Rio's Return to top form has galvanised United's defence
Manchester United are on the verge on securing their 13th Premier League title with a 15-point advantage over their City rivals with only nine games remaining.
It has been an interesting if not a vintage march to the title and one which of late has been quite un-United like.
In the early autumn days of the season United were scoring freely and, at times, were having to as goals were leaking in at regular intervals past their less-than-secure defence.
No change there then!
Robin van Persie was regularly the saviour with late goals as the Reds seemed to be going out of their way to let teams, who had often been outplayed, back into the game through slack marking and loose play in midfield and at the back.
Splitting the season into roughly six-match sections, we find that in the first six league matches United conceded nine goals whilst netting 14.
This pattern continued up to Christmas with the next two blocks of six matches resulting in a remarkably consistent ratio of eight goals conceded and 15 scored in both sets.
Even in the next six games after Christmas the trend was very similar with six goals conceded, and yet again, 15 goals scored.
Crucially, perhaps, the most recent five games have seen United tighten up defensively and they haven’t conceded a single goal in this period whilst reducing their goals tally to 10.
They have suddenly become the Arsenal of the George Graham era: mean at the back and capable of winning ugly.
On December 5 in the Sun newspaper, Sir Alex Ferguson compared his team's defending with cartoon characters.
Today, on the Man United website, Chris Smalling described the dramatic transformation that the statistics above bear out.
So what has brought about this change in the manner of victory?
There are several explanations.
Perhaps the most obvious answer is the return to form and fitness of several defenders who suffered injuries earlier in the season.
Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Jonny Evans, Smalling, Patrice Evra and Phil Jones, amongst others, all suffered knocks in the first part of the season.
With the exception of Jones, who has recently picked up another niggle, Ferguson now has the luxury of leaving players like Vidic on the bench and rotating his other defenders to keep them fresh.
Ferdinand in particular, with his chronic back problem, has benefited enormously from regular periods of respite and his form has improved dramatically, earning him a recall to the England squad.
David de Gea has blossomed after a shaky start and, although he still has to work on dealing with crosses, he has proved himself unrivalled as a shot-stopper and has, on more than one occasion, bailed United out with spectacular saves.
Another important aspect is how the team are now defending as a complete unit from front to back.
Van Persie regularly clears United’s lines with headers from corners and Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney are not averse to chasing back and doing the "dirty stuff" for the cause.
Ironically, the improvement at the back has coincided with a mini drought in goal-scoring terms from the previously prolific van Persie, who hasn’t scored for seven matches and has only bagged one in the past 13.
United’s recent obdurate miserliness in defence has pleasingly coincided with their main rivals’ deterioration in this respect.
The gap has grown as points have been squandered by Manchester City in particular against opponents they would normally be expected to crush.
It is now unquestionably United’s title to lose.
Total implosion is not, of course, impossible but with their newfound defensive resilience allied to City’s inability to reach the heights of last season, you feel the title is as good as secured.
Maybe United’s new motto should be “defence is the best form of attack.”