What Is Manchester United's Greatest Weakness This Season?

Simon Edmonds@@Eddie_EdmondsCorrespondent IJanuary 18, 2013

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 26:  Danny Simpson of Newcastle United is tackled by Patrice Evra of Manchester United during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Newcastle United at Old Trafford December 26, 2012 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

It seems a daft question to ask when you look at the results that the Red Devils have been churning out this season. 4-3, 3-2's and several 2-1's indicate a remarkable proficiency to always give just that little bit extra than their opponents, despite being sloppy at the back.

The likes of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez have helped United to go on a phenomenal run at the start of this 2012-13 league campaign, which has seen them win 18 of their 22 fixtures to date.

And despite that more than impressive record in the league—and also despite the fact that United have already netted a whopping 56 goals in that period—Sir Alex's men find themselves superior to closest rivals Manchester City by only three strikes in regards to goal difference (a team that have scored 10 less goals than United have).

Perhaps most worryingly of all for the United defence is the fact that they have conceded 29 goals in those 22 . Any other season this type of defending would genuinely see United struggling to battle for a place in the top three, and yet thanks to the United attack the tablecloth army finds itself seven points clear at the top of the pile.

But what precisely is the cause of this sudden demise in Manchester United's defensive line, which has made them seemingly unable to consistently keep clean sheets?

The answer is a combination of unpreventable and (more importantly) an extremely attack minded pair of wing-backs.

Starting first on the injury front: Manchester United came into this season with Nemanja Vidic, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones all suffering from relatively serious ailments that would go on to keep them out of action for the first third of the campaign.

Whatever your opinion of these players is, one thing is for certain: as is evident from last season Fergie considers all of them to be potential first team regulars.

With Vidic this goes without saying, and it was perhaps his presence (or lack thereof) that was so costly at the start of the year for the Red Devils. Even as the Serbian begins to slowly enter the twilight of his his footballing knowledge and ability has barely dwindled and would be a precious commodity for any Premier League back four.

True, his pace has drastically slowed in recent years, and perhaps he isn't quite the player he once was. But I defy you to find me any Premier League striker who isn't just that little bit intimidated when he sees Vidic's name on the opposing team sheet come match day.

Jones and Smalling were both impressive in periods last season, and undoubtedly have a very bright future ahead of them. Even since their return to the side the goals have been leaked far less regularly by the men in red, and I am positive that this is a direct result of their, and Vidic's influence on proceedings. 

However, what should alarm United fans more is their pair of roaming wing-backs who at times look like they are playing a game of "positional chicken" with each other. By that I mean to say it's almost as if Rafael and Evra are competing to see which one can get the furthest forward in an attack before having to desperately sprint back and cover.

Now don't get me wrong—Rafael has had a terrific start to the season and has proven many followers of the beautiful game (including myself) wrong when it comes to his overall standard of football. He is good enough to be a United player. But unfortunately, like most Brazilian wing-backs, he has a tendency to try a touch of the sublime at times when the best option would be a simple lay-off to a central midfielder.

Admittedly, the young man is undoubtedly talented on the offence, and as such it's probably no shock that United are bagging so many goals, when their RB is just as good as their RW when it comes to running at players, crossing the ball and scoring goals.

Rafael is far and away the less guilty party of the two wing-backs. His mistakes do happen—but rarely, and usually far less damagingly than his team-mate on the left hand side.

Patrice Evra had a brilliant game against Liverpool, and still even at age 31 has a turn of pace that leaves most other Premier League players in his wake. But this season he has not been the man we saw playing world class football in those eleven consecutive clean sheets back in 2009.

His positional awareness seems to have gone completely out of the window, and to say that he is prone to giving the ball away in dangerous situations would be an understatement.

Like Rafael, Patrice has been bombing forward for attacks throughout most of this years campaign. This used to work brilliantly, but with his abilities dwindling both on the attack and in defence, this has been extremely costly for England's most successful team.

The signing and more than impressive debut of Alexander Büttner has meant that thankfully for United supporters, their is hope for the left-back position once Fergie eventually deems Evra not to fit to play first team football any more (which could be sooner than many fans think).

But for now, Evra will remain the weak point of a United team which has surprised everyone so far this season. After that lacklustre opening day defeat away at Everton, not many people would have expected the Red Devils to be seven points clear with less than half the season to go.

But, here we are, and if United can do what they always seem to, and finish the year stronger than they started it, then we may be looking at a 20th title for the Reds. 

However, for that to be a guarantee, Patrice Evra will have to step up his game considerably.

Follow me on Twitter: @Eddie_Edmonds


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