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Apr 23, 2009

Rotation, rotation, rotation

Squad rotation may be a permanent subject of scepticism but it is a necessity for managers of sides who play some 60 games a season. For much of the season, Sir Alex Ferguson rotated seamlessly, but the last eight matches have proved more troublesome. Controversial choices, strange selections or managerial masterstrokes?

March 14: Manchester United 1 (Ronaldo) Liverpool 4

United: Van der Sar; O'Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Ronaldo, Carrick (Giggs, 74), Anderson (Scholes, 74), Park (Berbatov, 74); Rooney, Tevez
Subs not used: Foster, Nani, Evans, Fletcher

Nemanja Vidic has subsequently admitted that complacency may have affected United's players; was the manager similarly afflicted? After fielding seemingly a stronger side against Inter Milan three days before, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Dimitar Berbatov were relegated to the bench for the game that could have sealed the title. All arrived in a triple substitution, but by then Liverpool were in the ascendant. However, defensive difficulties, rather than attacking selections, may have been the principal cause of the setback and, despite the result, Ferguson's choices at the back cannot be queried. None advocated the exclusion of Vidic but the Serb, who was sent off, was given a harrowing time by Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.

March 21: Fulham 2 Manchester United 0

United: Van der Sar; O'Shea (Tevez, 70), Evans, Ferdinand, Evra; Fletcher, Scholes, Giggs, Park; Ronaldo, Berbatov (Rooney, 46)
Subs not used: Foster, Neville, Anderson, Carrick, Fabio

A fatigued Michael Carrick was demoted, but the selections of the veterans Giggs and Scholes together in the centre of midfield showed signs of backfiring against an energetic Fulham team even before the latter's early dismissal. It was a surprise, too, to see the industrious but scarcely inventive Darren Fletcher on the right, even though he had excelled there at Craven Cottage a fortnight before in the FA Cup. Yet the biggest call was the omission of Wayne Rooney. Introduced for the anaemic Berbatov, he improved United in attack before being shunted out to the flank when Carlos Tevez was introduced with 20 minutes to go and then sent off in the finale. Rooney's frustration was evident, but was his manager or the result the cause?

April 5: Manchester United 3 (Ronaldo 2, Macheda) Aston Villa 2

United: Van der Sar; O'Shea, Neville, Evans, Evra; Ronaldo, Carrick, Fletcher, Nani (Macheda, 61); Giggs; Tevez (Welbeck, 87)
Subs not used: Foster, Park, Gibson, Martin, Eckersley

A weakened squad was first Ferguson's problem and then his salvation: had Berbatov and Rooney been available, would Federico Macheda have even been on the bench? As it was, the manager's gamble in giving the Italian a debut paid off spectacularly. The late introduction of another teenager, Danny Welbeck, for a toiling Tevez was another bold but successful call, while Giggs, used in the hole and on the left, also excelled. As the presence of Lee Martin on the bench showed, United were at their most depleted with almost a full side absent, courtesy of three suspensions and six injuries. Yet the choice of Gary Neville at centre-back still perplexed and, after he was utterly unable to prevent John Carew from scoring Villa's first goal, he was switched with John O'Shea. The Norwegian's height is scarcely a secret, so Neville's initial posting appeared the oddest decision. Nani, making just his fifth Premier League start of the campaign, was ineffectual but Ferguson can be excused because, a jet-lagged Ji-sung Park aside, he had few alternatives.

April 7: Manchester United 2 (Rooney, Tevez) Porto 2

United: Van der Sar; O'Shea, Vidic, Evans (Neville, 72), Evra; Fletcher, Carrick, Scholes (Tevez, 72); Ronaldo, Rooney, Park (Giggs, 58)
Subs not used: Foster, Eckersley, Nani, Macheda

For the second successive game, an early reshuffle was a sign that Plan A really wasn't working. A 4-3-3 formation had to be amended to 4-4-2 in the first half. For the second time in three days, too, the defence struggled, but it is harder to fault Ferguson here. O'Shea endured an awful evening but, the equally fallible Neville aside, the Scot lacked options. Once again, however, his substitutions showed his ability to change the game from the bench. Giggs proved a marked improvement on Park and the goalscorer Tevez provided another rescue act from a replacement.

April 11: Sunderland 1 Manchester United 2 (Scholes, Macheda)

United: Foster; Neville, Vidic, Evans, O'Shea; Park (Ronaldo, 69), Carrick, Scholes, Rooney; Berbatov (Macheda, 75), Tevez (Anderson, 82)
Subs not used: Kuszczak, Evra, Giggs, Nani

Another game to test Ferguson's faith in his fringe players. Macheda maintained his uncanny ability to paper over the cracks, but the decision to spare Giggs, Ronaldo and Patrice Evra a match before the second leg against Porto nearly rebounded on the Scot. The omission of Edwin van der Sar - does a goalkeeper need to be rested a mere two games after the international break? - could have been especially costly when his deputy, Ben Foster, erred for the Sunderland goal. Yet a third goal from a substitute in as many games suggested a strength in depth while the deployment of the outstanding Rooney on the left wing was vindicated.

April 15: Porto 0 Manchester United 1 (Ronaldo)

United: Van der Sar; O'Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Rooney, Carrick, Anderson (Scholes, 78), Giggs; Berbatov (Nani, 68); Ronaldo
Subs not used: Foster, Neville, Evans, Tevez, Macheda

Spot on, Sir Alex. Ferguson made three big decisions and each paid off handsomely. Anderson's recall entailed a first start since the Liverpool game, but the combative Brazilian's forceful approach was essential in midfield. The tireless Rooney was terrific at tracking back on the right flank, showing why he can be the epitome of a team player. And Ronaldo, selected as the most advanced player, delivered a wonderful winner in a position where his disdain for defending did not matter.

April 19: Everton 0 Manchester United 0

United: Foster; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Fabio (Evra, 63); Park (Scholes, 67), Gibson, Anderson, Welbeck; Tevez, Macheda (Berbatov, 91)
Subs not used: Kuszczak, Neville, Nani, Evans

Has any manager ever omitted so many players for an FA Cup semi-final? Ferguson may remain adamant that a combination of United's gruelling fixture list and Wembley's unimpressive pitch left him with no choice, but few would concur. Some established members of the first-team squad started neither the Porto nor the Everton games as their junior were chosen at Wembley. While United came closer to winning the game within 90, and 120 minutes, the fact remains they didn't. Ferguson is entitled to argue that the absence of men such as Carrick, Giggs and Ronaldo may have been most critical in the penalty shootout, but the result still suggests he underestimated Everton.

April 22: Manchester United 2 (Rooney, Carrick) Portsmouth 0

United: Van der Sar; Neville (O'Shea, 13 (Rafael, 52), Vidic, Evans, Evra; Fletcher, Scholes; Ronaldo, Anderson (Carrick, 76), Giggs; Rooney
Subs not used: Kuszczak, Berbatov, Nani, Tevez

A home game against the Premier League's 14th-placed team doesn't normally hold such terrors that almost an entire team is rested in preparation. Yet such a strategy was safe as, with nine changes, United eased to victory. Carrick proved another scoring substitute while, given the form of Anderson and Giggs, the switch to 4-2-3-1 has to be deemed a success, but as instructive was the omission of both Berbatov and Tevez. Given the result left United in the dominant position in the title race, Ferguson can reason the ends justified the means. The supporters who witnessed their FA Cup exit may disagree.

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