“It was agony,” said Sir Alex Ferguson on Saturday night, “the worst defending of this season.” Indeed, the Scot’s statement is one with which many Manchester United supporters can agree, although the plethora of choices in that inglorious competition says much. Once again Ferguson’s side came back from the brink to win on Saturday; this time against a limited, if spirited, Reading side that picked apart United’s back four with an ease that debased many experienced international.
On this evidence the Reds will not just come close to losing more games this season, but drop vital points in a title race that surely begins in earnest with United’s visit to Eastlands next Sunday. With the Reds’ defensive performances seemingly regressing few supporters will view the derby against Manchester City in the comfortable glow that a Premier League lead should bring.
Ferguson’s defence – or more accurately, the team’s paucity of watchful sanctuary – has become the story of the campaign to date. Just five clean sheets in 22 matches says much, while 21 goals conceded in the Premier League is a greater total than Sunderland in 17th place.
Yet, Ferguson’s side sits atop of the Premier League ahead of next weekend’s derby; United’s 36 points based largely on the Scot’s decision to bolster his attacking options last summer. It is a strategy that has partially worked, of course, with Robin van Persie contributing 13 goals in the campaign to date. On this form the Dutchman should come close to matching the 37 goals scored in all competitions for Arsenal last season.
Yet, United’s habitual need to recovered from deficit, married to embarrassingly loose defensive performances, threatens to undermine a campaign that will bring far greater challenges that Brian McDermott’s Berkshire side offered.
“We’re needing to rescue the situation all the time,” admitted Ferguson. “Fortunately we have players who can do that. If we defend like that against Manchester City, I might need to play myself.”
The Scot is unlikely to find the situation quite so amusing if his side fails to fulfill the defensive basics as the campaign draws on. Beaten three times from set pieces at the Madejski, by the conclusion goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard was suffering from the brand of nervous debility so often attached to rival David de Gea over the past 18 months.
Still, Ferguson’s solution in replacing Rafael da Silva with Chris Smalling on 30 minutes had more than a touch of closing the stable door half-an-hour too late. Smalling’s height, explained Ferguson, offered a solution to Reading’s penetration at set pieces. That the former Fulham defender made just a single successful header in more than an hour on the pitch might suggest otherwise.
More important than a rapid-fire substitution was United’s readjustment after half-time with Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young dropping back into wide areas to protect the Reds’ over-stretched full-backs. The pair’s negligence in leaving both Rafael and Patrice Evra exposed to Reading’s wide players in two-versus-one situations brought the hosts much joy during the opening half.
The attacking rejoinder was swift, of course, with Rooney, van Persie, and at times Young, offering significant penetration. Far too much for McDermott’s pourous outfit. Anderson, too, enjoyed some attacking freedom before yet another injury ruined the Brazilian’s evening. None of the quartet offered much to United’s defensive cause though.
Still, there is some pre-Christmas cheer, with United captain Nemanja Vidić due to return in the Champions League dead rubber with CFR Cluj on Wednesday. The Serbian defender will at least add security in the air, even if the 30-year-old has been far from an imperious past this season.
“He’s a battler, an absolute competitor,” adds Ferguson of his captain. “He’s got that dour, uncompromising way of his. He likes defending – that’s what he does.
“I knew Vida was doing really well with the physios. He was doing his football training with them in terms of turning and striking the ball but he came into training last Monday with the first team and did okay.”
It is unlikely, however, that Vidić will start against City next weekend given the Serbian’s sparsity of matches for the club over the past 18 months. Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans, both culpable at times for poorly defending the high ball against Reading, will surely start at Eastlands.
The real challenge, of course, is not truly in how Ferguson’s defence shapes up, although Evans form of late is a genuine concern, but whether the Scot can balance a midfield that has swung between exposing it’s full-backs and central defenders in turn with each new evolution in tactical thinking.
Indeed, a flat-two in central midfield has too often been the Reds soft underbelly, ruthlessly exposed, for example, by Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford earlier this season. Meanwhile, Ferguson’s decision to play a narrow three on Saturday served only to encourage the hosts to play wide.
In this United’s 70-year-old manager has no easy task against City. Anderson’s injury robs the Scot of one option in central midfield, leaving Ferguson more likely to start with Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher along side Michael Carrick in a narrow midfield than he is to throw caution to the wind. In any case, injuries to Antonio Valencia and Nani significantly restrict Ferguson’s options in wide areas.
Still, the Scot is prone to surprise against City – none quite so depressing for United supporters as the Reds’ Premier League loss to the blues at Eastlands last season. The United manager’s negative tactical outlook backfired just as significantly as United’s collapse at Old Trafford earlier in the campaign.
And those results may leave Ferguson caught between tool schools of thought; one bent on augmenting United’s fragile defensive unit; the other set up to attack Roberto Mancini’s outfit in its own home. It is, after all, a truism that Ferguson is seemingly yet to find his most effective unit this season.
Still, the defence will be top of mind. “If you make mistakes like that defending then you are going to have to do rescue jobs every week,” said the Scot on Saturday evening. After Saturday’s tactical mess, it’s a statement United’s manager may do well to heed.