The trouble with Manchester United
Unusually for a club so closely associated with winning, Manchester United's current season has been as much defined by their defeats: five of them in all, including Wednesday's loss to Newcastle United, but every one quite an event in its own right.
No one is likely to forget the 6-1 home defeat to Manchester City in October, but look at the others. In November there was the Carling Cup quarter-final elimination at home to Crystal Palace, then 12th in the Championship. In December, the defeat to humble Basle in Switzerland ended United's interest in the Champions League. Then came the New Year's Eve home defeat to Blackburn Rovers, bottom of the Premier League at the time.
Set against those four, the result at St James' Park, United's first defeat there in 10 years, was arguably the least surprising of the lot. Sir Alex Ferguson's team looked out of the game once Yohan Cabaye had scored his side's second goal two minutes after half-time. The previous four reverses might have been written off as aberrations or blips. But, if anything, it was the matter-of-fact way his team accepted their fate in Newcastle that will be most troubling to Ferguson.
In a Premier League title race which has proved so volatile, it would be unwise to dismiss Manchester United on the basis of two results. After losing to Basle on 7 December, United went on a run of four straight wins in the League, scoring 16 and conceding just one until they lost to Blackburn. They have a habit of regenerating themselves.
The gap to Manchester City in first place is still only three points. Nevertheless, so too is United's lead over Tottenham Hotspur in third place and Spurs have a game in hand. Ferguson played down the significance of Wednesday's result, and he may yet be proved right, but some of his team's problems at Newcastle did not seem the kind to be easily dismissed.
The loss of a player as crucial as Nemanja Vidic to a season-long injury would have affected any team but United have made a virtue in the Ferguson years of being able to cope with the long-term absence of seemingly indispensable players. That Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling have also succumbed to injury and illness of late has only made it more difficult.
Ideally, Ferguson would probably wish to take Phil Jones out of the firing line for Sunday's FA Cup third-round game against City but he may have no option but to play him. It was inevitable that at some point in the teenager's meteoric rise from Blackburn to United and the England senior team, gravity would catch up with him. He struggled against Newcastle, compounding a hesitant performance against Shola Ameobi with an own goal, the second of his United career.
Jones would also benefit from playing alongside a defender in better form than Rio Ferdinand but the United veteran had one of those evenings against Demba Ba when he never looked in control. Ferdinand too has a habit of defying those who proclaim his career is over. But his struggles, along with Jones' diminished confidence, proved a toxic mix on Wednesday night.
The centre of midfield
It is easily the weakest department in this team with Ryan Giggs, at 38, still their best option. Yes, United are missing players such as Darren Fletcher and Anderson, who returned as a substitute at Newcastle. But these are not exactly men who have a transformative power on the team anyway. It is obvious that central midfield is the position in which Ferguson most urgently needs to dip into the market to strengthen.
It was shocking how little United failed to progress against the combination of Cheick Tioté and Cabaye on Wednesday night and the aggression and mobility of Tioté must have caught Ferguson's eye. In fact it was the kind of performance by an opponent that has, in the past, convinced Ferguson that he would be best served by buying the player in question.
Even if United were able to acquire one player of the Ivorian's quality in January – and given that Tioté is off to the African Cup of Nations, that would be difficult – it would still leave the club needing more in that department. A central midfielder has the capacity to define a United team in a way that players in other positions do not. They come at a premium.
Little more than 10 years ago Ferguson spent £29m on Juan Sebastian Veron, in the same summer that Chelsea bought Frank Lampard for £11m. Since then Ferguson has leaned towards buying less established players and placing his faith in potential, with mixed results. Getting the right player for United is difficult. Roy Keane is probably the last central midfielder bought from another club who turned out to be a United great.
In the case of Tottenham's Luka Modric, a potential target for most top clubs, you have to wonder if United have the patience to enter into another summer of negotiations with Daniel Levy. In that case they will have to take a chance on picking out the next great prospect, something every other big club in Europe is trying to do. And whoever it is, the chances are that his acquisition will take money and time.
Rooney and the strikers
Until the decision to drop him against Blackburn for an unauthorised night out, Rooney was in form – and for a player who is prone to highs and lows, that can be a dangerous thing to meddle with. He scored four goals in the three of the four wins that followed the defeat to Basle and was especially accomplished in the 5-0 demolition of Fulham at Craven Cottage. On Wednesday he had two key chances in either half and failed to take either.
Rooney's subsequent substitution felt like a further chastisement from Ferguson. The problem for United is that while Rooney tends to attract most of the criticism and praise, and is regarded as a barometer for the team's form, a successful season for United will also require a significant contribution from other strikers.
Javier Hernandez has not scored since November, another case of a good young player struggling with that difficult second season in the Premier League. Equally Danny Welbeck has scored two goals since the start of October. With six goals in the previous three games, Dimitar Berbatov had been the shining light but he went missing against Newcastle. Michael Owen is injured. Mame Biram Diouf wants to go out on loan again, which Federico Macheda has already done, to Queen's Park Rangers.
If Rooney is scoring then the form of United's other strikers can seem incidental but when Ferguson made the decision, with 15 minutes left on Wednesday, to chase the game without his key striker you were reminded that he needs goals from other players too.
Before the defeat to Newcastle it felt like the burning issue, with David de Gea dropped for the game and replaced by Anders Lindegaard. Despite conceding three goals, Lindegaard did not have a catastrophic game – but then neither was it the kind of performance that will have convinced Ferguson that the Dane is indisputably his first choice for now.
If he leaves De Gea out of the FA Cup third-round game at City on Sunday then Ferguson is acknowledging that Lindegaard is now his No 1 choice. If he reverses the decision and De Gea plays then there will be enormous pressure on the younger goalkeeper. Every team needs a clear hierarchy of goalkeepers and it is a big call to change it – although some might argue that Ferguson is past that point already.
Needless to say, the best goalkeeper on the pitch on Wednesday was Tim Krul... whom Ferguson could have signed last summer for much less than he paid for De Gea.
1996: A nightmare run
Manchester United last lost three League consecutive games in May 2001, but fielded reserve sides after clinching the title with five games to spare. But Sir Alex Ferguson's side suffered a genuinely horrendous run in the autumn of 1996, losing six of nine matches...
20 Oct 96 PL Newcastle (a) Lost 5-0
23 Oct LC Swindon (h) Won 2-1
26 Oct PL Southampton (a) Lost 6-3
30 Oct CL Fenerbahce (h) Lost 1-0
2 Nov PL Chelsea (h) Lost 1-0
16 Nov PL Arsenal (h) Won 1-0
20 Nov CL Juventus (h) Lost 1-0
23 Nov PL Midd'brough (a) Drew 2-2
27 Nov LC Leicester (a) Lost 2-0