The Tale Of A Once-Brilliant Defence
Manchester United lost another big game and it is very worrying now: we simply seem to lack the hunger, we are not up to the fight. We are the new Arsenal, if you like.
We lost at the Gooners who showed resilience and character and some quality as well. But don't expect me to sing praises of them because, unfortunately, they didn't have to produce anything special in attack to break down our woeful defence.
It is a really sad story as this back four was undoubtedly the best in Europe last season. Conceded only 22 goals in the league which is a remarkable achievement in itself - but the really big thing was the Champions League where United let in only 2 goals in 7 games during the knockout stages. Astonishing. But this season they are nowhere near to this level.
Arsenal's delivery from the wide areas were very good but our marking was shocking. I mean they played with a lone striker and he was allowed two free headers within the space of 5 minutes during the opening exchanges. How our defenders failed to spot Bendtner, I have no idea.
But it looked like that we're riding Arsenal's early wave and beginning to assert ourselves with the traditional 4-4-2 formation, Carrick and Anderson flanked by Ronaldo and Park in midfield with Rooney and Berbatov playing up front. Carrick could have scored as early as the second minute then Rooney spurned an absolutely golden opportunity to give us the lead after magical build-up play by Anderson, Berbatov and Ronaldo.
All the promise, however, came to nothing as Arsenal took the lead with a comical goal. Berbatov headed out a corner straight to Nasri who rifled in a shot low. The ball got a deflection off Gary Neville, wrongfooted Edwin van der Sar and found the net. A lucky goal but our defending invited trouble.
Still, those who'll say Arsenal played us off the park could not be more wrong. Though we were in danger of being embarassed at the back where Rio, Vida, Evra and especially Gary did not seem to know what they were doing we were still very threatening in attack. Clichy almost equalised for us but he flicked a header just wide after a Ronaldo-freekick - would have been a much-needed break for United but it never materialised.
Despite our attacking threat, the danger signs were there. We did not really seem to be eager to fight for 50/50 balls, our players backed off too often, they were not willing to chase down balls, to harass Arsenal on the ball.
And it resulted in an embarassing goal at the start of the second half. It was even worse than those we conceded at Anfield. Quite simply, the Gooners passed the ball around for two whole minutes and no United player made even a token effort to close them down or trying to tackle any of them. And then only two intelligent passes were required to carve us open thanks to the comedy positioning of Vidic. Nasri, of course, hammered the ball home with an excellent finish.
Luck, of course, wasn't on our side either. Webb failed to award a penalty for a Clichy handball in the first half and then when we went 2-0 down we could have got back into the game almost immediately. Berbatov's cross landed neatly in front of Ronaldo who sidefooted it just wide of the far post from close range.
And even the two-goal lead did not look unsurmountable as, I repeat, we were at least threatening in attack. Then Fergie went and blew our chances with a baffling substitution. He hauled off the lively Anderson and introduced Giggs - as a result, predictably, we totally lost our shape and the little drive and energy we had. All this after an encouraging first sub: Rafael on for Gary Neville who is simply not up to the task any more it seems.
With Giggs on we lost all chances. And then Fergie delivered the fatal blow: Tevez on for Rooney. Rooney, for heaven's sake, who at least had chances. United's attacking completely fell apart as well as the defending and it was a minor miracle that we almost came back into the game: Rafael's sublime goal and six minutes of stoppage time gave us the chance to get something.
We didn't, however, because, I must repeat myself, we weren't really up to it. WE were afraid to 'get stuck in', to use a quite common phrase... why is that, I don't know. Maybe simply battle fatigue.
And that could be what plagues the defence but it is clear that something needs to be done and quickly. Every team can score against us easily and this was not the case last season. Rio and Vidic must wake up and in the absence of Brown it looks like that Rafael is by far the best option we have.
Don't get me wrong: we still have a brilliant squad with world-class players. But they need to wake up and start to fight for their title. These lame surrenders away from home simply won't do. This is not good enough from the European Champions and Fergie has the responsibility of getting it across to them.