By Joe Wright at Old Trafford
It was another European night to remember at Old Trafford. Two goals down after just 20 minutes against Braga, Manchester United displayed the kind of courage, incisive attacking football and indomitable will-to-win which have been the hallmarks of Sir Alex Ferguson's sides over the last 26 years, securing a 3-2 win to put them on the cusp of the Champions League knock-out phase.
But the victory did not mask the all-too-obvious flaws in United's set-up, nor did it disguise the Scot's latest trait to impact upon the team, one which has now proved costly on several occasions in the early part of the campaign: a sheer stubborn refusal to address the problems at the heart of the side.
Cracks began to appear in Ferguson's armour throughout last season. Roberto Mancini became the first since Jose Mourinho to pit himself against the Scot's 'mindgames' and win convincingly, while the decisive derby at the Etihad Stadium further illuminated the now nauseating central midfield problem, as Ji-Sung Park, having not started a match for three months, was inexplicably handed the task of stopping Yaya Toure, the top flight's most complete player.
At face value, Ferguson has taken steps to resolve the disappointments of last season. United were pipped to the title on goal difference, so €30.5 million was paid out for the Premier League's top scorer, while a man who boasted 17 goals and 10 assists for German double winners Dortmund was brought in to facilitate Sir Alex's new goalscoring machine.
Problem solved, right? Wrong. Influential signings they may be, but Ferguson's staunch refusal to address the perennial problems at the spine of the side and his insistence on sticking to his misfiring guns is what has frustrated United fans the most, and could yet result in another trophy-less campaign this time around.
Ferguson has complained recently of certain selection headaches which many managers would be pleased to suffer: which of his top-class centre-forwards to start, and who from his abundance of talent on the wings should be selected to support them. On Tuesday night, however, he created his own issues with his starting XI, as he once again opted to shunt Michael Carrick back into defence in order to give Rio Ferdinand a rest. Cue the groans of 75,000 resigned Red Devils fans.
The basis for that decision was, in itself, justifiable. Ferguson was keen to rest Ferdinand ahead of a fearsome fixture pile-up which sees them play Chelsea twice, either side of a home clash with Arsenal.
United are also suffering at the hands of yet another defensive injury crisis: captain Nemanja Vidic's brief return to the side was curtailed by a recurrence of his knee injury, while Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have yet to feature this season after picking up problems over the summer.
But what of Scott Wootton and Michael Keane, two youngsters who performed so well against Newcastle in the earlier rounds of the Capital One Cup at the heart of the back four? Neither were even included amongst the substitutes.
Instead, Ferguson opted to slot Carrick alongside Jonny Evans, a move which threatened to backfire spectacularly after just 20 minutes on the clock. Evans and Alexander Buttner - brought in to give Patrice Evra a rest - suffered a frightening communication breakdown to allow Alan to head home inside two minutes, before more indecision from the two allowed the Braga skipper to slot home his second following Eder's bamboozling touchline flick past Carrick, reminiscent of Fernando Redondo against David May in years gone by. And while Ferguson defended Carrick’s role in the two goals, it’s not difficult to imagine that a natural defender could have done more to prevent them.
Carrick’s move to the back also further exposed the yawning chasm in midfield. Ferguson's "revolutionary" diamond system worked superbly against Newcastle, the last time United kept a clean sheet, as the England man anchored the side in front of the trusted partnership of Evans and Ferdinand. On Tuesday, the role was handed to Darren Fletcher, who still looks far from being 100% match fit following his lengthy lay-off and who was overwhelmed by a confident Braga midfield in the first half, whilst Tom Cleverley and Shinji Kagawa looked ill-disciplined and uncomfortable when shunted out to wide roles against marauding full-backs.
Only when United reverted to a flatter 4-4-2 did the side look confident, with Cleverley joining Fletcher infield and Kagawa (after picking up a knock) replaced by Nani on the wing. In that sense, at least, Ferguson can be given some credit - he changed the side when it wasn't working and, ultimately, it paid dividends.
But the comeback fails to paper over the chinks in the United armour. The centre of the park was overrun by a fearless away side, much as it was in the two defeats to Tottenham and Everton this season (the latter another time when Carrick was forced to play at the back). And all this after Ferguson had warned against Braga's away form: "Braga, to my mind, are better away from home. They showed that by beating Galatasaray."
The problem of central midfield is becoming a wearisome one for the United faithful, who are doubtless growing hoarse in their calls for a world-class presence at the spine of the side (Paul Scholes was another notable by his absence on Tuesday evening). Yet it is an issue which Ferguson seems determined not to address, and, with United's progress to the next round looking fairly secure at this stage, it is hard to see how a stronger side than Braga will not be more ruthless in exposing the problem.
United have now kept a clean sheet in just one of their last seven games, and have fallen behind in seven of their 12 competitive matches this season – "the story of the season at home" according to Ferguson.
Yes, the results are looking positive on paper, and the ability to simply out-score most opposition will no doubt keep them in the hunt for silverware in some shape or form come the end of the season. But the fundamental problems remain for all to see; all, apparently, except the man in charge. Whether Ferguson is simply blind to the flaws in the United side or is simply cantankerously insistent that his way is the right way is, at this point, academic: to put it simply, the manager should have acted by now.
"I think you have to look at the big picture," Ferguson said after the game when discussing the changes to the side. "We’ve a massive problem coming up now and it’s important to utilise the squad that we have."
True. But Unfortunately for United fans, the "bigger picture" is becoming ever more obscured by Ferguson's refusal to heed the calls from the terraces and find a solution to the recurring problems in defence and midfield. If he remains deaf to them, it's not hard to imagine the next European night at Old Trafford taking a far more infamous turn for the worst.