Should Manchester United complete a 19th domestic title come May it will have little to do with star player Wayne Rooney. Nor, though influential, will Nani take the plaudits. Ditto Dimitar Berbatov, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Anderson. Much as United’s attacking players can take overdue credit for becoming the division’s the second highest goalscorers, it is the defence that will win it.
Indeed, so imperious have captain Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand been this season that there is surely no better central defensive partnership in world football. Coupled with Patrice Evra’s status as the finest left-back on the planet, Rafael da Silva’s rapid progress and Edwin van der Sar’s assured composure and United may well land the title despite a paucity of creative options.
United’s strengths and weaknesses were exposed against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, with the Reds watertight in defence despite playing the final quarter with 10 men. At the same time, United created too few chances to win at White Hart Lane as the visitors drew an eighth Premier League match on the road this season.
No wonder Sir Alex Ferguson was fulsome in his praise of his back five, whose control over Rafael van der Vaart, Peter Crouch, Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon was almost total. That Spurs managed just two strikes on target is symptomatic of just how well marshalled Vidic’s colleagues are this season.
“The kind of pressure we were under were just long balls into the box really,” claimed Ferguson today.
“With Ferdinand and Vidic as your centre-backs you know you can cope with that. They were fantastic. The whole back four did really, really well.
“In the context of Tottenham’s home record this season and the performances they have given, we have got to take it as a good point for us.”
Even Rafael, harshly sent off for a second bookable offence with twenty minutes to go, drew praise from colleagues for another mature performance that largely kept Bale at check.
Should United win the title by that single point gained in London then Ferguson will be have much to celebrate. Yet, it is not a single season transformation in United’s play that has seen the Reds become so secure at the back. Critics can – and do – point to the fundamental change in United’s style over the past decade, from the side that scored three against Barcelona, twice, in the swashbuckling 1999 season, to the often overly cautious outfit we see today.
While United did not exactly morphed Jose Mourinho’s Inter at Camp Nou circa Spring 2010, there have been times when the Reds have performed a passable impression. It is not the ‘United way’ perhaps but one that fans have become accustomed too over the past decade.
Part of United’s metamorphosis over the years is down to Ferguson’s obsession with performing in Europe. Largely it has worked. Yet, much of the Reds’ style this season is surely down to the dearth of attacking creative talent in the squad, with Rooney too often anonymous, Nani still inconsistent, Antonio Valencia injured and Paul Scholes’ legs finding no friend in father time.
It showed against Spurs, with the Reds managing just seven shots – on target or not – in the match. No enough for the pretenders to Chelsea’s thrown. Similar sterile performances have been evident in many of United’s away fixtures at home and abroad this season.
“We didn’t bother them too much,” admitted Ferguson
“We had one or two good opportunities at times when we got to the last third of the field but we just didn’t quite have the cutting edge. In the second half Anderson attacked the back four four times and maybe his selection of pass or a shot on goal would have been better.”
It is, always has been and one wonders whether it always will be the Brazilian’s principal failing. For a player so widely touted – including by Ferguson himself – as the natural successor to Scholes, Anderson does not score, nor create goals or even retain possession more than three-quarters of the time.
In defence United’s resources will be stretched in coming games, with Rafael set to miss at least one match, possibly more, after the Football Association charged the 20-year-old defender with improper conduct today. Little wonder after the youngster both disputed referee Mike Dean’s erroneous decision and then refused to promptly leave the field.
“It was Mary Decker and Zola Budd,” said Spurs’ manager Harry Redknapp in the Brazilian’s defence.
“He was just running and he has clipped Benoît’s heels. He has not broken his stride and stuck a leg out, saying ‘I’ll trip him’. He was trying to get out of the way.”
But with Rafael out, John O’Shea injured and Wes Brown all but forgotten at Old Trafford, Ferguson may turn to the Brazilian’s brother Fabio, who featured in United reserves’ 8-0 win over Bury this week. Often touted as the more talented sibling, Fabio’s progress has been hampered by Evra’s outstanding form and persistent injuries.
With Rafael set to miss fixtures against Birmingham City and potentially Blackpool in the coming week, Fabio’s ability to integrate into United’s outstanding back-five will be severely tested. As will United’s title credentials.