They may be fab up front but Manchester United have no case for a defence
Alex Ferguson's threadbare back four is decimated by injuries and gives hope to all Premier League title rivals
Wednesday 22 August 2012
When you imagine how it must feel to beat Manchester United against the odds, your mind reels back a decade to when Bayer Leverkusen denied Sir Alex Ferguson a place in a European Cup final in Glasgow. "Now" announced Leverkusen's manager, Klaus Toppmoller, "is the time for wine and cigarettes."
David Moyes is not a wine and cigarettes kind of man and in the aftermath of a convincing 1-0 win at an electrified Goodison Park he was in a tetchy mood, complaining that all the pre-match coverage had focused on United and "the soap opera of Robin van Persie's signing".
Why, he asked, should it have been such a surprise that Everton won? They had finished last season strongly, they were at home and their record against the elite clubs is good – Moyes has taken more points from Manchester City than Ferguson in the past five seasons.
He did not add that while focusing on Manchester United's attack, few had predicted what Everton might do to an utterly threadbare defence.
We had fallen victim to what might be called Singapore Syndrome, the belief that the island fortress was impregnable because of its big guns, all of which pointed towards the ocean. Nobody imagined the Japanese would come overland.
The story lay not in United's attack but in a defence so wrecked by injury that their back door was guarded by a right-winger and a central midfielder. Ferguson may be forced into the same arrangement against Fulham on Saturday. Neither Antonio Valencia nor Michael Carrick played badly but their presence will have acted as an encouragement to Everton's forwards.
Ferguson was graceless in defeat, refusing to be interviewed by anyone other than United's own television company, to whom he argued that Everton had done little more than lump the ball to Marouane Fellaini. They did rather more than that, but when they did United were sometimes unable to cope.
Carrick is versatile enough to have filled in as centre-half alongside Darren Fletcher when an injury-raddled United overcame the then German champions, Wolfsburg, in their own stadium three years ago – a night surreal enough to have featured a hat-trick by Michael Owen.
However, when it came to dealing with Darron Gibson's corner, Carrick crouched as Fellaini rushed to meet it. A slight error but it was enough and a mistake that Rio Ferdinand, Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans or Phil Jones might not have made.
Patrice Evra did play at Goodison but, at 31, the task of finding a long-term replacement at left-back is pressing. Alexander Buttner, who signed a five-year contract yesterday, does not at first sight appear to be it. The 23-year-old thought he might leave Vitesse Arnhem for the Premier League but imagined it would be to Southampton. "If you told me that, together with Robin van Persie, I would be playing for Manchester United, I would have driven you straight to the madhouse," he said.
The last person to sound this surprised at signing for United was Bebe, who unless there is a dramatic upswing in form will find himself alongside Ralph Milne and Eric Djemba Djemba when Ferguson turns to the section marked: "My worst signings," in his after-dinner speeches.
Nevertheless, Buttner has pace and the fight he has shown in his upbringing in a trailer camp in Doetinchem, near the German border, would appeal to Ferguson. "I was a real street urchin," was how Buttner described himself. "I grew up in a trailer camp and was proud of it. I was always playing football on the streets."
Shinji Kagawa learnt his football on the rather more manicured pitches of Kobe and the touches he displayed at Goodison were beautifully measured. When he came to Borussia Dortmund from Japan what impressed men like Mats Hummels was not just his quality but the speed with which he adapted.
Kagawa's presence can only fuel the argument that this is the most potent array of firepower Ferguson has assembled since Dwight Yorke joined Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for what would become the treble season of 1998-99. That campaign, too, began uncertainly with a 2-2 draw at home to Leicester, a game that Yorke, like Van Persie on Monday night, did not start and which represented a worse result than defeat to a team who finished seventh in the Premier League.
Then, Ferguson had consoled himself with a glass of wine and, in the absence of a cigarette, a quote from the Green Bay Packers coach, Vince Lombardi, who competes with Frank Sinatra as his favourite American. "We didn't lose, we just ran out of time." Manchester United have nine months.
Walking wounded: United's injuries
Rio Ferdinand Out with a hamstring injury for a further month.
Phil Jones Suffering from a back injury. No return date at present.
Chris Smalling Former Fulham man is out until October after fracturing a metatarsal in pre-season training.
Jonny Evans Close to returning from a foot injury sustained at the end of last season.
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