Manchester United’s stat of having trailed in eight of their 12 matches this season shouldn’t really signify the form of a potential champion. It should be even more worrying when Alex Ferguson mentioned after the win at home to Braga that he “can’t really understand our defending.”
Yes, United have had plenty of problems in defence in terms of injury, and it’s not as simple as just buying bucket loads of defenders in case someone is out for a lengthy period of time; the 25-man squad quota simply doesn’t allow for it. But surely something could have been done? Surely there was room for at least one versatile defender to come in during the summer?
Ferguson’s decision to rotate his goalkeepers is a fair one. David De Gea certainly has the potential of the two keepers to become the better player in the future, and sharing the weight of responsibility evenly between them can only bring positive results for their development. But how does it affect the four players immediately ahead of them? Although, another important question should be how does the continually rotating defence help the goalkeepers?
There’s obviously no rhythm or familiarity to United’s back line. The defence has been ravaged by injury and in turn has seen other players from the squad take up unnatural positions in the back line. The Champions League, regardless of the opposition, is always going to bring attacking threats. Braga may not command the same respect as a Barcelona or Bayern Munich, but their position in Europe’s elite competition gave them full license and warranted ability to take advantage at Old Trafford. It was a similar story with Galatasaray, and even the smaller teams in the Premier League have had a lot of scoring opportunities when travelling to United.
At this stage, the only salvage for Alex Ferguson is that other big teams in the league are struggling equally with defensive problems, albeit in different aspects.
Nemanja Vidic is still extremely important to this United team, but what about the other senior figures in the defence? Rio Ferdinand is clearly nothing of the player that he once was, while Patrice Evra’s recent form can longer be called a slump. But those problems should have been eased by Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, both of whom are yet to make an appearance this season. Jonny Evans was once talked up as one of the best defenders in the league, but it was easy to see that Ferguson was trying to fill the centre-back with confidence; nothing of Evans’ performances suggest otherwise.
But Manchester United have been able to battle against their leaky defence up until this point, losing notably only against Everton and Tottenham. They still haven’t faced Manchester City or Chelsea, but the upcoming double-header with the latter should give us an indication as to where United stand. Following Chelsea comes Arsenal, who might cause United some problems but only if they’re in the mood for a game.
United have three wins from their Champions League group at this point and sit in a comfortable position to advance to the knockout phase. But unlike domestically, not many of the big names in Europe are or will be struggling at when February comes around. It’s also a point worth making that United’s defence may improve considerably, but we’re still looking at a defence whose two senior players are shadows of their former self, while their captain continues to walk around with a question mark due to injury. Will Jones and Smalling be able to turn the defence’s fortunes around on their own?
One of the obvious ways to shore up the defence is to give them greater protection from the midfield. It’s a solution that many clubs would look to in such circumstances. However, United aren’t fortunate enough to have a steady figure in the midfield to shield the defence. Is Darren Fletcher reliable at this stage? Shouldn’t some of the funds from the summer have been focused on addressing the midfield as well? Perhaps there’s a view to use Jones in that role going forward.
The defensive problem at United is not going to go away overnight, and even with a set of good results over the next few weeks, there shouldn’t be any certainty that the team have moved on. The transfer window may be an option come January, but it might be too late at that stage.
For now, Ferguson may want to look to his youth reserves to fill in at centre-back when needed. By playing Michael Carrick in the defence, it weakens an also thin midfield just ahead. But surely better performances from the defence will be achieved if players in put in their natural positions.