Manchester United’s defensive woes continued against Reading, but the silver lining came in the form of another impressive attacking performance from Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie.
So many times in post-match interviews this season Sir Alex Ferguson has bemoaned his side’s defensive frailties while having to give thanks to his forwards who have clawed the Red Devils back from the precipice of defeat on too many occasions. Yet again, against Brian McDermott’s plucky Reading side, United found themselves a goal down and facing the prospect of having to come from behind to claim all three points.
But just how long can they continue to keep up this startling trend?
In their opening 15 games Manchester United have conceded 21 goals; a shocking statistic when you consider that in their title-winning season of 2008/09 they conceded 24 goals across the entire campaign. Much has been made of the series of injuries that have plagued the back four, and the weakness in the centre of the park, but the first-half defensive performance against Reading was completely devoid of any saving graces.
Patrice Evra has faced a lot of criticism for his sub-par showings, but the Frenchman inexplicably continues to command a place in starting XI despite a repeated tendency to dive in, an abject failure to cut out crosses and a startling inability to pick out even the most simple of passes. However, Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand staked their claims for the title of ‘Most Inept Defender’ with performances that were devoid of composure and common sense.
To boil matters down to their basics, United really do miss Nemanja Vidic; they miss that leader, that indomitable force around which the entire defensive unit operates. Take the goals Reading scored from corners: Vidic is the sort of player who would have attacked the ball coming into the box, even if it meant risking a clattering from an incoming opposition player. United were too timid in and around the box and they paid for it.
Anders Lindegaard, who has occupied the number 1 jersey for the past three league games, was indecisive against Reading and continues to provide a headache for the United boss. No matter who Ferguson picks in goal it seems to make little difference: the defending has been so poor that as a spectator you expect United to concede. It doesn’t help that De Gea and Lindegaard and picked and dropped for the most trivial of matters – De Gea has some wisdom teeth out and he’s spent three games on the bench. Madness. The last thing the club needs is another Tim Howard/Roy Carroll conundrum.
However, even with consistency in goal and the return of Vidic, there are still plenty of gaps to plug. Evra’s name has become a synonym for ‘absolute drivel’ while the lapses in concentration displayed by the likes of Evans is more than a little worrying. It also seems that Ferguson seems to have completely exhausted his retinue of central-midfield partnerships after rolling out a Carrick-Anderson-Fletcher combination and still the United midfield does not have that imperious feel about it. Granted, a continuous run of games would do wonders for individual players’ confidence, but as such, Fletcher, Carrick, Scholes, Cleverley, Anderson and Jones have rotated through the midfield with little of the desired effect.
The return of Darren Fletcher is a welcoming sight, not only on a philanthropic level, but on a footballing one too; he is the sort of player who will stamp his authority on a game. Knowing you have a player who will protect the back four and snuff out opposition forays gives your fellow midfielders the confidence to roam forward and create chances. If the Scottish international can overcome his illness problems and get back to full fitness then expect him to feature far more regularly, especially in the bigger games, where his pedigree has been proven many times over in recent seasons.
It’s a sobering contemplation if you consider where Manchester United might be in the table without their free-scoring front-line. The likes of Robin van Persie, Javier Hernandez and, to some extent, Wayne Rooney have too-frequently saved the club from an embarrassing defeat, but these are situations that United shouldn’t be finding themselves in. The criss-crossing movement and ingenuity of the Red Devils’ attacking play has been mesmerising at times and it comes as no surprise that the club have already score 32 goals in the league.
It harkens back to the days of the Busby Babes, whereby Matt Busby lived by the philosophy ‘you score four, we’ll score five’, but while Busby was quite open in his determination to play attractive football, Ferguson doesn’t quite seem as excited about his current team’s ability to create dramatic football matches. The wily Scot would much rather a 1-0 win than a 5-4 victory, but United look nowhere near capable of achieving such a feat with any regularity this season, least of all against any half-decent sides.
With the re-integration of Smalling and Jones back into first-team action, hopefully some solidity can return to the United defence. And, with Vidic returning to marshal the back four, Fletcher providing some steel in the centre of the park, and the continued form of Van Persie and co, the one and two-goal head-starts the Red Devils have been affording their opposition should become a distant memory. Conversely, if things aren’t tightened up soon enough, a dip into the January transfer market for a defender (or four) may have to be the only viable option to rectify the damage that may have already been done.