Picture the scene: a massacre of x-rated horror. Certainly not one for the kids; not on a Sunday tea time at least. But this was not some far-flung war-torn land ignored by the west, but Manchester United’s defensive shape, seemingly disregarded by Sir Alex Ferguson. It was brutally exposed by newly promoted Southampton at St Mary’s on Sunday, and oh-so-nearly cost United a second defeat of the campaign.
After all, there have been plenty warnings. Everton bullied United’s back four at Goodison on the opening day of the season, while Fulham should have scored more than an Old Trafford double last month. That is to say nothing of the four the Toffees scored at the back end of last season in a tragi-comic end to the campaign.
Yet, at St Mary’s the old frailties recurred, with both full-backs caught out of position too often, while Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić looked far from the tried-and-trust partnership of old.
True, injuries have disrupted United’s preparations and consistency. Patrice Evra aside, each of Ferguson’s first team defenders has spent time in the physio suite over the past year. Ferguson’s side started the campaign missing four central defenders in Jonny Evans, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Ferdinand. Few squads could cope with that level of disruption, let alone record two victories the opening three matches of the campaign.
Yet, it’s an analysis that misses the underlying point, and downplays the structural problems in Ferguson’s side. Defensive numbers are plentiful at Old Trafford, but after a summer of more generous than usual transfer spend, the question of squad balance still rears its ugly head.
On the south coast the Reds suffered not only for mistakes in defence – Southampton ruthlessly exploited defensive weaknesses at full-back – but a genuine lack of cover through central midfield. Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley, ever neat in possession, were unable to prevent the newly promoted outfit breaking forward in numbers. All too often Ferguson’s side aided Nigel Adkins’ side by committing up to seven players forward, while leaving gaping holes in the rear-guard.
In this there is no surprise that captain Vidić offered an honest assessment of United’ defensive performance after conceding twice on Sunday. Yet, with five goals against already this season, it is an admission that only tells half the story of the Reds’ troubles.
“It was a difficult game and we conceded two goals we’re not happy with at all,” Vidić told MUTV.
“We’ve been told before the game what Southampton’s strengths are, what their game is and what they’re trying to achieve. In the end, they did it so it’s disappointing. I have to say, we are not really pleased with the goals we’ve conceded. There was a lack of concentration, I think, for all four goals we lost [in the last two games] but we have to work on it.
“You have to say we’ve had a lot of turbulence in defence with so many changes and people going in and going out. We didn’t have a constant back four and sometimes it causes a problem, but we look forward to the next games. We have over a week to improve our fitness and obviously our form so we are going to be right for the next game in the Premier League.”
Yet, there is also a question of balance. Those jokes about Ferguson perfecting a new formation – the doughnut – ring true. That, somehow, United’s team has the perfect shape, but nothing in the centre. Judging by the Reds’ defensive concentration this season fans might have cause to wonder whether the joke goes far enough, although after Sunday the premise certainly holds.
And with Vidić now fit, Ferdinand restored, and Evans on the way back, Ferguson has more cover in defence than for some time. Jones, now in full training, and Smalling will provide more cover in the weeks ahead. None of the returnees can ensure United’s midfield offers sufficient cover; nor the Reds’ shape enough protection.
One critical, but perhaps realistic assessment, is that United’s 70-year-old manager has gambled, in recruiting Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa this summer, that more goals will paper over weaknesses in midfield. Particularly the defensive and physical side of United’s engine room that is too frequently exploited to be ignored.
It’s a bet that is already placing significant faith in van Persie’s ability to maintain the goal-a-game start to his United career. On Sunday the Dutchman’s hat-trick secured a last-gasp victory; van Persie won’t always be able to repeat that trick.
In this it is hard to be critical – United fans want attacking football, played in the very finest traditions of the 134-year-old club. All too often in recent years style has been subservient to substance, while neither flourished last season. The sight of Kagawa flitting in between attack and midfield dictating play, and van Persie ruthlessly finishing chances, is one supporters will surely enjoy this season.
Yet, in moving to a progressive formation, and a more attacking philosophy, there is also some irony. After all captain Vidić began the season by demanding United seeks points in precedent to entertainment.
“Sometimes the main thing is to play for three points, not just to enjoy games,” admitted the giant Serbian in August.
“We want to play great football but we want three points and we want the title. I think this year we understand that. But when you don’t win the title, the next year is the one where you think ‘I have to push more, I have to work harder, I have to do better than last year.’”
Hard work alone will not help Ferguson’s men strike the right balance between flooding forward in search of goals, and keeping the ship water-tight. Defensive shape – and midfield personnel – will have just as significant say in the title race this season.
The real question is whether the returning injured can ameliorate the defensive mistakes of the past month. If not, then much as supporters found after last season’s humiliating defeat to City at Old Trafford, Ferguson is likely to eschew attacking prowess in favour of more defensive stability.
In that there is much to ponder.