It was always going to be a tense year for United and its fans.
The situation is distinctly lose-win: go trophy-less with an aging, crotchety Alex Ferguson who failed to replace Cristiano Ronaldo’s influence, or win the EPL or the Champions League led by the wily, sagacious manager who proved doubters—fans among them—wrong again.
Though early, there are signs to where United’s season might go, and some point to Ferguson’s blushes being saved by his favored Scottish midfielder Darren Fletcher.
Next to Nemanja Vidic, Fletcher was United’s most capable player last season. However, he was still an unsung man coming into this season. Plaudits and pundits hailed Wayne Rooney’s imminent evolution into the world-class as being the necessary ingredient to mask losing Ronaldo's influence.
Thus far, though Rooney’s bagged goals, Fletcher has been United’s best player.
He tackled with real abandon in United’s four top-flight wins, fulfilling the necessary “anti-football” role in the middle of the park.
With his bunker mentality, the Scottish captain is quickly becoming a fan favorite after several years being a fringe player.
His passing ability and decision-making are on par with Michael Carrick’s, despite it being the Englishman’s supposed trademark.
Carrick also occupies a holding position, but out of complacency not virtue. He doesn't get forward because he shouldn't, nor because he's busy doing a fantastic job tackling. It's his natural playing style, rationalized as "relaxed" and hyperbolized as "composed", without bottle, passion, and drive.
Owen Hargreaves will likely be joining Fletcher in the middle of a five-man midfield for European ties. His influence during the double-winning campaign in 2007-2008 saw him also fill in seemlessly at right-back.
At the back, Ben Foster has pleasantly proved to be capably athletic in goal. He hasn’t had enough games to be England’s clear No. 1, but his performances so far deserve him United’s first jersey, whether Van der Sar is healthy or not.
Jonny Evans continues to grow and may now, at just 21, be one of the top ten center backs in England. Vidic has maintained his appetite for headers and bloodying sport despite moving to right center-back. Outside, Patty Evra has been United’s most dangerous attacker, overlapping with pace and trickery, swinging crosses and winning corner kicks.
United’s wings are, uncharacteristically, their weakest position this season.
Antonio Valencia has shown pace, but his approach to wing play is one-dimensional. Nani still holds on to the ball far too long and makes peculiar decisions when and where to pass.
Zoran Tosic should feature when Ryan Giggs wanes, but his manager shows no inclination to play him, so perhaps new-boy Gabriel Obertan will provide the needed natural width on United's left side throughout the season's run-out.
Ji-Sung Park was the perfect foil for United's former number seven. Ronaldo had licence to follow his every whim while Park tracked back against opposing wingers. But with a dearth of creativity across the middle he is likely to feature less prominently this season.
Going further forward, strikers like Fernando Macheda or Danny Wellbeck, though tipped for emergence in preseason, have yet to feature with Michael Owen occupying the third-striker role. But when the former Liverpool favorite gets injured, influence from either youngster may be desired and required.
Elsewise, an in-form Rooney, though not a world-beater, is a top-five Premier League forward, as well as Berbatov, who pivots play from midfield onwards with a very personal class.
Ultimately, though, any success Manchester United enjoy will again be predicated on their defense and who is anchored in front of it.
If Hargreaves or Fletcher can reinforce the back line, and United find enough invention going forward through Paul Scholes, Rooney, and the inimitable Berbatov, they will contend at home and abroad. But if Sir Alex plans on tipping Ryan Giggs for PFA Player of the Year again this term it’s going to be a very long season.
With the Portugeuse superstar now in Madrid, at least United are no longer the most fashionable side in Europe, which should be a welcome respite for its most ardent fans.
The odds are not with them this year, but the pressure is still on the aging Ferguson to again revamp his side now in the post-Ronaldo era.