By Chris Myson
A 1-1 draw away from home against Swansea City to secure a four-point lead over your nearest rivals at the top of the Premier League over Christmas is certainly not a disastrous afternoon’s work.
On Sunday, Manchester United actually produced a decent performance and should probably consider themselves unfortunate not to have picked up all three points from the Liberty Stadium.
A lively start culminated in Patrice Evra heading them into a first-half lead. In the second period, United controlled possession and twice hit the woodwork through Robin van Persie and Michael Carrick, while some excellent Swansea blocks denied them other opportunities to find a winner.
But it is the poor defensive play they produced, this time during a spell after going in front, which remains most concerning for United fans and the issue that still leaves a hint of doubt over whether they will regain the Premier League title this season.
It was Evra who failed to cut inside and mark Jonathan De Guzman, who was allowed too much space to fire in a shot on goal. When David de Gea parried, Michu reacted quicker than the static away defence to pounce and hit home an equaliser.
It could have been more too; United allowed a number of opportunities in the first half and failed to exert control over proceedings despite having taken the lead.
De Gea was far too busy for a side that should have been looking to consolidate a one-goal advantage and start to inflict a stranglehold on the match.
This was far from the worst defensive performance of United’s season and they did improve after the interval, but the lapses at the back have been going on all year and still require significant work as the big games beckon later in the campaign.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s side have conceded 25 goals in 18 league matches. For some context, that is more than struggling Sunderland, while only Norwich City have allowed more goals to be scored against them out of all the sides in the top 12 places.
Away from home in the league, United have already conceded 15 times, which is amazingly more than they let in on their travels throughout the whole of last season, when they ultimately lost out on the title to Manchester City.
With only one away clean sheet so far this season, it was perhaps naïve for some fans to believe the returning Nemanja Vidic would instantly paper over the cracks and solve all those problems.
Unquestionably, the Serbian’s return is a massive boost and he put in what was, for the most part, a solid performance against Swansea. However, it will still take him time to reach full fitness and the defensive issues have been far deeper than just having a key defender injured long-term.
United’s problems at the back and inability to keep the opposition out has become their biggest obstacle to a successful challenge for the title, even beyond their long-held requirement for stronger central midfield options.
Manchester City’s defence has been far stronger and the grinding 1-0 victory over Reading is the type of win that, as United know so well, can win you titles.
The arrival of Robin van Persie this summer has been a massive boost to Sir Alex’s striking options and with the Dutchman, Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck there is no shortage of firepower at the club.
But as we saw with an ineffective display by Rooney in Wales, the star forwards cannot continuously be relied upon to get the team out of a hole. There are some games when things will not go for you in front of goal, when holding out for a 1-0 win is priceless.
Eventually – like it did in this game – defensive mistakes will catch up with United, which is why they cannot sit too comfortably on their four-point lead.
That strong advantage still makes them favourites to regain their title, but with key games lying ahead in the New Year and the massive Champions League tie against Real Madrid, the defensive problems are the biggest issue United need to solve.
If United can improve that side of their game and with the captain now playing again, it may not be too long before they get back on the trophy-trail.
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