An uncomfortable truth has been creeping up on Manchester United over the last two games, and on Tuesday night at Old Trafford, it finally hit them full in the face. The champions are not yet settled defensively, and it’s time to do something about it.
Sir Alex Ferguson put last night’s dropped points – for a home draw with Basel is, unquestionably, two points dropped for a squad of this ability – down to defensive “carelessness”. He pointed out that while the team’s forward options guarantee United goals, they need more time to get everyone fit at the back and figure out their best starting back four. David de Gea has already played behind so many different defenders he must be starting to wonder how many more are hiding around Carrington.
United can score, there is no doubt about that. Powered up front by Wayne Rooney, and last night by the emerging Danny Welbeck, the Red Devils have fired 32 goals in their opening ten competitive fixtures of the 2011/12 season, including the Community Shield. That end of the pitch, then, appears sorted. But the other end is where Ferguson has problems to address: despite a far-from-disastrous 11 goals conceded in the same ten games, United know it could have been worse. Chelsea, for instance, created almost 20 shots at goal at Old Trafford last weekend. On Saturday, Stoke had the better of the game and de Gea was forced into a couple of spectacular saves to earn his side a point.
Ferguson has already deployed ten players in his defensive line this season, though admittedly two of those were Ezekiel Fryers and Michael Carrick in the League Cup win over Leeds. Every senior defender in the squad, apart from the injured Rafael, has had at least one start. Injuries to the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, coupled with the summer sales of stalwart duo Wes Brown and John O’Shea, have forced Ferguson to throw Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans into starring roles earlier than he might have liked.
All three have impressed, but of those three, Jones has drawn the most praise. His swashbuckling forays upfield have drawn rave reviews from all quarters, and provided another goal on Tuesday night, this time for Welbeck. (Surely Jones will eventually start shooting himself?) United hero Paddy Crerand, now a regular pundit on MUTV, recently went so far as to compare Jones to the legendary Duncan Edwards, who is widely considered to have been one of the best players England has ever produced.
High praise indeed, then. But one wonders how necessary it really is, just a few games into Jones’ debut season at Old Trafford. The centre-back is, after all, just 20 years old, and if there is one nation who know exactly how to ruin a footballer’s career with unreserved hyperbole in the infancy of their career, it’s the English. Besides, one key area of Jones’ game could still do with polishing, and that, unfortunately, is his defending.
The youngster showed some of his lack of experience against Chelsea, particularly when he was left for dead by Fernando Torres late on as the Spaniard raced clear only to round de Gea and miss an open goal. Tuesday night’s second-half collapse again displayed frailties in Jones’ play – he was caught out of position for Alexander Frei’s equaliser and his poor pass to stand-in right-back Antonio Valencia led to the penalty from which Basel briefly took a shock lead.
This is not to say that Jones will not be the player that everyone expects him to develop into, or that United made a mistake. The biggest strength a defensive unit can have is steady playing time as a five (including the goalkeeper), and United are in no position to achieve that. Ferdinand and Patrice Evra were also poor on Tuesday, and after Fabio went off (yes, another injury) Valencia demonstrated again that he is a willing but suspect full-back.
Jones cannot be held responsible for United’s current defensive frailties, and certainly should not be. But too much expectation, too soon, has overwhelmed too many players in this country in the past decade or so. Perhaps laying off the hype would help Jones’ career more than the endless praise he has received in the past few weeks – but I don’t expect that to happen any time soon.
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