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Surya Solanki highlights the change of approach in United's play as their over-reliance on their front-line is a thing of the past...

On Saturday, Manchester United coasted to a comfortable 1-0 win over relegation-threatened Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. Titus Bramble deflected a Robin van Persie shot into his own net around the half-hour mark to hand the Red Devils their 25th win in just 30 league games this season, a feat that has never been achieved before in England’s top division.

Moreover, with just eight matches to go before the 2012-13 Premier League campaign draws to an end, United have a 15-point advantage over arch-rivals Manchester City at the summit of the league table and hence, are on the verge of securing their 20th domestic title.

However, in what can be described as a dramatic transformation in the club’s output, United have shifted from attack to defence as they enter business end of the season.

For the majority of this term, United have had to rely on outscoring their opponents due to the vulnerable and porous back-four. Robin van Persie and Javier Hernandez were regular saviours for Ferguson’s men with late winners, but this pattern appears to be changing over the past few weeks.  

What was once considered as the laughing stock of European football, United’s back-line has now gone 627 minutes without conceding a single goal in the league.

De Gea in top form

David De Gea, after a stuttering first-half to the season, is blossoming into one of the finest young ‘keepers and has kept six consecutive clean-sheets. Although the Spaniard still needs to work on his vulnerability against crosses, with the aerial clash against Nemanja Vidic against Sunderland a testament to this claim, his shot-stopping skills are admirable.

On the other hand, captain-marvel Vidic has put in rock-solid performances since returning from a lengthy injury layoff, while Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans have provided the foundation for Sir Alex Ferguson’s defensive set-up. Ferdinand was even recalled to the national team for his standout performances against the likes of Southampton, Fulham and Real Madrid, albeit the former Leeds United defender subsequently withdrew from the Three Lions’ squad.

Patrice Evra and Rafael Da Silva too are finally starting to win over their critics. The duo were often criticized for not fulfilling their defensive commitments, but lately both Evra and Rafael have been much more competent and reliable in their half of the field. For the first time in months, United’s full-backs are being considered as assets to the backline, rather than liabilities.

The game on Saturday also provided the much-needed playing time to the likes of Chris Smalling and Alexander Buttner and with both putting out eye-catching performances, there is no doubt that United have able deputies for their veterans.  

The most crucial aspect of United’s flawless defensive record has been the fact that the 19-time English champions are defending as a collective unit of late.

Against Sunderland, wingers Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia were often seen tracking back on the flanks, while midfielders Michael Carrick and Anderson provided an added cover to the defence. Van Persie provided aerial presence during set-pieces and Shinji Kagawa replicated the role of Wayne Rooney by chasing back and doing the defensive work for the team.

Goals drying up lately

Coincidentally and thankfully for the Old Trafford faithful, United’s defensive revival has come at the same time when their goal-scoring machine van Persie appears to have hit a barren run of form. The Flying Dutchman has not found the net in his last eight outings and had it not been for the resurgence at the back, United could have found themselves at the end of another slip-up in the title race.

Last season, it was due to the unwarranted mistakes by the defenders that allowed Everton to secure a 4-4 draw at Old Trafford in one of the final games of the season and eventually swung the Premier League pendulum towards the blue half of Manchester.

This term however, considering the outputs of Vidic and co. over the past six match-days, chances of such lapses look overwhelmingly unlikely.  

The likes of van Persie, Hernandez and Rooney provided the attacking menace to help the club come out victorious in pivotal ties, but as the Red Devils enter the all-important title run-in, the defensive resilience looks to be the key.

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