By Oliver Platt
It has been difficult for Sir Alex Ferguson to rely on the fitness of his defenders in recent seasons. and his unconventional solution has been to stop relying on them at all. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have joined Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in making regular visits to the medical room this season, but Ferguson splashed out on Robin van Persie anyway.
The results of the new caution-to-the-wind policy have so far been mixed. Sure enough, Manchester United are the Premier League's top goalscorers after eight matches, having found the target 21 times. Unfortunately, they have also conceded 11 - nearly double the amount they had allowed this time last season.
At home they have been particularly shaky, conceding seven times in four games. Nevertheless, they have come through each test at Old Trafford, aside from the 3-2 defeat against Tottenham. On Saturday, they handed Stoke City the lead, when Wayne Rooney scored an own goal, and a route back into the game, when Michael Kightly beat David de Gea in the second half, but Rooney was on hand to put their nerves to rest.
The last time United played a world-class team in European competition was when they faced Barcelona in the 2011 Champions League final. Since then they have failed to progress from a straightforward group and were extremely fortunate to beat Ajax over two legs in the Europa League. They were simply outclassed by Athletic Bilbao, the 10th best team in Spain last season.
This year they have dispatched their first two opponents, Galatasaray and CFR Cluj, although they could only muster a one-goal advantage in each game. Victory over Braga on Tuesday would put them on the verge of the second round. There, they could face one of the continent's powerhouses, and it would be fascinating to see how Ferguson's current squad would fare in such a match.
United badly lack mobility in defence and their gung-ho approach does not help to mask those failings. All too often, opposition midfielders and forwards counter-attack into vast amounts of space, and that allows them to gain the kind of speed that can cause the likes of Ferdinand and Jonny Evans serious problems. Once they have been able to accelerate over 10 or 20 yards, players like Gareth Bale and even Kightly are difficult to stop.
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The interplay of Bilbao's Markel Susaeta, Iker Muniain, Oscar de Marcos and company proved too much for United to deal with. That makes the prospect of facing Real Madrid or Barcelona at some point in the near future a daunting one. They will eventually encounter such a team if they wish to make any kind of an impact in the Champions League.
A 3-0 victory over Newcastle United was encouraging evidence in support of Ferguson's new diamond formation, but hopes should be tempered by the narrow victory over Cluj that preceded it and, despite beating Stoke, the same old rearguard deficiencies were exposed. Adding a third midfielder to the centre of the park would seem to be a sensible step but Antonio Valencia, Paul Scholes and Tom Cleverley are not built to offer defensive assurance.
In short, this is an issue of personnel and not one which can be erased by any simple tactical switch. If United wish to continue fielding such a wealth of attacking talent they must find defenders and midfielders more able to track their opponents in the spaces they leave behind.
"It does bother us having to come from behind because we are losing those early goals," Rooney said after the Stoke match. "It is not nice and it is something that we have to stop because we cannot afford to keep letting teams get a head start on us, especially in the Champions League because it is difficult to win the game anyway."
In their group stage opponents, at least, United should have an opportunity to make some progress in finding their feet again in Europe. Braga, although led on the break by the experienced winger Alan and emerging Portugal striker Eder, should not provide a challenge more significant than the Red Devils regularly face domestically. The trip to Istanbul to face Galatasaray is never an enjoyable one but enough points should be collected prior to that match to make it relatively unimportant.
Once the knockout ties come around, United will need to find improvement for somewhere. The goals of Rooney and Van Persie will keep them in the title race at home, but Ferguson has enough experience in the Champions League to know that Europe demands more.
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