Work ethic revived by Beckham's exile

Click to follow

No one should have doubted it would take far more than 90 minutes of merely heightened competence by his team to significantly lighten Sir Alex Ferguson's mood. Sure enough, his face still might have belonged to some disgruntled hermit gazing down not at the dishevelment of one football team but most of the world's iniquities.

Certainly he dissipated only slightly the impact of his dramatic decision to drop David Beckham when, in a sour, Uefa-enforced, meeting with the press after Wednesday's desperately needed resurfacing of some of the old Manchester United virtues, he talked of the England captain's "long season" and bouts of back trouble.

The reality behind Ferguson's selection of the team which ultimately relegated the Portuguese champions, Boavista, to an inferior class, was surely not worry about any possible metal fatigue of a Beckham who had been flying so high in the football stratosphere, at least in terms of acclaim, but the absolute need to reimpose the most basic of work ethics.

That Beckham's assignment to the bench had acted as the catalyst for such a development was beyond question long before the end of a 3-0 victory which had at the very least put on hold the belief that the United of imperious football and impeccable professionalism had finally galloped off down the high road of football history.

What Ferguson, not surprisingly in the taut circumstances, refused to shed any light on was whether Beckham's exile will continue through tomorrow's match with West Ham. It is, of course, the most delicate of issues at a time when the club need more than anything a resumption of the old stability. Beckham, captain of England, is plainly an integral part of a United side operating at anything near their full potential, but Ferguson's dilemma now concerns the timing of the player's reinstatement.

Nothing in Ferguson's demeanour – even given his recently reawakened distaste for a media which for the vast majority of his tenure at Old Trafford generally took the uncritical stance of Pravda at the apex of Stalin's power – suggested a belief that the performance against a swiftly discouraged Boavista had dispelled all his doubts about the course of his final season in charge. So what does he do? He can allow the point of his Beckham decision – which was that no one is above the professional requirement of clearly communicated commitment – to sink home a little further. Certainly the effect was manifest in a team performance purged of sloppy individual errors and most notable for a sharply increased sense of team unity. But then he must wonder how deep the transformation went. Does it need to be reinforced and is the continued cooling of Beckham's heels the best means?

Successfully answering that question, we have to believe, has become a potential cornerstone of Ferguson's season. Another is the pressing matter of central defence. Ferguson confirmed that Wes Brown is likely to be out for two months, a critical situation indeed when you remember that, even with the player available, the manager felt obliged to draft Roy Keane into central defence for last weekend's ill-starred match with Chelsea. The extent of that sacrifice of a driving presence in midfield could not have been comprehensively spelled out against Boavista.

Keane was, once again, immense. He ran with a power and an authority and a purpose which landed on the collective consciousness of Boavista like a short right hand from the young Mike Tyson. If there were any remaining doubts about why Ferguson can be counted upon never to dream of dropping Keane, why, indeed, both the United manager and the Republic of Ireland's Mick McCarthy are willing to play him even when he is only half-fit, they were surely dispatched in the extraordinary moment when he stood and yelled at Ruud van Nistelrooy.

The Dutchman, whose finishing touch was splendidly restated with two goals and who clearly benefited from the arrival of Dwight Yorke's support, had failed to pick up on one of several epic Keane runs in the first half. This one had carried him beyond the right side of Boavista's cover and he had the prospect of unopposed progress into the Portuguese goal area. But Van Nistelrooy dwelt on the ball before passing it in the wrong direction. Keane was aghast, though only momentarily. Soon enough the charge was resumed.

It would be wrong, however, to suggest that in the fury of it all of Ferguson's worries were dispelled. The centre of defence remains a minefield, a fact underlined when Laurent Blanc, who scored with a free header and most of the time looked as aloof from stress as some rich Parisian strolling through the Bois de Boulogne, was suddenly transfixed by uncertainty at the approach of Alexandre Goulart. The crisis was averted when Gary Neville, another whose form had moved up a notch, scuffled the ball away, but for Ferguson it was a heart-stopping moment which could easily have confounded his hope for a psychologically vital clean sheet. The message could not have more blunt. He must move for a strengthening of the middle of his defence.

Elsewhere there was plenty of relief from the horrors which must have engulfed him when Chelsea were so untouchably in control last Saturday afternoon. Juan Sebastian Veron took up, for much of the time, Beckham's station on the right and brought to it sharp increases in both productivity and imagination. The Argentinian's contribution to United's first goal – which came from Van Nistelrooy after superb work by Phillip Neville and a beautifully measured interchange of passes with Veron – was deliciously slick and made foolish those who doubt his capacity to bring an edge of refinement and bite to a United team back in control of their basic faculties. Nicky Butt supported the rampaging Keane excellently, Paul Scholes had a relevance which so far this season had been stubbornly elusive, and Yorke suggested that with a little more continuous action he might be a perfect foil for the killer touch of Van Nistelrooy.

What it all meant to Ferguson was that at last he had evidence that his team was reacting seriously to the extent of its decline. How solid it was is another matter, one which should be further explored against West Ham tomorrow. Whether this will be done in the absence of Beckham is the fascinating question. The instinct here is that Ferguson may feel the player accomplished more on the bench in 90 minutes than he had on the field in three or four critical weeks, and that for at least another match he is playing in precisely the right position.