Who Is Most to Blame for Manchester United's Defensive Woes?
The biggest question being asked about Manchester United has been the defensive woes in early season.
Sunday was a major break—in 12 previous matches, United had on eight occasions conceded the first goal. That's unheard of. Against Chelsea they inflicted that experience on the League leaders.
It's not surprising that fans had been blaming the defence, because United have had to score three goals to win. Luckily they have the best firepower in the division.
So let's be clear. We're not looking for scapegoats or sacrificial lambs here. Otherwise there would be a queue to slaughter Michael Carrick, because most people want to blame him for everything. They probably thought he was to blame against Braga for agreeing to play centre back.
Let's consider some possible hypotheses.
Sir Alex and the Coaching Staff
When it keeps happening you have to look at the coaching staff.
Sir Alex has changed systems—he rotates the team more than any other manager in the Premier League—and there have been serious injury problems all season.
But it is the manager's responsibility to pick the team, coach and motivate them.
He has explained why he has experimented with different strategic formations, with the tactical changes that other managers have been making—also to keep them guessing. This was most effective at Newcastle.
But if you keep changing personnel and systems, eventually something must come unstuck.
United's tradition has been based on having wide players. 4-4-2 seems best, especially if everyone can tackle to some degree.
As they say: "attack is the best form of defence".
Sir Alex still doesn't seem to have settled on a number one goalkeeper and that alone unsettles a defence, as well as the keeper. If strikers need a long run to get confidence, so do keepers.
By the same token, as United having not been good at converting corners before Robin Van Persie arrived, they could be better at set-pieces.
So in summary, Sir Alex needs a full complement of defenders, a fairly settled side, a tactical formation that everyone understands, and leadership on the pitch.
Someone needs to organise the defence better on the training ground, and someone else on the pitch. Notionally it should be the captain in the latter case, but actually all the senior players need to be louder. Its about taking individual, as well as collective, responsibility.
Patrice Evra & Rio Ferdinand
Also, there isn't sufficient leadership on the pitch. Nominally, Patrice Evra is captain in the absence of Nemanja Vidic, but he doesn't seem to lead on the pitch by shouting or by example.
There's no need to go on about a point we've made several times. Evra too often gets stranded up the pitch. It happened again on Sunday. Others have to bail him out.
Both he and Ferdinand have lost a yard of pace. "Paddy" is a good attacking player; less good at defending. He will often be targeted by the opposition. That's probably why Young was played, because he is better at defending than most of the attack.
Rio has always been a classy defender. His partnership with Vidic at one time was reckoned to be as good as any in the world. If Vidic was alongside him now, or even beside Evans, things would no doubt be different.
Both Ferdinand and Evans are no doubt being played more than Sir Alex would otherwise choose. That's nobody's fault. There are no other centre backs fit.
Vidic, Smalling & Jones
Its not really their fault of course. They can't help being injured. The two above, for example are widely regarded as being a strong component of England's future.
Last season, United lost almost 1900 player days to injury. Many of those were in central defence. Carrick ended up at centre back. Sound familiar?
In the circumstances, it wasn't too bad that United lost just 1-0 against Everton, with Fellaini and Jelavic. They then held on against Fulham. But why on earth did Ferguson repeat the experiment against Braga? OK so he needed to rest Ferdinand, but what was wrong with giving Wootton or Keane a chance?
It seems somewhat ironic that Smalling at 22 and Jones at 20 are being missed here, but two of United's brightest youngsters can't get a gig.
It's almost as if Sir Alex has panicked. It's Catch 22—no experience no job, no job no experience. There is so much at stake these days that it's hard to contemplate losing any match.
Ferguson needs a run in Europe and the Cups to be able to blood his young and up-coming stars, but he needs to play his senior professionals to ensure a run in those competitions.
Nevertheless, Vidic, Smalling and Jones are badly missed. Luckily Rio's back is a great deal better, but he's had to play more than 25 of the last 30 matches. He needs a break. Thank God England have retired him.
Similarly Jonny Evans, being the younger of the two, is having to play most matches despite being called up for Northern Ireland.
Smalling is back in match training and must be a possibility against Arsenal; Jones will be back the following week; and Vidic the week after that.
One way or another, United's defensive problems might become quite another headache for the manager: who to drop? Mind you, Rafael will need a break by then and both Smalling and Jones can cover right back.
Scholes & Carrick
The problem isn't either of these, really. Yes, Scholes has lost some pace, but none of his passing ability. Carrick has accepted that Sir Alex wanted him in the holding midfield role, especially while Fletcher was out. Now Darren can revert to that role, but only once a week for the time being.
Some people seem to think that Carrick is supposed to be a defensive midfielder. United don't play that role—it's not in their DNA.
Once upon a time, Carrick and Scholes worked OK, but when they play together now, the midfield is too deep.
Look at the Newcastle match and the start of the Chelsea game on Sunday. United played a high line. It works for keeping pressure on the opposition defence and makes it easier to defend themselves.
It breaks down, however, when United are attacked at pace. Bale did that for Spurs, Kightly did it for Stoke City, Braga did it and Chelsea got back into the game by doing it through the middle and down the flanks.
So there is a great deal of circumstance about the recent problems. Ferguson handled that against Chelsea by replacing Scholes with Cleverley, as he did against Newcastle. There was more energy in midfield, better covering and tackling.
What is clear against some teams is that he needs younger legs, rather than being forced to rely on his 30-something players.
Giggs & Nani
Ryan Giggs is a legend, possibly the best player United have ever had. This, however, may be his last season.
He can still produce moments of magic, such as the last minute goal against Norwich last season, but he is in danger of becoming a liability.
In the first half against Spurs and in the ten minutes or so on Sunday, he was pretty anonymous. He can still produce the occasional burst, but he also gives the ball away far too much.
He has solid defensive skills for an attacking midfield, but that's not too much use when he's stranded upfield.
Which has become Evra's problem. It was acutely obvious in the 6-1 thrashing by City last season. It was also the case against Stoke, for the Kightly goal.
Nani, sadly has become a shadow of his former self. Ever since he demanded a near 50% increase in his wage for a new contract, his star has been waning. He now seems to believe he's not wanted.
Frustrated by Nani's unrealistic demands, Sir Alex allowed Zenit St Petersburg to talk to him. He didn't want to go there. He doesn't want to leave.
But all this has affected his form. He's far less effective. When he plays he also loses the ball far too much.
In summary, Manchester United thrive on possession; they play best in a 4-4-2 formation; they dominate matches by playing a high line. They can sustain that line against counter-attack by having pace in midfield and defence.
The times and the tactics are changing. Football at the highest level is faster paced. It's based on close passing, high technical skill and positional interchange. It relies on winning the ball back as quickly as possible when it's lost. Seven seconds is Brendan Rodgers' mantra.
United conceding goals is not really the fault of any of these players. Sir Alex wants to move on. He's been hampered by another injury crisis in defence. He doesn't want to take risks with young players until United are playing from a position of strength again.
Bill Shankly believed that as long as you scored more goals than the opposition that was OK. By and large United are managing to do that, but they've been living by the skin of their teeth.
At the start of the season Sir Alex swore that United would never lose the title on goal difference again. As soon as he has a full and fit squad we may see these defensive problems melt away.