Sir Alex Ferguson must be feeling like a frustrated mechanic who is trying to perfect the fine-tuning of his vintage car. When it's not one problem, it's another. Worse still, with this Manchester United machine, old faults have a nagging habit of returning. The early part of the season was dominated by talk of the leaky defence, then it was the formation, then, most recently, the striking options. Now, it's the lot, with the goalkeeper thrown in for good measure.
In the Premiership, the champions are often allowed to get away with their minor flaws. In Europe, though, they are punished every time. True, Fabien Barthez will not gift every opposition two goals, but, even allowing for the Frenchman's aberrations, the defence looked far from secure in the Champions' League in mid-week. Few teams are as accomplished and incisive as Deportivo La Coruña, but the back four's renewed signs of strain suggest the departure of Jaap Stam has not yet been adequately dealt with.
Laurent Blanc feels he still knows a thing or two about defending at the highest level. The 36-year-old Frenchman also has a privileged understanding of the somewhat curious workings of Barthez's mind. The two have been friends for the best part of a decade, during which time they have formed the backbone of the French and now Mancunian defences. In their blue period, they received nothing but praise and trophies; during their red weeks, they have been regularly called into question. "If we concede goals, people will start talking about the defence again," Blanc says. "It's the same old story: keep clean sheets and we're the best; let goals in and we're useless. But no one can tell me that the defence lost the match against Deportivo. It's a team matter."
While too many of United's best players – including Juan Sebastian Veron, David Beckham, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Dennis Irwin and Wes Brown – were not at their best on Wednesday, the main culprit for the defeat (their second of the campaign) was Barthez. "It happens, you know," Blanc says with a Gallic shrug of the shoulders. "A goalkeeper is a player like any other and can make mistakes too. I guess the one difference is that any error usually leads to a goal, and that's what happened on Wednesday."
Twice. If the blame for the first Deportivo goal can be shared between Barthez and the nervy-looking Brown, the winner was all down to the Frenchman's madness. Not content with having unnecessarily rushed off his line, Barthez then contrived to throw himself to the ground and glide gently in towards Tristan like a duck skating on ice. Needless to say that United's keeper missed ball and player, leaving his net wide open.
"The trouble with Fabien is that when he has an off-day, everyone talks about it more," Blanc says. "Because of the way he is, he leaves himself exposed to criticism. But he'll be OK. I don't even think it's a question of him having to bounce back. He's experienced enough not to let it worry him too much and, if it is worrying him, we'll make sure it's not for too long. Honestly, he'll be fine."
How long, though, will Ferguson allow Barthez to jeopardise his European dream? Following a spate of over-indulgence in the first few games of the season, when the 30-year-old was dribbling opponents in his penalty box, Ferguson asked his maverick keeper to keep it simple. On Wednesday, Barthez did just that with every clearance, hoofing the ball up field on each occasion rather than attempting anything cute. And yet he could not help himself. Barthez may have been playing a percentage game on the back-passes, but that did not stop him from taking wild risks at other moments.
Despite his wonderful talents, particularly as a shot-stopper, Barthez has a history of letting his form slip. During his six years at Monaco, spell-binding seasons would often be followed by mediocre ones. The 1998-99 season, for example, which came in the wake of France's incredible World Cup triumph, was a typically erratic year for the Frenchman. Confidence has never been his problem; over-confidence, though, has sometimes cost him dear. Only he could have thought that sticking up an arm and standing totally still was the best way of stopping Paolo Di Canio from scoring the winning goal in last season's FA Cup fourth round.
Off the field, Barthez can be equally idiosyncratic. When he recently moved out of his rented house to buy a flat in Deansgate, the feeling was that he was settling down. In truth, he may just have been opting for accommodation which is more suited to his lifestyle. Barthez continues to travel to Paris on a regular basis and, although Ferguson has so far accepted his keeper's choices, the Frenchman may be forced to knuckle down.
Ferguson clearly has some more tinkering to do before his ultimate United is a dream machine. More than any individual component, it is the overall set-up which continues to cause concern. Following the back-to-back quarter-final defeats in the last two seasons to Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, Sir Alex has decided to employ a more cautious system. "It is designed to tighten us in midfield and make us less vulnerable to counter attacks," he said before Deportivo scored two of their three goals on the break. The Scot also pointed to Keane's key role as an anchor in front of the back four, but he often looked miscast on Wednesday. Keane is a natural leader, who likes nothing more than to take the game to the opposition, but he cannot impose himself on the game from such a deep position. More worrying still is the fact that the United captain has not made the defence any more secure against top sides.
"What worries me," Blanc says, "is that the team are conceding goals, not the performance of any particular colleague. The reason we are vulnerable is because of the whole team. It is a matter of collective responsibility. We need to find a balance between attacking and defending. It's all very well launching attack after attack, but it is also important to know how to defend."
Sometimes you wonder whether the players are genuinely comfortable playing in the new 4-1-4-1 or 4-4-1-1 systems that Ferguson has introduced this season. Ruud van Nistelrooy proved again that he will score goals irrespective of the formation, but others, notably Scholes, Keane and Veron, can look a little lost at times. "Perhaps," Blanc responds, "but that would be entering into a debate which is complex and potentially very long. What we must not forget is that we played this system against Olympiakos and beat them comprehensively. What we need now is to show a little more maturity. Sometimes you have to be less adventurous to get the right result." His bold, bald friend would no doubt agree.Reuse content