Most of the news surrounding Manchester United this week deals with Gary Neville and the comments he made questioning goalkeeper David De Gea’s ability or lack thereof following the Spaniard’s failed clearance that led to the decisive and equalizing goal from Clint Dempsey at White Hart Lane last weekend. It seems like much of United’s defensive problems are put squarely on the (feeble?) shoulders of De Gea and in my view, such allegations are just flat out misplaced. Is De Gea at least partly culpable for the 1-1 result? Sure, but he has done enough for me to believe his upside (it is imperative we remember his age and stage in which he plays on) far outweighs his current, correctable weaknesses.
The fact of the matter is that United have conceded 43 goals in all competitions this season, 30 in the Premier League alone. How many of those is DeGea solely responsible for? I’d venture to guess less than 10 percent. These are staggering numbers when you consider that over a sample size of the last 10 Premier League seasons, United’s largest goals against total was 37 (2010-11). The club is currently on pace to concede 50 goals in the league this season, outside of Newcastle last year, you have to drop to ninth place to get to the next team that conceded such a total. As a huge United fan with a flair for reality, I really think De Gea has become the easiest scapegoat for the fans and the media as to why United can’t get on a run of consistently stout defensive performances. What do I think is really to blame for United’s defensive struggles? A combination of three distinct yet intertwined factors.
A Consistent Back Four: If you look back over United’s defensive records during successful campaigns, they typically coincide with the fact that they were able to field the same “back four” in all of the most prominent matches. Sir Alex, the players themselves have routinely talked about how important this is to a team’s overall defensive record, but I would go one step further. It is also essential when you have made the decision to field a 22 year old goalkeeper who doesn’t have a firm grasp of the English language. Since GK is the most consistent position on the field, a constant mash up of the four men in front of him simply inhibits the entire defense’s ability to gel into an effective unit. This above all else this season is why I believe United having conceded like they have, not the goalkeeper, or the team’s mentality as a whole.
The Frailest Four: The most common reasons a consistent back four cannot be established is that since 2008-09, United have constantly been dealing with injuries to its defense. While I have very little to go on other than what I have seen and what I can see, but I lay most of the blame for this crisis that doesn’t seem to have an end at the feet of United’s Nutrition Program. Compare a full body picture of any United defender from the title winning 2006-07 season to one from this current season and you will see what I am talking about. Each member of the United defense is visibly smaller, meaning less muscle mass. Richard Hawkins, United’s “Head of Human Performance” has been with the team since 2008-09. Since then, every player on the team has gotten noticeably slimmer, with disappearing muscle mass. This is clearly a result of his goal, “…to create and maintain a physical framework for all United players from the first team to the under-9s.” Maybe you’ll scream me off of the website for this one, but a center-half should not look like a winger, but at United, they are built the same way. Perhaps this is why they’ve had a terrible record over the past three seasons of conceding from set pieces and certainly De Gea is perhaps the biggest victim of this. In comments to other articles on his performance, those optimistic of an improvement like myself cite his need to “grow stronger” or “fill out” – I contend that is simply impossible given where United have gone with their Nutrition/Fitness Programs. Maybe I am way off, but it seems as though thinner, quicker players are far more exposed to lower body injuries than those who are built with the goal of optimal balance of speed and strength.
Sir Alex and the Twilight of Two Center Halves: The combination of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic at the center of the United defense has been one for the history books, and while they basically remain United’s best tandem there, natural circumstances such as their rising age and all that comes with it start digging away at the most important aspect of a solid defense, consistency. Ferdinand’s contract is expiring at the end of the season, Vidic’s current contract ends the next season. The last great pairing was Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister, Bruce left the club at the age of 35, Pallister at 32-the same ages Ferdinand and Vidic would be should Sir Alex Ferguson offers Ferdinand a one year deal. Pallister played just to more seasons (55 more games) for Middlesbrough before hanging up his boots, whilst Bruce managed to play three more seasons (82 more games) for Birmingham City and Sheffield United.
Sir Alex is going to have a crucial role to play in how this duo ends their United career, and I fear that he will go the way of Giggs and Scholes with at least Rio, if not Vidic too. The only way to get the next great partnership started is to let both men go at the end of 2014 if not sooner to allow Johnny Evans to develop a similarly strong partnership with either Smalling, Vidic, or the emerging Wooton.
Whatever your opinion, you have to agree that Manchester United’s terrible defensive record this season is like nothing we’ve seen before at United, and if not for Robin Van Persie, it would be getting the attention it deserves. Instead, the media and United fans look to blame the easiest culprit, a 22 year old goalkeeper with just one and a half Premier League seasons under his belt for problems that have become an institutional problem for United. Whatever or whomever you’d like to blame, or you agree with my analysis completely, you better agree that if United continue to concede 1.3 goals per game throughout the rest of the season, United fans will be left to analyze something far more depressing, consecutive seasons without an ounce of silverware.