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Crystal Palace
By ESPN Staff

United's strike-force looking sparse

Having spent over £50million on three new players earlier in the summer, the last thing you would expect from Manchester United is for them to be short of attacking cover.

However, as much as Nani, Anderson and Carlos Tevez have boosted United's options, the defending champions are still one striker short and may regret not using the summer transfer window to bring in back-up before the New Year.

Already two points behind Premier League leaders Liverpool, and having played a game more, United fans could be forgiven for being slightly disappointed at their side's start to the new campaign, especially when you consider that they have netted as many goals as rock-bottom Derby in their first five games.

With an early injury to Wayne Rooney and a three-match suspension for Ronaldo hindering United's progress, Sir Alex Ferguson has been robbed of his two best players, who combined for a total of 31 goals in the league last season.

But with a money apparently available, the Scot really only has himself to blame if United struggle to score goals in the first half of the season.

The fact is that, excluding the likes of Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs who can play up front when required, United only have four strikers on their books.

Two of those, Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney, are world class players, but rely on the pace of a strike partner to unlock defences and create space for them. Too often asked to play as a lone striker, Tevez links the play well but is never in the box when a quality cross comes in.

Rooney, too, has suffered in the past from playing up front on his own (cast your mind back to the 2006 World Cup in Germany against Portugal) and Ferguson is not getting the best out of his star if he persists with this particular tactic.

With Rooney out injured for at least another month having suffered a hairline fracture of his foot, United have very few other options in attack.

French striker Louis Saha is now the man on whom United's preferred attacking philosophy depends. Using his pace and hanging on the shoulder of the last defender, the 29-year-old gives defenders something new to think about and whilst they are pre-occupied with his movement, the likes of Tevez and Rooney are given the space that they need to cause havoc.

Netting eight goals in 18 starts last season, Saha has had well-documented problems with injury and, despite his pace, has never delivered what his potential has promised. A series of hamstring and knee complaints have hindered his career at Old Trafford since moving from Fulham in 2004, but the signs are better already this season as Saha made a goal-scoring return to the side to beat Sunderland 1-0.

However, it is only a matter of time before the Frenchman succumbs to another injury and with only 22-year-old Chinese international Dong Fangzhou left as cover, United's striking options look considerably threadbare.

Indeed, Dong has only made one start for the club, and while his presence in the squad has been ridiculed as a PR exercise, the champions may have to call on their most inexperienced player if they suffer anymore injury woes. It's either him or the 19-year-old Fraizer Campbell.

Unable to rely on the ever dependable Ole Gunnar Solskjær, given his retirement from the game in August, United may miss their 'Baby Faced Assassin' the most, and it truly was a shock to see Ferguson reject the opportunity to replace one of his most potent finishers.

While Solskjær's recent career had been blighted by a persistent knee injury, one that eventually forced his retirement, the Norwegian had been a key component of the club's attacking threat in his 366 appearances, scoring 126 goals. The manager's decision not to replace him could prove costly.

Without a leading striker, Ferguson has favoured a 4-3-3 formation with Giggs and Nani playing wide and trying to support Tevez through the middle. The return of Ronaldo will certainly boost their scoring chances, but playing off the frontman is not the Portuguese's best position and he will be eager to create as many as he scores from the flanks.

Giggs, too, is at his best on the wings and much will be expected of the Brazilian import Anderson who has real potential supporting the lone striker.

Not much has been seen of Anderson so far, given his participation in Brazil's Copa America winning side over the summer, but the midfielder has shown enough in his career to suggest that he can be a success at United. Indeed his purchase, along with that of the raw but exciting Nani, could be the reason why Ferguson has opted not to buy a striker.

However, it may be that Anderson will suffer from the same lack of space that Tevez and Rooney have endured so far. A pacey target man would solve this, but Ferguson has missed his chance, at least until January.

Scared off by the £25million price tag on Tottenham's Dimitar Berbatov, one can understand why a striker of Berbatov's class will not be wearing a United shirt in the near future. However, there have been a number of names linked to Old Trafford who would have been more than successful given the nature of United's attacking play, and would have cost considerably less.

Obafemi Martins is one. The Nigerian reportedly has a buy-out clause in his Newcastle contract set at around £13million and would be the perfect foil for the likes of Tevez and Rooney. Inter Milan's Adriano, linked with loan moves to Manchester City and West Ham, is a proven international striker and although he lacks fitness, would still have led the United line without commanding a transfer fee. His strength would have also given the side a new dimension.

Unpredictable frontman Nicolas Anelka and Ajax's young star Klaas-Jan Huntelaar were also linked with the club in the summer, although nothing materialised beyond idle speculation and United have been left without an established targetman up front.

With only three goals in their first five games, Ferguson may regret not taking a gamble on one of these options. If he's forced to bring someone in during the Christmas transfer window then he may have to pay over the odds and, with the Liverpool strike-force firing on all cylinders, by then the damage may already have been done.

  • Any comments? Email Jon Carter