Man Utd Focus - Defensive frailties an increasing concern for Ferguson ahead of Newcastle clash
Manchester United head into a difficult fixture at St James' Park against Newcastle on Sunday with concern growing over the Old Trafford club's defence. Sir Alex Ferguson's back-line was once a formidable and miserly proposition, but at present is more prone to giving the opposition a head start than forming a strong and reliable platform upon which the rest of the team can build.
This season United have conceded nine league goals in just six games, with the only clean sheet coming against Wigan at Old Trafford. This poor start defensively is indicative of a worsening trend over the last few years, which has seen the reduction of a near infallibility at the back.
In the 2007-08 campaign, which saw United win the Premier League and Champions League double, just 22 league goals were let in at the height of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand's partnership. This was kept to a similar level the following season when 24 goals were conceded, as United won a third successive league title and reached the Champions League final.
United's defensive instability can be traced back to the 2009-10 season, which saw Patrice Evra as the only defender to appear in more than 30 league games. However, the rise in goals against was not too steep at 28, yet the league title was lost to Chelsea by a single point. Next time round however United regained the championship but did so with just 80 points, conceding 37 goals in the process. Last season saw 33 conceded, and the title of course was lost on goal difference.
Ferguson's side have gone behind in six of their nine games so far this season, and have gone on to turn around four of those fixtures to victories. This trend cannot continue, however, especially as United head into clashes against better opposition in the league and on the continent.
Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville pointed out the poor performances of United's full-backs in the defeat to Tottenham last Saturday, highlighting the contribution of Rafael da Silva and Evra to the downfall of the home team. This is perhaps the crux of the matter when it comes to the struggles at the back, despite the constant injuries that are being suffered at centre-half. Rio Ferdinand remains a top defender, whilst Jonny Evans is also an accomplished player.
Rafael has at times impressed during what has been a test of his first team credentials thanks to a complete lack of cover at right-back. However his positional play must improve, along with his discipline in getting back alongside his centre-backs. Evra meanwhile, despite being an excellent servant at Old Trafford, is not the player he once was, and faces a battle to retain his place in the side ahead of new recruit Alexander Büttner.
Against Newcastle on Sunday, the full-backs will need to be on good form to help the likely pairing of Ferdinand and Evans deal with the threat of Demba Ba and Papiss Cissé. The Senegalese duo possess the ability to pull their centre-backs around, which coupled with the pace of Hatem Ben Arfa could prove a threat that is the undoing of the visitors.
A colloquy of sorts must be held between Ferguson and his backroom staff to figure out if the current crop of defenders is up to the task of restoring United's supremacy at the back. The numbers and talent are present, if at the moment mainly injured, but a consistency and upward turn in performance levels must be found to remedy the issue.
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