Understandably, United have been on the receiving end of some harsh criticism following the horrific capitulation at Leicester, concerning the money we’ve lavished on big-name attacking footballers while leaving the defence relatively unattended to. The allegation is, in a nutshell, is that we’ve spent a lot of cash buying an expensive knocker for the front door while the back one is full of holes and hanging off its hinges.
We did, of course, bring in Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw in the summer and there’s every possibility that, should we require him to, Daley Blind could drop into the back four, particularly when Carrick is fit again, to shore things up there. Even so, that still leaves us with a considerable lack of defensive experience. There’s no question that there’s a generation gap for United in this area of the field. If the plan, as I suspect it was, was that, by the time, Vidic and Ferdinand moved on, Jones, Smalling and Evans would be experienced and strong enough to fill their boots, then it’s becoming abundantly clear that isn’t happening and that, rather than tagging after Ronaldo’s fluttered eyebrows with our tongues hanging out in the January window, we’d be far better buying in an experienced defender of proven quality.
My fear is it isn’t quite as simple as that. The defence at Leicester, it goes without saying, was spectacularly bad. While I feel some sympathy for Tyler Blackett – a player who’s been thrown into the fray before his time and overall made a decent go of it – more experienced players than him were guilty of errors that would be criticised on the school playing field. Evans’ failure to pick up his man for Leicester’s first goal was what allowed our opponents a vital scent of our vulnerability, and it isn’t the first time it’s happened this season. Nor is it the first time that Rafael, albeit the clear victim of a foul, has shown a fatal lack of caution in rushing back to stop his man with scant regard for the consequences. And, as the walls came tumbling down, a gaping hole in the middle of the Reds’ defence was eagerly exploited as out-of-position defenders struggled back forlornly from areas of the field they had no business being in in the first place.
What complicates the issue though is that, by and large, these were not errors of ability, but of focus and concentration. United quickly fall apart under pressure and it’s been that way for some time. It’s not only our defenders, incidentally, who do this but of course when they do it tends to be more significant and on occasions a precursor to disaster.
For me, it’s not an issue of having better defenders, but of better organisation and leadership in the side. My son drew my attention to the bit in the programme for the QPR game that gave the first eleven of Fergie’s first title-winning team with the eleven now and asked me how they compared. My view was that the likes of Di Maria and Falcao would, in terms of ability, add something to any United side in my lifetime but that is was striking how many players of proven character and spirit there were in that side of 1993 and how few there were in this one. Roy Keane commented that, when he arrived from Forest, he found a dressing room of fighters that mirrored his own attitude on the pitch. Bruce, Ince, Cantona, Hughes and others were players who, you feel, just wouldn’t have allowed this kind of collapse to happen and, if it did, they’d be doing their damnedest to put it right.
This United side is short on leaders and that, for me, is more significant than a shortage of quality defenders. The fact that Rooney has been given the club captaincy illustrates it. Were there a Bruce, a Keane, a Vidic or even a Gary Neville in the side, he’d never have got a sniff of the role. I’m not among those Reds who have criticised his performance on Sunday – first half, I actually thought he was very good in behind the front two – but his reaction to his side’s quick demise showed a lack of true leadership. Bruce, you suspect, would have placed a fatherly arm around some while telling others in no uncertain terms to sort themselves out. Keane would have been snarling and snapping and getting hold of the odd collar, but he’d have been doing that from half an hour before the game. Rooney’s shouting and gesticulating just demonstrated to his younger team mates that he’d lost control of things just as much as they had.
‘You shouldn’t need leaders,’ someone on Twitter replied to me after the game on Sunday. ‘They’re paid enough to take responsibility for their own performances.’ OK in theory, but in a team sport you do need someone to take charge on the pitch, to motivate and keep people on their toes. The best sides have several of them, as that mid-nineties United side did. Rooney, for all this spirit and unquestioned talent, will in my view never be that person. Someone else needs to do it, preferably someone in the midfield or the defence. Blind? Possibly. But whoever it is needs to do so very quickly or there will be more agonising experiences like Leicester away to come.