Some say it's age, some say it's inability. Whatever it is Manchester United's defense has been awful this season. The team has struggled to win away from home and is developing a bad habit for conceding leads.
In their first three away matches this season United scored seven goals, a very impressive number. What follows is a very unimpressive number, in those three away matches, United have conceded seven goals.
United conceded a late equalizer to Fulham, after taking a late lead. A few weeks later against Everton at Goodison Park, when United looked to comfortably have the match in the bag, they conceded two injury time goals to Everton to only walk away with a point. During their trip to the Reebok Stadium in Bolton, a place where United have had great success nonetheless, United had to twice come from behind just to salvage a point.
After an awful start to the campaign on defense, United have started to find their way defensively. Here is a look at some of their early season problems, and how Sir Alex Ferguson has fixed them.
There is no doubting what Gary Neville has done for the club and what he means to the club. As an athlete, it is very hard for someone to let go when they think they can still help out. Unfortunately for Gary, the biggest help he can provide would be to step away from the team.
Neville missed the 2008 Premier League and Champions League campaign due to injury, he made just one brief 20 minute Champions League appearance that season. Since coming back he has not been the same.
Neville has been slow and wingers with pace have consistently been flying by him. In a November 2008 match against Arsenal, Samir Nasri ran freely down the left side against Neville, scoring two goals. Sir Alex Ferguson even admitted after the match that the game changed when he removed Neville for 18 year old Rafael Da Silva. Had Rafael played the whole game, who knows what Nasri would have done.
Neville continues to push up into the attacking third of the field to try to provide crosses. While he does occasionally provide a great cross, Neville lacks the pace to get back and prevent a counter attack. While many older players adapt their games to their declining abilities, Neville continues to push up, and get caught out at the back. While he has only played in one Premier League match this season, he has already been caught out, as his lack of pace getting back, was a contributing factor to Everton's equalizing goal late in injury time.
This one is going to sting a little for Manchester United fans. After the double winning season in 2008 Manchester United let defender Gerrard Pique return to Barcelona for just 6 million pounds. Since returning to Barcelona, Pique has been the starting central defender on a team that won La Liga, the Champions League, the FIFA club World Cup, 6 trophies in the calendar year of 2009 alone, as well as the starting central defender on a team that won the UEFA European Championships and the Fifa World Cup, with Spain. Not a bad move for Pique who has emerged as a world class defender.
The logic behind the move was simple, Pique was our third defender behind the set in stone pair of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. For 6 million pounds we could let him go be the third defender at Barcelona, after all we have this young kid Jonny Evans coming up through the ranks.
While Pique has flourished at Barcelona, Evans has struggled at United. It has not been for lack of opportunities either. Since the start of the 2008/09 campaign United have been hammered by injuries, most often Rio Ferdinand. Evans has had several opportunities for first team football alongside both Vidic and Ferdinand.
While Evans has gotten much better during his three years of receiving regular first team chances, with the high standards of Manchester United he has not progressed enough. Evans had a chance to really solidify a place in the back four for United. Too many times however, throughout his three years at United, and including this year, Evans has been caught out of position, or not closing in on strikers fast enough leading to goals.
With Evans getting more and more time on the pitch, these may no longer be mistakes due to lack of experience, but rather due to lack of ability.
In what was perhaps Gary Neville's best move this season, Neville agreed to give up the captains armband for United. Sir Alex Ferguson said he wanted the captain to be a player who appears in the team consistently. Over the last few years, neither Neviile, Rio Ferdinand, or Ryan Giggs have been consistently in the team enough to merit getting the armband. That left just Vidic, Patrice Evra, and Wayne Rooney as the only players who are usually in the team week in and week out.
With Patrice Evra's awful display of being a captain for France at the World Cup fresh in everyones mind, as well as Rooney's recent off the field troubles, that really only left Vidic for Fergie to choose.
Has this been the right move? United's defense, which has only started to look reasonable this past week, was in shambles for the first month of the season. With Vidic leading the charge United have already dropped 8 points on the road this season, and have failed to pick up a win. Even worse, after getting out to a 2-0 lead in the big derby against Liverpool, United's defense broke down again and allowed Liverpool to equalize, United were only bailed out by the hat trick from Dimitar Berbatov.
While Vidic has worn the arm-band before, and Gary Neville continues to lead the team off the pitch, was this the best move for United. They have been rotating the captains to the same three players as long as one of them is on the pitch for the past four years. During that time they won the Premier League three times, the Champions League, made another Champions League Final appearance, and came within 1 point, and two blown Chelsea offsides calls from winning a fourth straight Premier League title. Why fix something that isn't broken?
As the season has progressed Vidic has become a rock defensively and has become a great leader. While this move started slow, it has proven to be a great move by Sir Alex.
Last season Patrice Evra was the biggest constant in the Manchester United team. During every Premier League and Champions League contest you knew his name was going to appear at the left back spot. When United had nine first team defenders injured, Evra was the only one to remain fit, and Sir Alex considered using him as a central defender.
Since coming to United Patrice Evra has been dazzling fans on the left side. He makes sparkling runs up the field all the way into the opponents penalty area. His attacking abilities provide United with another attacking threat down the left side. Even more important, his pace allows him to keep up with everyone, right wingers efforts are constantly thwarted by Evra. By last season, many people agreed that it was between Evra and Chelsea left back Ashley Cole for the title of "best left back in the world."
After one dreadful World Cup, it seems to be having a hangover effect for Evra. He is still making runs down the left side, but his passing and crossing has not been as good. More importantly, on the defensive front, it seems that Evra has all of a sudden become to short to ever get his head on the ball. Lack of height is nothing new to Evra, but he used to have other ways of making up for it that it was rarely a problem. Now it seems that Evra is being exposed more and more at the back, so much so that Fergie chose to leave him out of the Starting XI during United's trip to Sunderland.
After a slow start to the season, Evra seems to be re-discovering his pre-World Cup form. That is great news for United fans.
In 2007/08 Wes Brown was the first choice right back for Manchester United. Early in the 2008/09 season, he suffered an injury that would keep him out most of the season. He also battled through injuries last season, which again forced him to watch much of the season from that trainers table.
But Wes Brown is back and fit now, so why is he not playing? There are many who consider Brown to be one of the best defenders in the world at actually defending, it's the other parts of Brown's game that he struggles in. Brown has been fit this season but has only seen first team action against Rangers in the Champions League, and in the Carling Cup against Scunthorpe United.
With Rio Ferdinand out injured, and United's defense still conceding goals, why not put Brown in the middle with Vidic when Ferdinand can't play. Brown has proven his value as a right back, but he is a natural central defender. He proved he can compete there when he played the position very well during the two legs of United's semi-final Champions League tie with Barcelona in 2008.
Brown has started to play more regularly. When getting the chance to play in the middle in the absence of Rio Ferdinand he has done well, and much better then Evans. However when being displayed on the right side Brown has struggled, and has yet to find his 2008 form that did him so well as a right back.
On paper, it looks the same. Van Der Sar in goal, Evra on the left, Vidic and Ferdinand in the middle, and a combination of either Rafael, Gary Neville, or John O' Shea on the right. While the only constant during the record run of 14 straight clean sheets was Nemanja Vidic, this was more or less what the back four looked like for most of the run.
The game isn't played on paper though, and that record run was two years ago. These players are all two years older now. In the case of Rafael, this is a good thing. For everyone else, it is not. Van Der Sar is fast approaching his 40th birthday. Neville and Ferdinand are both in their 30's, and Ferdinand's body is beginning to break down.
The decline of pace is obvious with age. Vidic has always had trouble dealing with strikers with pace. Evra and Rafael are the only two that are not effected by Pace. Besides the decline of pace though, no one seems to be questioning if getting older may be causing these players to grow more tired more quickly. As the players get older it is possible that they cannot handle playing a full 90 minutes twice a week. This is a question that no one seems to be asking.
United simply cannot continue to rely on the same defenders that they have for the past few sesaons. They need to begin integrating new ones in and finding reliable ones. Bringing in Chris Smalling was a good move, but he has had very few chances to prove himself. Both Rafael and Fabio should be given more chances to play, not just to solidify their spots at the back, but to provide more rest to the other defenders. Playing one of them on the right, could allow Wes Brown or John O' Shea to move into the middle and provide a rest for either Ferdinand or Vidic.
When a household appliance breaks, you fix it. If you can't fix it yourself, you call someone to do it for you. Shouldn't this concept apply to professional sports?
If the players that you have playing defense are not defending, shouldn't all of your options be explored? If you try out every single defender on the team and you find that even though you are still conceding goals but these are truly your best four defenders then you are out of luck. This can easily happen to a small club, but not to Manchester United.
If your back four that consists of O' Shea, Vidic, Evans, and Evra is constantly conceding goals on the road then it should be changed. I'm not talking about making one simple move John O' Shea to defensive midfield and let Gary Neville play on the right, a plan that failed miserably at Everton. I'm talking explore every possible combination.
Let Wes Brown be given a chance to prove himself along side Nemanja Vidic. Even though Rio Ferdinand is back now, the man is a walking injury liability. Let Brown and Chris Smalling fight for a spot there. Give Rafael and Fabio a chance to show what they could do on the outside.
Sticking with the same aging back line with Jonny Evans constantly being caught out in the middle is not going to solve United's defensive problems.
Edwin Van Der Sar is getting old. Manchester United have been looking for a successor for years. They have been linked with rumors to top goal keepers every summer for a few years now, but nothing has come of it.
Sir Alex Ferguson has claimed that he wants to find a successor from within. Clearly this is just another ploy to mask the fact that the Glazers are not providing him with any money. United's internal successors have not proven to amount to anything. Tomasz Kuszczak and Ben Foster were both given ample opportunities to prove themselves as capable fill ins to Van Der Sar. However each and every time, when Van Der Sar would return from injury he would prove he was the best goal keeper on United.
There is no question Van Der Sar is the best keeper United has. The problem is Van Der Sar has become just a shadow of his old self. Van Der Sar is becoming old very fast. Quickly approaching his 40th birthday, Van Der Sar's time as a top flight goal keeper is very limited.
One of Van Der Sar's biggest gaffs came in the home fixture against West Bromwich Albion. Van Der Sar went to catch a seemingly harmless cross, but he dropped it behind him allowing West Brom to equalize, and United would drop the points at home.
This is unacceptable for United, Tim Howard was shipped off to Everton because of a mistake that probably wasn't even as bad as this one. At a time like this, many United fans may be wishing Howard was still around to be the #1 goalkeeper.
United cannot ignore this glaring problem. Kuszczak is not good enough to be the number one goal keeper for an entire season, and it looks as if Van Der Sar will not hold up until next season. United need to have their plans on who they should target this summer to bring in to be their number one. They may even want to start thinking about bringing a keeper in this January.
I know there has already been an entire slide devoted to how Evans just hasn't progressed, but now he actually needs to be sold.
With the return of Rio Ferdinand Evan's first team appearances have been limited, thank god. Evan's latest appearance came in a Carling Cup match against Wolves. Once again Evans was at fault for a potential damaging goal when his poor defending on Kevin Foley allowed Foley to equalize for Wolves late in the game.
If it weren't for the heroics of Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez, United could have had a lot more problems on their hands, and a lot more questions to answer.
Again, it must be restated that we allowed Barcelona to take back Gerrard Pique for a mere 6 million pounds. In his time at Barcelona Pique has evolved into a world class defender. Again, the reason for doing this was because Pique was our third central defender, and we assumed that Evans could handle the responsibilities of being the third central defender.
Everytime Evan's makes another mistake it makes me cringe, knowing that we let Pique go to give him a chance. In terms of third defenders, Evans has gotten more opportunities then most, due to the chronic injury problems of Rio Ferdinand, and Vidic seems to get hurt whenever Ferdinand is fit.
Evans has been given more then enough opportunities to prove his worth, and unfortunately he has proven that he is not getting any better. The truth is, United could possibly get 6 million pounds from a weaker Premier League team for Evans. If you sold Pique for 6 million, then surely you would have to jump at getting Evans for 6 million.
It is time to just cut Evans loose. His mistakes continue to kill the team. Give his spot to Chris Smalling, if Smalling makes the same mistakes, at least he is younger and has the time to learn and improve from them.
This is something that Sir Alex Ferguson has started to do very well. For starters, even though he is old and his body continues to break down on him, Rio Ferdinand is very important to this defense.
Since returning to the first team, Ferdinand has helped United's defense get back on track. There are still breakdowns with the defense, but those are starting to become fewer and farther between.
The good news is, United seems to have found a back four that are more solid then any other combination they have. When the back four consists of Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand, and Evra, United's defense has been much better then when it features anyone else.
In previous years, even when Rafael was playing well, Fergie would still yank him around and give starts to John O' Shea and Gary Neville, despite the great form of Rafael, or Rafael proving that he was better then the two.
But now Fergie is finally choosing Rafael consistently and letting the kid play through his mistakes. When Rafael is a member of the back four, United are keeping clean sheets. When they replace him with anyone including Wes Brown, we have seen that problems begin to happen.
This back four also gives United some pace down the sides. Something that O' Shea, Neville, and Brown can't provide. Rafael's speed allows him to recover from mistakes he makes up the field.
While Fergie is staying consistent with his defensive selections, perhaps the move that has helped the defense the most has been about who Fergie isn't picking. Gary Neville has not found himself in the starting XI for a while, and it looks like United have been the big benefiters from that.