Man Utd’s victory at the weekend over a plucky Norwich side may have had its fair share of uncomfortable moments, but while overall the champions were good value for their win, it did expose a fatal flaw in the Man Utd squad – a lack of defensive cover. With Ferguson having deemed both Wes Brown and John O’Shea surplus to requirements in the summer, do they have enough in reserve to last a long campaign?
Antonio Valencia was pressed into action at the weekend and was given a torrid test in an unfamiliar right back role – a role that both Brown and O’Shea have played throughout their Utd careers. Valencia made a dreadful error that almost allowed Norwich’s Anthony Pilkington in to score.
Of course, this isn’t solely to do with Valencia’s dodgy performance on Saturday, nor am I advocating that Ferguson should have retained the services of both O’Shea and Brown; but considering how the 2009/10 title race unfolded, would it not have proved more prudent to ere on the side of caution and keep one of the departed duo at Old Trafford for the foreseeable future?
A lot of Man Utd’s problems at the back, with concerns to the number of fit personnel that they have readily available each game, has a lot to do with the perma-crocked nature of the Da Silva twins. They’ve both struggled with injury and as such, just when they both looked on the cusp of sealing spots in the side, their development has stalled at a crucial stage in their careers. Their continue spells on the sidelines means Utd are stretched somewhat thinly at the back.
Captain Nemanja Vidic had been out of action since the opening day at The Hawthorns, when he limped off after 52 minutes. Rio Ferdinand misses as many games as he plays and he can no longer be relied upon week in week out and Patrice Evra continues to resemble a shadow of his former self at left back. Chris Smalling, though, has been exceptional for Utd so far this term and has arguably been their finest defender, alongside a revitalised Jonny Evans.
Man Utd’s back line has been on the wobble after successive draws against Stoke and FC Basel in the Champions League. Many have hailed the second-coming of John Terry in Phil Jones – but despite the accepted opinion that he’s been a revelation, dig a little deeper and he’s continually caught out of position and responsible for some of the goals that Utd have conceded so far this season.
Jones may represent a player with fantastic potential, a future England captain one day to boot, but at the moment, he’s very much a work in progress. His forward forays at the moment are covering up for his defensive deficiencies. So far, the bright sparks in the Match of the Day studio have failed to shine a light on his errors, perhaps through sheer fear of contradicting the unrelenting monster that is the Phil Jones PR machine.
To my mind at least, he needs to curb his attacking instincts, reign in the rampaging runs and through fear of quoting John Major ‘get back to basics’. So far, I’ve been much more impressed by Smailling and Evans, even if they haven’t attracted half the hyperbole as the former Blackburn man.
Wes Brown is certainly a player that Jones could learn from. Brown is simply a defender that loves to defend. There are no airs and graces about him. He’s tough, solid in the air and crunching in the tackle. Only a series of long-term injuries over his career have stopped him from ever really making a lasting impression on the first-team at Utd. Now at Sunderland, he appears to be holding the defence together on his own at times.
Letting O’Shea go in the summer seemed strange one to me at first viewing too. Last season he seemed a key member of the squad, starting 20 Premier League games, 32 across all competitions and getting the nod ahead of Rafael Da Silva for both the Man City and Chelsea clashes. He’s a dependable and versatile player with a temperament for what Shteve McLaren famously once called the ‘big gameshh’.
It’s not that Ferguson will be unfamiliar with the need for defensive strength in depth either, for the injury crisis suffered at the back by the current champions played a pivotal part in handing the 2009/10 season title over to Chelsea.
Darren Fletcher had this to say on the matter at the end of the season in question: “Without those defensive injuries it could have been very different. At one stage we had one fit defender in the squad. No team has been able to cope with that. We had three or four games in that position and ultimately it has cost us. If you are going to win the title in England you need a settled defence.” Ferguson had to field a side on four separate occasions with only two recognised defenders in it; Patrice Evra, who was mainly deployed as a wing back and youngster Richie De Laet over that crucial month in the Premier League calendar, January.
To put it simply, Nemanja Vidic cannot return to full fitness soon enough. His presence has been sorely missed. Ferguson has been hampered by injuries at the back this season and frustrated in his attempts to put out a settled defence. This may go some way to explaining the statistic that every visiting side to Old Trafford this
term in the league has registered 20 attempts on goal – only 2 sides have achieved the same feat in the previous 5 seasons.
O’Shea and Brown are not the only answer to defensive solidity, far from it, but their
experienced heads may have gone some way to ensuring Utd were more covered at the back during pressing times such as these. Keeping both O’Shea and Brown may have proved unwise in the long-run, but letting go of both of them is now starting to look short-sighted.
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