Despite their excellent record in the Premiership this year, United have had clear problems in their defence, conceding 23 goals in their 16 league matches so far. That this hasn’t held them back is testament to the talent of their attacking players, who have scored so many that United have not only won 13 of those matches, but even have the best goal difference in the league.
One reason for United’s lack of defensive solidity has been a string of injuries, the most damaging of which ruled out Nemanja Vidic for all but five games so far this season. With Vidic’s return to the side imminent, there is hope that United’s defensive record will improve dramatically, but their defensive problems are not only down to the personnel lining up in their back four.
The players who have made up United’s defence this season have been unfairly criticised at times, as they are playing in a side that is more often than not almost entirely focussed on attacking. Ferguson has generally operated without a midfield destroyer to screen the back for, and set up his side with a front four that ensures he gets as many of his wonderful forwards on the pitch as he can. The centre backs have also had little protection from Patrice Evra and Rafael, who have been bombing on down the flanks throughout matches. With this in mind, United’s central defenders have faced some undue criticism, and so is it fair to say that Vidic will dramatically improve their record?
Well, despite all those factors, yes - yes it is. Providing that his injuries haven’t turned him into a husk of his former self, Vidic will provide two key improvements to the side.
Firstly, you would be very surprised if United are as generous at set pieces with the Serbian organising the defence. This has been a key problems in recent weeks, with Reading and Manchester City profiting from some unforgivably poor marking from United’s defence, and there should be a notable improvement immediately with Vidic in the side.
Secondly, Vidic is used to defending in a very attacking side, having been at United since 2005. Plenty of defenders can look good if a side is set up simply not to concede, look at Jose Bosingwa impressing at centre back during Chelsea’s Champions League run last season, but very few look as accomplished as Vidic does when most of his team are looking for goals. In the 2008-9 season Vidic was at the core of a run of 14 consecutive clean sheets in a side where at least three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Tevez, Rooney and Berbatov were on the pitch at any one time - the Serbian knows how to defend in an attacking side.
That Vidic has featured so infrequently in the past couple of years has been a loss to the Premier League as a whole, if not to United’s title rivals. With Ferguson’s side showing so much attacking intent this season they need a defender who can cope without half his side helping him out at the back, and that man is set to return this weekend.
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