All the images from the Reebok Stadium seemed to be of one man. There was Wayne Rooney punching the ball away in anger with his gloved hand. There was Rooney nursing his injured ankle on the bench with an ice pack. There was Rooney with his head in his hands. Frustrated Rooney. Hurt Rooney. Despairing Rooney.
And yet the form of England's most naturally gifted footballer – who is missing today as United head for Spain and their Champions League tie at Valencia in order to receive treatment on that troublesome ankle – is not the greatest threat to Manchester United seizing back their Premier League title. In 1985, the year of Rooney's birth, the England opening batsman, Graeme Fowler, found himself going from making a double century in a Test in Madras to playing for Lancashire's second XI in the space of a few months. "You never entirely lose form," he was told. "It just hides in some funny places."
Rooney's ability as a footballer dwarfs that of Fowler as a cricketer and not since the dour, grinding years under Dave Sexton have Manchester United lacked for goals. They scored twice at Bolton but still only drew.
Their problems lay further back. When on Sunday, Martin Petrov turned Park Ji-sung and scored what he claimed was his first goal with his right foot, it was the ninth United had conceded in their last five games. In their three away fixtures in the Premier League United have conceded seven times. They have not lost any of them but tomorrow they face Valencia, La Liga's early pacesetters, beneath the sheer, steep stands of the Mestalla.
"We have to do much better in Spain than we did at Bolton," said captain, Nemanja Vidic. "The last few games we have played away have been disappointing. We need to work on it and not allow it to happen again. Our defending has always been our platform. At Bolton, there was one goal conceded from a set-piece and one after a corner, which is not good. We are giving teams too many opportunities."
"It was frustrating after the Arsenal and Chelsea results," added Vidic, echoing the thoughts of every member of Sir Alex Ferguson's squad. "You see them lose on Saturday but in the end we didn't get the advantage we wanted. It is a big concern conceding so many away goals. In the past we haven't given teams many chances but in the last three away games we haven't kept a clean sheet. We have lost too many goals in away games and we have to stop that. It is not what we are used to and it can't happen again."
Rio Ferdinand, the man with whom Vidic built perhaps the best central-defensive partnership in Europe, was in the stands at the Reebok; and in his absence United have stumbled repeatedly. Age and injuries may be taking their toll of a defender who could compare with Paolo Maldini for elegance but whose career, unlike the great Italian's, may not extend into his late 30s. If there was a reason why Manchester United were able to fend off Liverpool's challenge in 2009, it lay in the fact that between 8 November and 21 February, they did not concede a goal.
In Jonny Evans, they appear to have a ready-made replacement for Ferdinand. Evans was persuaded by Ferguson to remain at Old Trafford rather than join Roy Keane at Sunderland because the United manager was so sure about the young Ulsterman's future.
His positional play is often exceptional but Ferdinand's absence has coincided with a dip in Evans' form and the results were evident at Bolton. Had Johan Elmander found the net after dispossessing Evans and taking the ball round Vidic, Manchester United might have dropped three points rather than two. Had Patrice Evra been correctly stationed on the far post, he would have cleared Zat Knight's opener.
At Goodison earlier this month, the Everton manager, David Moyes, remarked that while his players might have been "euphoric" that they had scored twice in stoppage time to force a draw against United, he was not. He thought Everton might have won.
"It is hard to explain what is going wrong," said Vidic. "A lot of the goals we have conceded have been from set-pieces. It is not the true Manchester United. It doesn't happen a lot but in the last three games we have conceded the type of goals from set-pieces that we haven't conceded in the last four years. It does have to be sorted out very quickly."
The worst United defence for nine years?
*Manchester United have conceded nine goals in their opening six league games, their worse start to a season since 2001/02. Back then, their 'goals against' tally reached 10, with the main reason for such alarm being the Achilles injury to Jaap Stam, who was then sold to Lazio during that run of games. A year later, Rio Ferdinand would arrive, but the unsettled back-four featured Gary Neville (who was 26 years old), Ronnie Johnsen (32), Wes Brown (21) and Phil Neville (24).
*United's most common defence this season: Van der Sar (age 39), O'Shea (29), Vidic (28), Evans (22), Evra (29).Reuse content