Truth is truth, to the end of reckoning.
The Tempest – Act I, Scene II, 1610
If there is any veracity in Shakespeare’s axiom then the Bard might also recognise that no team can prosper with a defence quite as exposed as Manchester United’s. In defeat to Norwich City on Saturday Sir Alex Ferguson’s outfit conceded first – not for the first time this season – and most certainly not the last. On this occasion, however, the Scot’s team had not the wherewithal to mount yet another comeback.
It was, of course, always going to be this way, with United seemingly teetering on the edge of defeat in perpetuity this season. While Norwich’s victory surprised, defeat per se cannot; not at the rate and regularity with which Ferguson’s side has leaked goals of late.
Indeed, with 17 goals given up in just 12 league games Ferguson’s side is on course to top 50 ceded in the campaign. No team has won the title during the Premier League era with that level of fragility at the back. Only United, with 45 in the against column during the 1999/2000 campaign, comes close.
In this there is verisimilitude – it is almost unthinkable that Ferguson’s side will regain the Premier League title or, cynics might point out, claim any silverware at all, unless his side tightens up at the back.
With just three clean sheets in 18 games this season, compared to 24 in 54 last, there has been a marked change in United’s defensive solidity. It is a change not solely born of another injury crisis. After all, while Nemanja Vidić has already missed a sizable chunk of the season, the giant Serbian was absent for the second half of the previous campaign.
Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones have all missed parts of both . Evans’ return to fitness has brought no greater security, while both Rafael da Silva and Patrice Evra will justifiably point to a resurgence in form this season.
In East Anglia United suffered as much for lack of shape in central midfield as from a creaky back-four. The partnership of Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs has rarely offered a solid base from which to build. In fact, few Reds will recall an occasion, save for United’s victory over Chelsea in the Champions League semi-final, April 2011, that the pair has dominated an opposition.
While Carrick retained an impressive pass completion rate at Carrow Road, Giggs lost possession on one occasion in five. In the final third the Welshman’s ratio of misplaced passing increases significantly. Wasted possession that only invites opposition pressure.
More concerning though is the defensive contribution: Giggs made just three tackles against Norwich. There were no interceptions, blocks, or clearances. Carrick, meanwhile, made just one interception and four tackles. None of these data points says anything about the open positional play that allowed Norwich to break at will.
None of these faults are new, but when United’s plethora of attacking resources misfire – as they did in Norfolk – then Ferguson’s problems are myriad. While United enjoyed more than 62 per cent of the ball, only two of the half dozen saves Norwich’s John Ruddy made – from Ashley Young and Sebastien Bassong – were more than routine for a stopper of the Cornishman’s growing stature.
“We had a lot of possession and one or two half-chances without having any great chances, but it just wasn’t our night,” admitted Ferguson.
“The players we’ve got are used to making comebacks, particularly in the last minutes of matches. We’re always a threat. We were in some respects tonight also, but they defended really well and the goalkeeper’s made two or three really good saves at vital moments.
“It was a marvelous cross and a magnificent header – there was nothing the goalkeeper could do about that. We were too long in delaying our crosses. We should have got the ball in earlier. But we just didn’t get into the space behind them, it just didn’t happen for us. Norwich got plenty of men behind the ball and closed out all of the spaces.”
This is, of course, a tame excuse for a performance that was infuriating for it’s lack of urgency or cohesion. Much the same was said of United’s last visit to East Anglia. Now, as then, passing and possession statistics say little about Norwich’s dynamism compares to United’s insipid lethargy.
Yet, Ferguson will at least find solace in a fixture list that throws up five gimmes before the Reds make the short trip across Manchester to face City at Eastlands in December. The midweek dead rubber against Galatasaray is followed by home bankers with Queens Park Rangers, West Ham United and a trip to Reading.
But none of those games is a foregone conclusion until Ferguson’s side is willing, or able, to close up the shop, while retaining the attacking verve that fans have enjoyed this season. Of this are the very best sides made.
Last season Ferguson’s men secured five clean sheets in a row during the autumn, and then another series of four during the run in. Each came at a crucial period. There is, surely, no better time to ameliorate the worst of United’s defensive problems than in the weeks leading up to this season’s first derby.
More of the same can invite only one outcome by the time United’s campaign ends next May. Or, as Shakespeare might add, what’s past is prologue.