The last time I blogged here, we were enjoying the week on a high after that 4-0 drubbing of QPR. Things seemed to have turned for the better and United looked like they had finally got their mojo back. In hindsight, it seems rather easy to say but there's no way I was getting carried away by that QPR result. I mean, even the three odd times Harry Redkanpp's side got anywhere near our box, we seemed to be at sixes and sevens in trying to achieve a clearance. Fast forward a week, and its obvious that United simply cannot defend. Swansea exploited it, MK Dons announced it, Sunderland made it count whilst Burnley couldn't.
In many ways therefore Sunday taught us nothing new about Manchester United. The only after shock that mattered was that teams now have video evidence to work out a way to attack United'z soft centre, after dispossessing an otherwise very strong attack. We've got at least 5 days each week to work on whatever isn't right in our team. It will hence be a bit of a shocker if we cannot defend more decently by winter.
Conceeding 5 or more goals in the league is not a common experience for United but we've usually responded to that by shutting up shop. After City put 6 past us in the league in the 2012 season, the next 7 games saw us let in just the 1 goal. Of those 7 straight wins, 6 were by the 1 goal margin. It tells you what the players were doing on the training pitch in those 7 weeks following that shocking result. Crucially, most of those clean sheets were secured with a defence that comprised Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones more often than not. It was done then, it can be done now.
Obviously one cannot expect any manager to work the magic that Sir Alex used to. His status allowed him to go negative without suffering any bile from fans, but it was also that he delivered results, which ultimately matter most.
Now Louis van Gaal is too proud a manager to steady the ship at the expense of apparently a continuos process of learning 'the philosophy'. It means the last thing we shall see is United running back into their shells on Saturday at home against West Ham grinding out a 1-0 win. Not with the Stretford End chanting 'ATTACK ATTACK ATTACK'.
One hopes though that United will quickly learn to do it the van Gaal way. The Dutch coach blamed the Leicester result on the ease with which we lost possession. Obviously one can see where he is coming from. Possession football can be an effective way of defending if only for the simple fact that it denies your opponent opportunities to punish you. The easy example here of course is the Pep Guardiola Barcelona that hardly needed to make a last ditch tackle as they had the ball just about all the time. To avoid confusion, it's not that LVG wants United to play the Barcelona way as tiki-taka is not his style. This was merely an illustration of defending with the ball.
The problem however is that you still need defenders that can do a half decent job if only to repel that one attack that your opponents will muster against you. The point here is that LVG's solution still depends on a Jonny Evans here, or a Chris Smalling there doing a job at the back. To illustrate: Swansea City had just the 39% possession in that game, with 2 shots on target for the whole match. Nobody needs a reminder of that result. Further, Leicester City for all the gloss about the scoreline had 5 shots on target. It means if we were good enough defensively to halt a couple of attacks, we would have come away with a point despite conceeding that many goals.
Therefore, for teams coming up against United, it's as simple as keeping it on target, never mind how many you let in. It therefore boils down to an urgency to be assured at the back in defending from hereon. Unfortunately, most of defending in football is down to confidence which is quite low on supply at Old Trafford. It will therefore be fascinating to see how United build on defensively from here on, because what was hitherto a rumour has now been confirmed as a solemn weakness.
Again, every week gives us 5 days at least to work on our problems, so I wouldn't exactly call it learning on the job. But there is something for everyone to learn this week, because defending is not just about the defence.
All the above notwithstanding, What a Goal that was by Di Maria! The season might yet not turn out as we expected but Argentine seems to do what he's paid to do every week. Assist and score. There's not much else in his job description.