Football: Ferguson must bear responsibility for the problems. His summer signings are beginning to imply more Scottish thrift than shrewdness

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Just a short while ago, five weeks to be precise, Manchester United performed well enough when taking a point from Villa Park to persuade a perceptive former stalwart, John Giles, that they were on course for another championship.

Now look at them. Four successive defeats that have seen 14 goals go past Peter Schmeichel, records falling; last week's loss to Fenerbahce their first at Old Trafford in 40 years of European competition; an unbeaten run of 35 home league matches busted by Chelsea. No wonder that a perplexed silence has settled on the theatre of dreams.

Blip or crisis? "We'll get out of this, no danger," Alex Ferguson said on Saturday. "When we play Arsenal in two weeks time I'll be picking from the same squad of players. They've had a lot of praise and now they'll find out who their friends are."

Ferguson was relaxed enough to joke that if daft enough to meet a depletion of resources (11 players on international duty this week, others injured) by turning out in a testimonial match at Norwich tonight he would probably be sent off, but the ills cannot be dismissed lightly.

They are real and run deeper than a turn around in confidence brought about miserable experiences at Newcastle and Southampton. Go back to that 0-0 draw at Villa Park, and with the utmost respect for Giles' judgement, there were clues to Manchester United's present predicament.

The most impressive thing about them that day was professionalism, tactical nous and maturity; an assured defence in which Gary Pallister was outstanding, the discipline evident in a four-man midfield with David Beckham and Ryan Giggs always wide enough to contain Villa's wing-backs.

What United lacked was the penetration that is central to Ferguson's thinking. The United manager's ideal is a team equipped to operate on two fronts, domestic and international, but injuries and departures (unavoidable in the case of Andre Kanchelskis) have left him short of options.

Ferguson will have found the effective presence of Mark Hughes in Chelsea's attack particularly ironic. A talismanic figure when he wore the red shirt, more a scorer of great goals than a great goalscorer, Hughes' strength, literally, is the platform he provides for building attacks.

With Hughes occupying the centre-backs, Giggs and Kanchelskis drove defences back from the space where Eric Cantona can be most dangerous. Hughes and Kanchelskis have gone while Giggs and Andy Cole, who would provide one of the missing links, are injured.

The result is that Manchester United are often attacking on a narrow front with very little threat coming from flank positions.

Ferguson must bear responsibility for the problems (his summer signings, Jordi Cruyff, Ole Gunner Solskjaer and Karel Poborsky are beginning to imply more Scottish thrift than shrewdness) but to suggest, as one tabloid critic did last week, that time has run out for him at Old Trafford is stupid. Matt Busby realised his dream of winning the European Cup after more than 20 years at Old Trafford. Bill Nicholson spent 16 years in charge at Tottenham. Liverpool was Bill Shankly's only big club. The same can be said about Don Revie at Leeds.

It's not how long a manager stays around but how well he copes with the inevitable task of rebuilding. Until recent lapses all seemed to be going as Ferguson had planned it; the influx of outstanding young players, a broadening of collective responsibility. "We need things to happen for us," Ferguson said, admitting a crisis of confidence. Instead of spontaneity he sees deliberation. An anxious defence, a worried goalkeeper, a breakdown in passing. What he wouldn't give for someone with Steve Bruce's influence.

Chelsea were everything Manchester United wanted to be. "We made it very difficult for them to get going and everywhere you looked in our team there was quality," Ruud Gullit said.

Pushing up to deny United space in midfield and, with Kevin Hitchcock alert to through passes, Chelsea had been out there for an hour before their goal was seriously threatened. They gave Ferguson's porous defence plenty of problems too.

In the 31st minute Michael Duberry got in a downward header from Dennis Wise's corner to give Chelsea the lead and from then on it was all uphill for United. Outpassed and generally outackled, they were going nowhere, Cantona becoming more and more a fitful, peripheral figure. After one desperate, bulling attempt to reach a low cross, crashing into Duberry, the Frenchman was booked for the third time in three matches.

By then Chelsea were two ahead. Phil Neville's uncertainty played Gianluca Vialli onside when Franck Leboeuf sent a long pass through United's defence and the shot that followed went through Schmeichel's legs. The big Dane's slowness in coming out was a tale in itself; the embarrassment of finding himself helpless beneath the chip shots that have been going over him.

So when will it come right again for Ferguson? "I know what we've got to do, so do the players," he said. Manchester United's supporters can only take his word for it.

Goals: Duberry (31) 0-1; Vialli (61) 0-2; May (81) 1-2.

Manchester United (4-3-1-2): Schmeichel; Irwin, May, Johnsen, P Neville; Beckham, Keane, Butt; Cantona; Solskjaer, Scholes (Poborsky, 69). Substitutes not used: McClair, Cruyff, G Neville, Van der Gouw (gk).

Chelsea (3-5-2): Hitchcock; Duberry, Leboeuf, Clarke; Petrescu, Burley, Di Matteo, Wise, Minto; Hughes, Vialli. Substitutes not used: Gullit, Spencer, Peacock, Sinclair, Grodas (gk).

Referee: K Burge (Mid Glamorgan).

Bookings: Manchester United: Cantona, Butt, Neville. Chelsea: Petrescu, Clarke, Duberry.

Man of the match: Hughes.

Attendance: 55,198.