit any side to muster. Nemanja Vidic's defiance at the Britannia Stadium complemented the unhurried nous of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. The latter, like Darren Fletcher and Wayne Rooney, has been a common denominator in all four wins, providing a consistently high level of performance few can rival. The entire team's winning habit is surely the subject of envy elsewhere.

And yet, and this is the element that should infuriate their challengers, United have assumed pole position while so many questions remain unanswered. Is Ben Foster, for instance, a worthy successor to Edwin van der Sar? The keeper kept a clean sheet at Stoke, but he erred in the Manchester derby. Is Rio Ferdinand, who has missed 30 of United's last 53 games, fit enough to figure regularly? Jonny Evans is a precocious deputy, but the value of the Ferdinand-Vidic axis was especially apparent at White Hart Lane.

Apart from the peerless Giggs, who are the first-choice wingers? Nani appeared Ferguson's favoured option, but he was ineffective at Stoke. Antonio Valencia's pace renders him one candidate, but he has veered in and out of the team, while Ji-sung Park's impact has been negligible. And is Dimitar Berbatov able to justify Ferguson's faith and his own hefty fee? The Bulgarian's importance is unquestioned now Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo ply their trade elsewhere. He scored his second goal of the season at Stoke, without providing the indication - yet - that he will be prolific enough to compensate for the departed duo's absence.

Then there is the issue which has dominated discussion around Old Trafford this season: Michael Owen. One derby winner, no matter how dramatic, does not automatically render him the new Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Unless Ferguson shows more willingness to play Danny Welbeck or Federico Macheda in the Premier League, however, that must be his role. Were Rooney to be sidelined, or Giggs, Fletcher or Vidic in their respective departments, the image would alter radically. Owen would have to resemble Rooney.

As it is, a core of players has played a disproportionate role in securing some of the most meaningful results of the season. At times United look unstoppable, but there are also occasions when they have progressed simply because no one has stopped them. The questions might not all amount to potential flaws, the shortage of automatic choices can merely be an indication of strength in depth. But Ferguson, who has quietly replaced Rafa Benitez as the Premier League's foremost practitioner of rotation, can demand plenty more from many of his players. Those who, due to injury or form, have had an undistinguished start of the season include Nani, Park, Michael Carrick, Wes Brown, Gary Neville and Foster. In addition, van der Sar, Rafael da Silva and Owen Hargreaves are still to appear.

Ferguson has long aimed to peak in March, April and May. As it is, his side enter October with the Premier League lead and obvious scope for improvement. And that, for their rivals, should be the most ominous aspect. rjolly@thenational.ae