Manchester United: 8 Ways to Improve Shaky Defense
I'm not going to pull any punches—the Manchester United defence has been abysmal in their opening three matches of the 2012-13 Premier League season.
OK, so we're very early into the campaign, and the squad is suffering heavily (and I mean heavily) from injuries in this department at the moment, but does that really justify the performances that the United back four have been putting in?
Every single goal that opponents have scored against the Red Devils so far came almost directly as a result of a defensive error.
Fellaini was left unmarked and unchallenged in the United penalty area, Duff shrugged Ashley Young off the ball too easily to free himself up for an easy finish, David de Gea and Nemanja Vidic gifted Fulham a second, and both of Southampton's goals were scored because United's two wing-backs, Patrice Evra and Rafael, were unable to compete in the air with the Saints' attack force.
All in all, a pretty pathetic way to ship five goals.
Yes I'm being harsh, but this is far from what has come to be expected of United at the back over the years.
Just four seasons ago United went 1,311 minutes in the league without conceding. That entire season they let in just 24 goals.
If the current average for goals conceded this year keeps up then the Red Devils will be looking at a whopping 63 going in past de Gea or Anders Lindegaard.
Of course, that almost certainly wont be the case, but nevertheless improvements must be made.
Here is a list of suggestions (ignoring injuries) of how to get that nationally feared defence back up and running again.
Start Alexander Buttner at LB
Yes, it would be a big step up for the 23-year-old Dutchman to suddenly be thrust into the very thick of things, but it seems as though Patrice Evra may be beyond all hope of returning to the player he once was.
Patrice's problems started as early as the beginning of last year, when it seemed as though the Frenchman was gradually beginning his dissent from the peaks of world football.
Now all signs are pointing toward the end of his time at the club. Well, in terms of regular first-team football anyway.
Buttner is completely unproven in the Premier League, but Sir Alex has touted the youngster as one of the best left-backs in world football right now.
If that is true than Fergie has certainly seen something that apparently no other scouts or managers have in the man from Doetinchem.
Next weekend United are at home to Wigan Athletic—a team they have beaten in every single fixture played in the Premier League bar one (which unfortunately cost them the title last season).
This is as good a game as any to at least try Buttner out at left-back. In reality it couldn't really do much harm!
Luckily for United their attack has more than made up for the incompetence of their defence, and against a Wigan side who aren't exactly renown for their clean sheets, it allows Fergie to spice things up at the back a tad.
Could this be one of those experiments?
Jones in at RB
The recent knee injury to Phil Jones could not have come at a worse time for United.
The man from Preston is—as you will see in this list—one of the most versatile players that Fergie has under his belt.
Just when it looked as though Jones would be coming back from the back spasms that had kept him out of action all summer, this new setback suddenly sprung up.
When Phil is fully back and operational however, Sir Alex may want to look into playing the former Blackburn Rovers man in the position he became accustomed to toward the back end of last year's campaign.
Jones showed a naturally ability at right-back that would have, I'm sure, kept Rafael out of the team had the 20-year-old been fit.
When he does eventually come back in a couple of months time, Fergie may have found someone to fill this void in his absence.
If so, then there are plenty of other key areas on the pitch that Jones can slot into.
If not, then Phil will be the solution to a massive headache for Fergie.
Valencia at RB
Or perhaps Sir Alex will want to put Jones back into his old position at centre-back and play Antonio Valencia (yes, you heard me right) as one of his wing-backs.
Before you start accusing me of lunacy you should remember that Valencia played a couple of games during the preseason tours in this role, and showed a surprising (or perhaps unsurprising, based on Tonio's natural footballing ability) amount of fluency for it.
Valencia even played at right-back in United's friendly against a Barcelona side that sported the world's best player, Leo Messi. That game ended 0-0.
United would kill for a clean sheet right now, and if Antonio was able to keep the world's best from scoring, why not try it out in the league?
For all of you worried about it harming the United attack, all it would mean is that Wayne Rooney would take the Ecuadorian's place on the right side of a 4-3-3 attack (with Nani/Young on the left and RVP in the middle).
If anything playing Valencia in this role—which still allows him creative attacking freedom—is perfect for any fans out there who want to see Wayne and RVP starting in the same team!
Sir Alex has always made a point that he wants his best 11 players to start every match.
Valencia at right-back would allow that.
Smalling at RB or CB
Here's another very promising future talent that can play more than one position when it is required of him.
Chris Smalling made a meteoric rise up the footballing pyramid in 2008. Starting his professional career at this writer's local side, Maidstone United, Smalling was signed up by the Premier League side Fulham.
Less than a year later the champions, United, had taken the young man on board, and he hasn't looked back since.
Smalling was injured at a critical point of Man United's season last year—frustratingly whilst on International duty in a friendly against Holland.
This and other minor injuries have kept Smalling away from first-team action for the best part of six months now.
Slotting back into the side at either centre-back in place of Rio Ferdinand or right-back would add a completely different dimension to the United side.
What's great about having two defenders who are both capable of playing right-back and center-back is the leverage it gives Fergie to swap the side around both during and before matches.
Smalling and Jones are key assets.
Jonny Evans Replacing Ferdinand at CB
Failing that, why not bring Jonny Evans back into the regular first team?
Evans was one of the standout players last season for the Red Devils, having to come in and adopt the position left by the severe knee injury suffered by captain Nemanja Vidic.
A shining light in the role, Evans earned the respect of pessimistic United and Premier League followers alike (including myself) who had always thought that the Northern Irishman was not up to United's quality.
It was a move somewhat devoid of compassion that saw Sir Alex drop United's best defender to the bench at the start of this season.
It seems as though his decision to do so is far from paying off.
The only problem with Evans coming back into the side would mean that when everyone is fully fit, either Jones or Smalling would have to miss out.
Or would they?
Jones DM, Evans CB and Smalling at RB
If United were to instigate a policy which sees all three of the men highlighted on this list coming into play, then they could quite easily set the formation out with Jones playing the defensive midfield role, whilst Smalling and Evans (along with Buttner and Vidic) occupy the defence itself.
I would love to see Fergie employing these three men into a 4-3-3 formation.
Each man has proven his worth in every one of the suggested roles, and due in most part to injury, United have rarely been able to implement this tactic.
However, for a short period last year this was, for a couple of games at least, the way Sir Alex sent out his side.
One of those matches included a 5-0 demolition of Fulham at Craven Cottage.
Anyone who follows the league closely will know how hard it is to come away from the Cottage with a win, let alone a margin of victory as great as what United achieved last season.
Can this partnership work its magic again?
If injuries hold off, then a few months, I don't see why not!
Yes, I know one shouldn't dream such silly things. Sir Alex is not exactly famed for trying out radical new formations when it comes to his side, but this really could work with a bit of effort.
Doesn't look too shabby does it?
No Rooney? Swap him in for for RVP or Valencia.
Want to see Nani in the side? He could be a like-for-like replacement with Young.
Miss Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez? If required, either of the pairing can slot any position within the front three.
Even Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs can easily slot into the formation.
Of course I don't for a million years expect Fergie to employ the same tactic that saw a very average looking Italian squad make it all the way to the final of Euro 2012.
This sort of formation also neglects players like Rafael, Evra and Buttner, and as such it's unlikely that Fergie will want to try it out.
Still, it's an option that would, or rather with United's talent pool, should work if ever given a chance.
Incorporate Youth Talent into Starting XI
Scott Wootton, Marnick Vermijl, Tyler Backett, Frederic Veseli, Tom Thorpe and perhaps most importantly of all, Michael Keane.
They are a bevy of United defensive talents that are just itching to break into the first team.
OK, throwing these guys in is foolhardy and extremely ill-advised.
However, weaning them into things slowly at first could mean that come the end of the season that United have a few more players ready to step in should yet more injury worries plague the club.
Keane especially could be ready before many would expect, with the young man (who is the brother of Will Keane, one of United's brightest future stars) already has a taste for competitive football on the highest level with five U-19 caps under his belt for England.
I'm not suggesting that the level he faced playing in this games will compare to what would come up against the 19-year-old in the Premier League, but it's better than nothing!
Giving one of these players the chance to make a name for themselves would be a risky, but fantastically entertaining ploy from Sir Alex.
The gamble could pay off, but then it's just as likely not too.
Unfortunately that means that these players probably won't see much first-team action this year.
Still, United's future looks bright with these young stars on the bench.
For now though, the Red Devils will have to hope and pray for swift recoveries to their injured players, before the leaking goals really cost the side.
Evans and Buttner are available now. Should they start against Wigan? In this writer's opinion, the answer is a definite yes.