Manchester United have always built their success on strong defensive units with Sir Alex always demanding strong disciplined performances from his team. Although the Red Devils have always played an expansive brand of football, the defensive aspect of the game has never been neglected at Old Trafford. The successes of all Fergie’s teams have been based on having a settled back four as is the case with most champion sides across generations.
Ferguson, like he has done with his team, has gradually evolved the back four, never making wholesale changes from one season to another. The early league success had been built on the solid foundation of Parker, Bruce, Paliister and Irwin as the team’s back four and Peter Schmeichel as the custodian. Neville took upon the mantle from Parker in 1995 while David May cemented his place alongside Pallister an year later as Bruce departed to Birmingham. While Irwin and Neville continued to impress in the full-backs’ role, Pallister and May were replaced by Stam and Berg with Ronny Johnsen as an able back-up in the squad as the Red Devils went on to achieve the unprecedented treble in 1999 and continued their domestic success by winning a hat-trick of league titles.
However, following the 2000-01 season, United won just one title in five seasons and it was no coincidence that this ‘failure’ was due to an unsettled United back-four. Only Neville and Ferdinand were certainties in Fergie’s line-ups as various combinations were tried by the great Scot during that time. All that changed before the 2006-07 season as Sir Alex signed Vidic and Evra and the Old Trafford outfit finally had a settled defensive unit. The following years mirrored the change as the team had a trophy laden five years which included four league titles and a Champions League triumph as well.
But since the beginning of last season, Ferguson has hardly been able to pick his best back-line for various reasons. Constant injuries to his defensive personnel have left him with bare bones on various occasions as the likes of Carrick, Fletcher and even Berbatov (once in the Carling Cup) had to be deployed in central defence. The fateful day against Blackburn at Old Trafford last season, which arguably lost United the title, saw Carrick and Valencia in defence as the home side conceded three sloppy goals to the team at the rock bottom of the table. At the start of this season, United have already had three different back-fours and two goal-keepers playing in the three league games with Carrick playing at center back in two of those matches. The Red Devils have already conceded five goals and arguably, all of them could and probably should have been avoided.
The injuries have certainly not helped Ferguson’s cause but can the manager blame all the defensive problems on bad luck? While Vidic, who has been a constant rock for his team for the past so many seasons, suffered an unfortunate injury that ruled him out for almost the whole of last season, can the others be trusted to fill-in despite not having a great track record of lasting the whole season.
Rio Ferdinand has become more and more injury prone by the day. If anything, Sir Alex must consider himself to be lucky that the former Leeds man was able to play on such a regular basis during the last few months of last season. Chris Smalling has also had an injury plagued career so far and despite all the injury problems United have had in the past couple of years, Smalling has made just 63 appearances in the past 2 seasons. This figure is even more demoralizing if one considers that the former Fulham man can and has filled in as a right back to go along with his natural central defensive role. Phil Jones has also had his fair share of injury problems during his time at Blackburn Rovers and although he did play in 41 games for United last season, it will not be until late October before he kicks a ball for the Red Devils this season. Also, Jones’ credentials as a top central defender are far from encouraging and hardly make him an able back-up for the likes of Ferdinand and Vidic.
Apart from having injury prone players, what has been most surprising to see that the manager has not tried to build a first choice back-four. As indicated above, Sir Alex has always evolved the back four, but since Vidic and Evra, none of the new arrivals has been able to cement his place in the line-up as a first choice defender.
The right-back position has been up for grabs ever since Gary Neville started to have his injury problems during the fag end of his career. Although the da Silva brothers have promised to grab the place by the proverbial scruff of the neck from time to time, none of them have made the spot their own. Yet, Fergie has persisted with the twins (Fabio has left only this season) and even tried to cover that position by having three different players in the squad – two of whom are central defenders by trade. Even Antonio Valencia has been played ahead of Rafael in some games which shows the manager’s confidence, rather the lack of it, in the Brazilian.
The left-back position has also had just one owner for the past few seasons. Patrice Evra was once considered one of the best left-backs in the world, but his form has undoubtedly dipped for the past season or so. This extraordinary dip in form can be marked down to lack of competition in the squad and although the manager has signed a cover for him in Alexander Buttner (after the failure to sign Baines from Everton), that should have been done at least a season ago for two reasons. Firstly, Evra would not have been able to get away with mediocre performances week-in, week-out and secondly, the player signed would have gained valuable experience and might have even displaced Evra in the pecking order.
The central defenders’ places are well covered in terms of number of players available in the squad to take up that role, but none of those back-ups have a commanding presence that should be possessed by a United center back, not for now at least. Jonny Evans has done well in patches but he is also yet to prove his worth as a long-term prospect as a United center-back. Smalling and Jones have shown promise and are bound to improve with age and experience but only time will tell whether they are able to fill the huge boots of the likes of Vidic and Ferdinand.
Also, with all the injury problems the manager had to deal with during the past season or so, he might be secretly regretting his decision to sell John O’ Shea to Sunderland before the beginning of last season. The Irishman always proved to be an able back-up for every position in the back line and even played as a central midfielder when required. O’ Shea, despite being a back-up option only, averaged close to 40 games a season during his time at Old Trafford and played 32 games during his last season (2010-11) at United – only one less than Chris Smalling and three more than Rio Ferdinand.
One more thing which is part of the defensive problem is the goalkeeping situation. Edwin van Der Sar’s retirement at the end of 2010-11 season forced the manager to sign David De Gea from Athletico Madrid. The young Spaniard has been error prone during his stay at Old Trafford and the club is yet to decide between De Gea and Lindegaard as their first choice keeper. Nonetheless, both keepers are young and promising and it is only fair to say that United’s goalkeeping future is in safe hands.
All in all, there is no doubt that the team has been definitely unlucky in terms of injuries to their defenders and they should be praised for overcoming the adversity and almost winning the league title last season. However, the manager has to take some responsibilities for the problems that the club has faced far too often during the last two seasons. Nonetheless, Sir Alex, with his vision for the future, has always seen what others can’t and maybe he has traded in for a bright future, at the expense of the present.