When Manchester United conceded three during a tragi-comic first half at Reading’s Madjesky Stadium in December it appeared to sum up a campaign. After all, while the Reds’ fragile defence was brutally exposed by limited opposition, United still won the game – netting four against the relegation threatened Berkshire side.
The game at Reading moved Sir Alex Ferguson to describe his side’s defending as a “cartoon cavalcade” – a near-suicidal fault that appeared to undermine all of United’s hopes and dreams for the season ahead.
The pattern was earlier in the season of course, as Ferguson’s side opened the campaign with just five clean sheets to the turn of the year – 28 matches in all competitions. In all United conceded 40 goals in the period to Christmas, 28 of them in the Premier League. That even Liverpool could boast a better defensive record said much.
United’s in ability to retain any consistency at the back, nor it seemed any composure, also brought an uncanny habit of conceding first during the opening months of the campaign, with Ferguson’s side falling behind 17 times in 40 games to date this season.
How, pondered many observers, could a side with ambitions to compete on all fronts at home and abroad, do so while conceding so liberally? Even if Robin van Persie has added goals and penetration to United’s front line, few great sides have ever conceded freely.
Yet, the Scot has always maintained that his side’s focus and it’s execution improves in the spring – the prizes on offer seemingly keeping eyes firmly locked in place. It is the desire for looming success, together with returning players, says Ferguson, that has restored some solidity to the Reds’ defence.
He may have a point: United has now secured four Premier League clean sheets in a row and conceded just eight in 13 games since New Year’s Day.
“In the last few weeks there has been a definite change in terms of concentration and the awareness that these games are important,” said Ferguson over the weekend.
“In the early part of the season we were giving all these early goals away and that may have been a combination of the fact that we had defenders out. In the first game of the season we had to play Michael Carrick at centre-half because we had four centre-backs out. That had its impact.”
The turnaround has been remarkable; more so because United’s defensive problems earlier this season were not solely because of a lengthy injury list, but also genuine structural problems in the squad.
Indeed, Ferguson’s tactical thinking has played a significant part in both ensuring United is a vibrant attacking force and far too open at the back this season.
Pairing Michael Carrick, for example, with almost any combination appeared to leave the former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder exposed and United’s back four under severe duress during the autumn months. When Spurs arrived at Old Trafford in late September, Carrick’s inability to deal with the visitors’ counter-attacking left Rio Ferdinand horribly exposed, leading to 3-2 defeat.
Increasingly Ferguson has sought to plug an obvious gap, sometimes dropping Wayne Rooney into deeper positions, experimenting with a diamond or latterly a 4-3-3 formation.
Recovery from the now annual defensive injury trauma has played it’s part too, of course. Ferguson’s defensive unit against Everton the opening day of the campaign read Antonio Valencia, Nemanja Vidić, Carrick, and Patrice Evra – five others remained on the sidelines, while Vidić played his first game in nine months following serious knee injury the previous December.
Greater consistency of selection has also been key, although Ferguson continues to rotate his central defensive roster between Ferdinand, Vidić, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling. Ferdinand’s participation is carefully managed, with the former West Ham United defender now 34, and Vidić can rarely play more than two games a week.
Yet, Rafael da Sila and Patrice Evra have remained near ever-present this season. Consistency that is surely a reflection of and causal factor in the Brazilian youngster’s outstanding form in the campaign to date.
Behind them young Spaniard David de Gea is growing in confidence, benefiting from an extended run in the first team following Anders Lindegaard’s calamitous performance against Reading in December.
De Gea has featured in all but one of United’s matches post-Reading, with Lindegaard’s sole contribution coming during the Reds’ 1-0 FA Cup replay victory over West Ham United at Old Trafford. And such are the stoppers’ performances that United supporters voted de Gea the club’s player of the month in February.
“It’s very good to have the support of the fans,” admitted De Gea. “I can hear the supporters during the games so I know they’re singing about me. I’m very grateful for that.”
The former Atlético Madrid player has become a supporters’ favourite in no small part due to the severity of media criticism aimed at the 22-year-old.
Meanwhile, Rafael continues to impress, scoring his third goal of a fruitful campaign against Queens Park Rangers recently – a stunning volley that flew past home ‘keeper Julio Cesar into the top corner. No wonder Ferguson has been moved to brand the youngster’s campaign as “magnificent” – it has been.
Alongside the youngsters Ferdinand has excelled too, prompting suggestions that the veteran will be offered a new deal at Old Trafford to take him past his 35th birthday.
“I think he has had a great season,” adds Ferguson, of the veteran who has been at Old Trafford for more than a decade.
“He has managed himself the right way and we have contributed to that in the preparation we give him. He doesn’t play every game. Two weeks ago, against Real Madrid, he was excellent. We need to get him ready for the big one on Tuesday.”
The turnaround in defence fortunes, much like Ferdinand’s own this season, leaves United in prime position to take not only the Premier League, where the Reds hold a commanding 12 points lead, but progress in Europe too.
Just as long as the cartoon cavalcade doesn’t return against Cristiano Ronaldo and company on Tuesday night.