United’s problems will not go away
Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson rued what he called an unfortunate 3-2 defeat by Tottenham, United’s first to the North London side at Old Trafford since 1989, but the truth is that you can only ride your luck for so long.
Fortuitous wins against Southampton, Fulham, Galatasaray in their Champions League opener and especially at Liverpool, coupled with the opening day defeat at Everton, should have warned Ferguson that United’s relatively good start to the season belied their obvious weaknesses so effectively exposed by Spurs.
It is not the first time that starting with both veterans Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs backfired. While the former is still able to supply long crossfield passes with stunningly consistent accuracy, the latter appears to be running through sand in what could be the final season of a glittering and trophy-laden career.
For all his class and brilliance down the years, Giggs will turn 39 in two months’ time and being substituted at halftime to make way for Wayne Rooney was a timely reminder that having shrugged off the issue for quite some time, the Welshman nowadays looks every bit his age.
Ferguson has invested some time, money and effort to find adequate replacements for his two longest serving stalwarts but none of the new recruits have quite managed to fill the void.
The latest, Shinji Kagawa, designated to be the kind of attacking midfielder that Scholes was in his hey-day, has shown some potential but is still a far cry from the pack leader United are craving for in midfield, which keeps being reshuffled and modified to accommodate the strikers and protect the back four at the same time.
Robin van Persie has made a blistering start to his United career but it remains to be seen how he will gel with Rooney, who might be forced to play in a deeper role behind the prolific Dutchman.
The real problem for Ferguson, however, is United’s defence which is leaking goals at an alarmingly consistent rate even against mediocre opposition.
With Chris Smalling and Phil Jones sidelined through long-term injuries, Ferguson has had to rely on Jonny Evans, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic to hold the fort in front of either goalkeeper, David de Gea and Anders Lindegaard, neither of whom has established himself as first choice.
Now that Vidic is out again with a recurring knee injury, which will inevitably cast doubts over his future, the responsibility of marshalling the back four rests on the ageing Ferdinand, whose loss of pace and agility has been obvious for a while but was rarely exposed as cruelly as against Tottenham’s swift counter-attacking. Any notion of an England recall is nonsense at the moment.
It is hardly surprising he could get nowhere near Gareth Bale, one of the Premier League’s best sprinters, for Tottenham’s second goal, but rivals at home and in Europe will be buoyed by what they saw and encouraged to exploit the glaring chink in United’s weary-looking defensive armour.
Ferguson knows that his team is only as strong as their weakest link against top level opposition and while he is unlikely to add a major signing to his squad during the January transfer window, his search for a tried and tested defender or two to shore up the leaks will in all likelihood continue next summer.
With his current options at hand, United might struggle to win their 20th league title and look only a very distant bet to reach the 2013 Champions League final at Wembley, where they were so comprehensively beaten by Barcelona last year.