Man Utd: How did it all go wrong?

As Vidic admits complacency is United's greatest enemy, and Ferguson questions his own tactics, Ian Herbert asks how the invincibles came crashing to earth
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The Independent Football

It is the kind of inquest which would have been unthinkable at any time over the past three years at Old Trafford and one to which two of the defenders whose sudden struggles have epitomised Manchester United's difficulties, Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans, offered a surprisingly candid contribution yesterday. Complacency, they both said, has been the undoing of the champions this past month.

Sir Alex Ferguson intimated something similar last week when he said some of his younger players "like to read things" about themselves and blamed the press for that. Vidic, almost as anxious a figure in the faltering 2-2 draw against Porto which puts United's Champions League aspirations in jeopardy as he was when Liverpool tore him apart 24 days earlier, was more frank. He admitted United had convinced themselves they had put Liverpool out of their sight by the time, shortly before 1.15pm on Saturday 14 March, when his own heinous defensive error with Fernando Torres lurking on his shoulder, marked the start of the shifting tide in United's fortunes.

It has been an easing off then? "To be honest, maybe," Vidic admitted. "Against Liverpool, maybe you can say we took it easier because we had a game in hand and there was a big gap in points. We didn't think we were relaxed but maybe we were."

Evans, a future United captain according to Sunderland manager Ricky Sbragia, and a recipient only of plaudits until this moment in his Old Trafford career, is finding his game questioned. He admitted yesterday that his poor clearance contributed to Cristian Rodriguez's opening goal for Porto on Tuesday evening – "I should have done better for the first goal. It was a bad clearance" – and he, too, volunteered that United's defending "has become a bit complacent". As he put it: "We haven't been defending for our lives as well as we should have been."

Of course, the real dressing-room truths are the ones which players won't admit to. Evans, whose readiness to stop and discuss a difficult evening from his own perspective reflects the kind of 21-year-old he is, was prickly when it was put to him that a run of poor form has bred a lack of confidence in United.

"I don't think there's a confidence issue," he insisted. "Teams are definitely raising their game against us." He undermined a shaky argument by suggesting that Fulham's relegation fears had prompted their match-winning display against United. But when the crown slips on the once unconquerable force in any sport, the process of performing starts to feel different; the mental experience becomes more strained.

How else to explain why Patrice Evra, Vidic and Evans all have started faltering simultaneously? United's defence has conceded 10 goals in four games, the same number they had conceded in 23 Premier and Champions League games before defeat to Liverpool. Vidic, for one, believes that a little less introspection would help United. "We've conceded many goals and after the Liverpool game, that first bad game, we needed to fix that but we didn't. But we need to think less about that and concentrate on the next game now."

The word "gamble" has become a prominent new part of Ferguson's vocabulary. He used it to explain his error of fielding Gary Neville at centre-back against Aston Villa on Sunday, and again for his decision to play Porto 48 hours later, rather than opt for a lunchtime kick-off on Saturday.

He can hardly be reproached for his timetabling. The five United players starting against Villa who had played in midweek internationals included the two best defenders available to Ferguson that day (Evra and Vidic) and his only striker (Carlos Tevez). Tevez looked weary but how would he have fared in a game kicking off 21 hours after a nine-hour flight home from La Paz, Bolivia? More relevant is the incompatibility of some of those players Ferguson is being forced to lump together in a period when only West Ham United, among the Premier League clubs, have more injured players. Owen Hargreaves, Wes Brown, Rio Ferdinand, Rafael da Silva, Anderson, Dimitar Berbatov and now Evans are on the physio's table and at every turn United's means of creating chances are being curtailed. Nani's form is miserable. Zoran Tosic, whom Ferguson indicated in January might be ready to play by April, is seemingly not.

Now, many of United's players find themselves in alien territory. While Jamie Carragher admitted a few weeks back that the experience of going top and losing the ascendancy has helped Liverpool's players to grow mentally, Michael Carrick, another United playmaker whose form has dipped when most needed, admitted that his first experience of struggle in three years at old Trafford was "a bit of a shock" to him.

Porto might have gone 24 games since their last defeat but the word "crisis", as Carrick also pointed out, is a relative term which can be overused and Mariano Gonzalez, who scored the visitors' 89th-minute equaliser, certainly feels that the Portuguese champions' own contribution should not be overlooked. "You can say they played badly but the credit should go to us, because we made the great stars of Manchester look like they weren't that great," he said.

Of course, United being United and good form being a product of the smallest turns of fortune, it is impossible to rule out things starting to click as quickly as they stopped. "These things happen," Carrick said. "We were playing so well for such a long time and to take a couple of results like we have is not the end of the world. We know how good we can be. We need to put things right and hopefully that will happen at Sunder land on Saturday."

Until then, three more days of the purgatory which United had forgotten existed.

Numbers game: United's slide in stats

10 Goals conceded in the 24 matches leading up to their 4-1 home defeat by Liverpool on 14 March.

10 Goals conceded in the four games since the Liverpool defeat.

6 Goals scored by Wayne Rooney in the eight games leading up to Liverpool.

1 Goals scored by Rooney in the four games since the Liverpool defeat.

5 Seasons since United let in two or more goals in three consecutive home games.

*Form leading up to Liverpool defeat

Man Utd 0 Tottenham 0 [aet]

(Utd won 4-1 on penalties (1 Mar)

Newcastle 1 Man Utd 2 (4 Mar)

Fulham 0 Man Utd 4 (7 Mar)

Man Utd 2 Internazionale 0 (11 Mar)

Average goals conceded per game: 0.25

Average opposition shots on goal per game: 9

Average United shots on goal per game: 14.75

*Form since (and including) Liverpool defeat

Man Utd 1 Liverpool 4 (14 Mar)

Fulham 2 Man Utd 0 (21 Mar)

Man Utd 3 Aston Villa 2 (5 Apr)

Man Utd 2 Porto 2 (7 Apr)

Average goals conceded per game: 2.5

Average opposition shots on goal per game: 11.75

Average United shots on goal per game: 11.5