It is rare for Sir Alex Ferguson to appear bewildered but this was a bewildering game. For the eighth time in a dozen matches Manchester United had fallen behind. For the third time in seven games at Old Trafford, they had conceded early.
"I don't know, I just couldn't tell you," he said, when trying to analyse United's defensive frailties. "The goals we have lost haven't come from one area or one direction. We keep conceding early. I can tell you that."
In many ways Tuesday night's 3-2 Champions League group victory over Braga was an archetypal United game. They start badly, they concede early, they fight back and usually force themselves over the line in the generous minutes of "Fergie time" the referee allocates.
Against Bayern Munich or Barcelona this would be considered heroic. Against a team which is not one of Portugal's big three it appears rather worrying. What has perplexed Ferguson most of all are the displays at Old Trafford, the one ground in England that most fits the commentator's cliché of "fortress".
United have kept only two clean sheets within its walls this season. These were against Galatasaray, who struck the frame of their goal three times, and Wigan, a club that has managed a single goal in the stadium in its history – and that a penalty.
In many ways it is obvious why United struggle defensively. The answers lie on the treatment tables at Carrington, where Chris Smalling is starting his rehabilitation from a broken metatarsal and Phil Jones from a chronic back injury.
Last season, when United were deprived of their captain, Nemanja Vidic, Smalling and Jones performed well enough for the team to take the title race to Sergio Aguero's last kick of the campaign.
Once, Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans might have been enough. However, Ferdinand will be 34 next month and there have been too many injuries. In former times Ferguson would have played him on Tuesday night against Braga and on Sunday at Stamford Bridge. No more.
Instead, there was just Michael Carrick filling in, but he is a midfielder for a reason and this was like asking Sid James to play Macbeth.
Ferguson is now putting his faith in a new-look diamond formation. "Making yourself unpredictable is going to be a strength," he saidReuse content